The thongophone is an extraordinary instrument that originated in Papua New Guinea, where it was made from bamboo pipes lashed together to look like an inverted set of pan pipes. To get sound out of it, the top of the pipes have to be struck with something flexible, and the handiest thing to use is a rubber thong or flip-flop.
Modern technology has overtaken this venerable island instrument, and today it is more likely to be made from recycled PVC pipes. The instrument produces a sound that varies according to the length of the pipes, and the preferred method of extracting that sound is still a rubber thong.
The thongophone is known as a percussion instrument because the sound is produced by striking the top of the pipes. The instrument has been played publicly and is often thought to be similar to the didgeridoo, but it has a greater musical range, having a layout like the keyboard of a piano.
An expert thongophonist can play anything from the Game of Thrones theme to percussive jazz, with the instrument sounding like a piano, a xylophone, or a wind instrument. While still regarded as something of a novelty, many international artists have incorporated it into their music, including the quirky US-based Blue Man Group and Greek musician Yanni.
Thongophones are often found in museums, such as the Queensland Museum Sciencentre in Brisbane, Australia, where you can try your hand at playing a few notes or even a whole tune.
For instruction, you can watch a YouTube video of one being played.
You can make your own thongophone out of PVC pipes or cardboard tubes, and using drumsticks, table tennis paddles, or anything else that will vibrate the tube and give you a sound when it is struck. You will need to cut the tubes to different lengths to give the standard piano notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B at the front (in rising octaves if desired) and the sharps (accidental notes) at the back. Tutorials are available online, showing you how to make a thongophone from cardboard tubes and even calculates the length you need to get the different notes. Once you get the hang of it, you can try your hand at more durable materials like PVC.
Thongophones range in size from small and portable to something resembling a church organ. It is an example of the modern trend of ingenious recycling of leftover building materials and worn-out footwear. Other people’s rubbish can be your source of music!
About: Antonio Padula is the founder and main teacher of a small studio, a musical education program for children and adolescents. In the studio’s ten years of operation, Antonio Padula has become a staple of the arts community in Kirkland, Quebec. He is praised for his combination of patience and drive, encouraging young people to pursue their dreams through hard work and passion. In his spare time, Tony spends as much time as he can with his family
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