Antique oboist plays Denison Hall

Me and my chirimía. Joel Thurtell photo.

By Joel Thurtell

This tale is all about a joke, really, but it begins with my chirimía.

For years, this curious musical instrument sat atop the hutch in our kitchen.

It was made by a musician from the Lake Pátzcuaro area in the state of Michoacán, western México, where I did historical research in the early 1970s.

I bought my chirimía along with a wooden flute from the musician after he and a pal played Tarascan songs on them. The Tarascans, or Purépecha, are an indigenous people who live in the west Mexican state of Michoacán.

My Chirimía. Joel Thurtell photo.

I brought the flute and chirimía home. The chirimia came with a double-reed mouthpiece, but with time and neglect, the reed fell apart and eventually the mouthpiece was lost.

I used the chirimía as an ornament, flanking two colorful ceramic pots and a copper pitcher, also from Michoacán.

I assumed, incorrectly, that the chirimía was an indigenous, pre-colombian musical instrument. I wished that I’d tape-recorded those musicians. I’d acquired several long-play records of Michoacán music, but when I listened to them recently, I noticed that there were no chirimías. I wondered why. My records of Michoacán music are very sonorous — sweet-sounding music.

Occasionally, I’d look at my chirimía and wonder what it would sound like. If only I had a mouthpiece for it. I didn’t realize it, but the solution was not far off.

My chirimia. Joel Thurtell photo.

Motivation to do something finally came, thanks to a class I’m auditing at the University of Michigan. It’s an anthropology class, “Mexico: Culture and Society.” The instructor, David Frye, assigned students to do a project of some kind related to México. As an auditor, I don’t have to take tests or write papers. But the project assignment intrigued me. I thought of my chirimía. Why not make a project of making my wooden chirimía playable? David Frye told me to go for it.

Where to find a chirimía mouthpiece?

First, I googled “chirimía” and learned that I was mistaken — the instrument is not pre-Hispanic, after all. It was introduced to indigenous American people by Spanish priests in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It is definitely a double-reed instrument. It is, in fact, the ancestor of the modern oboe, or bassoon. Chirimías were made in different sizes to achieve different pitches, high, medium or low. The chirimía is a shawm. The shawm was a medieval oboe, or bassoon — there was variation in size, again according to the pitch, high, low or in-between needed for the musical piece being played.

If you look at the words, “shawm” and “chirimía,” they resemble each other. The German word for shawm is Schalmei. The shawm made its way to Europe from the Middle East after Crusaders encountered them in use by Saracen armies. They were used to signal troops, but also to scare the bejesus out of enemies. Pretty soon, the Crusaders adopted the shawm and brought it back to Europe.

Double-reed instruments have a unique sound. The clarinet is a single-reed instrument. It has a mellow tone. The oboe, English horn, oboe d’amore, and bassoon are double-reed instruments. Their tone has more vibration and is not as sweet as a clarinet. The modern oboe and bassoon can have a haunting quality. Their tone can sound other-worldly. Delicate, refined.

My older son used to play the oboe. My younger son played bassoon. That gave me an idea. I talked to Bob Willliams, my son Abe’s bassoon teacher. Serious double-reed musicians fabricate their own mouthpieces. Bob has a small reed-making factory in his house. In his  his shop, he selected pieces of arundo donax cane for shaping. I watched as he cut, shaved and shaped a piece of cane, forcing one end into a cylindrical shape so it would fit into a bassoon — or into my chirimía.

I mentioned my little gag. Not much to it. I planned to show my chirimía to the class and spin a bogus preamble about how I’d done lots of ethno-musicological research to find out how a colonial Tarascan chirimía tune would sound. Here is the result of all that research: Then I’d play “The Victors” — the University of Michigan fight song. If I got one or two laughs, great.

But could my chirimía play “The Victors”?

Having finished one reed, Bob shoved it into the chirimía and began to play. It was a powerful, raucous sound, and it was — yes! — “The Victors”!

It’s one thing for the principal bassoonist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to render a tune on a primitive oboe. But can someone who’s never played an oboe do it?

I was afraid playing the chirimía would be a challenge. Occasionally, I’ve been known to toot on the French horn. But a French horn has a metal mouthpiece, similar to but smaller than a trumpet mouthpiece. You press your lips lightly against a French horn mouthpiece, whereas with an oboe or bassoon, you grasp the mouthpiece between your lips.

I know that this mouthpiece is not an exact replica of a true chirimía mouthpiece. The ancient shawms had something called a pirouette, a wooden cylinder that surrounded the reed and supported the musician’s lips. Though not historically correct, my chirimía can be played.

With a little practice, I could play the first notes of “The Victors” — enough, at least, for people to recognize the tune. My notes are not all on pitch, but they’re close enough.

The key to concert hall success, I realized, would be simply not playing a lot of notes. Give people just enough sound so they get the humor, then get off stage — fast.

It helps to have an audience guaranteed to know what tune you’re playing.

Well, not in every case: I certainly wouldn’t play this for a class at Michigan State.

An hour before class, I entered UM’s West Hall, where the anthropology people hang out. I found a drinking fountain and drenched my double-reed mouthpiece. That’s part of the rite of oboe-playing. I knocked on the door to David Frye’s office. Nonchalantly, I withdrew my chirimía from my back pack. I inserted the mouthpiece and quickly blasted out a few opening notes of “The Victors.”

“Do you want to try it?” he said.

The University of Michigan has lots of halls, none of them named “Carnegie.” The anthropology class happens to meet in small, blackboard-lined room in a place called Denison Hall.

I was nervous, not having spent hours practicing my instrument.

Truth is, the sum of my practice time might add up to five minutes.

A virtuoso performance this would not be.

I had to accomplish two things.

First, talk my way through the set-up for the gag. Hocus-pocus about research into ancient indigenous music. Tell this is an ancient Tarascan tune.

Then play the notes. This is critical. If I could hit the first seven notes with some semblance of accuracy, my audience would get the hint. The next seven notes would be the clincher. The final eleven notes would be icing on the cookie. But if they couldn’t recognize “The Victors,” my comedy act would be dead.

My set-up went okay. I forgot to mention several facts I wanted people to know about the oboe-shawm-chirimía, but who cares? As far as the gag was concerned, that was excess baggage.

My first run of notes is really the signature of “The Victors.” It came out a bit off pitch now and then but it must have been recognizable. People were laughing.

Halfway through the second run, more people were laughing. I stopped playing. Any more would be anti-climax.

I took a bow to scattered applause.







About Joel

Retired 2007 after 23 years as a Detroit Free Press reporter. Thirty years in the news biz. Trained as a historian, never had a Journalism class. At Free Press, wrote many articles about lakes, streams and boats. Wrote more than 80 major stories about the Rouge River. In June 2005 with Free Press photographer Patricia Beck paddled a canoe 27 miles up the Rouge River through Metro Detroit. May be the farthest anyone has canoed up the Rouge, though pioneers used it as a road. Our book, UP THE ROUGE! about the adventure is to be published by Wayne State University Press next year. I'm writing a second book about the Rouge, trying to find out why with billions spent on cleanup, so many American rivers are not fit for humans to touch. DIRTIEST RIVERS will arrive about the time UP THE ROUGE! comes out. I earned a B.A. in history and German at Kalamazoo, graduating in 1967. In 1968, I earned an M.A. in history at the University of Michigan. In 1970, I passed all exams for the doctorate in Latin American history, but have not quite gotten around to finishing my dissertation. I lived in Mexico for a year doing research on a Ford Foundation fellowship. I was a Peace Corps volunteer supervising school and well construction in Togo, West Africa 1972-74. I was a reporter at the South Bend Tribune and editor of the Berrien Springs Journal Era before joining the Free Press in 1984. I've written four novels, four kids' books and in addition to the two Rouge books am completing a journalism text called SHOESTRING REPORTER: A MANIFESTO FOR SAVING JOURNALISM OR HOW I GOT TO BE A BIG CITY REPORTER WITHOUT GOING TO J SCHOOL AND HOW YOU CAN DO IT TOO!
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