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Ocarina

With a history that goes around the world only to come back again, the little Ocarina flute can boast of both an ancient pedigree and international appeal. From the innumerable, incredibly old samples of ocarinas unearthed in historic sites in Central and South America, to the modern plastic models that have become the addictive hobbies of video gamers, the story of the ocarina is worth telling. This article contains photos, videos, maps, detailed information, a flutemaker comparison chart, and more to increase your understanding and appreciation of the Ocarina.

 

This original illustration depicts an extremely captivating ocarina recently unearthed during an archaeological dig at Playa Garza in Chile. Of note regarding this dig: more than 170 artifacts were found, 70% of which were musical instruments. Researchers remarked that it was as if they had discovered a cemetery for music.

 

This wonderful bird ocarina dates to the Tempisque Period, between 500 B.C. - 300 A.D.

 

OCARINA PHOTOS

Click Images for Enlarged View

 
Ocarina Photo

Credit: Javier Ignacio Acuña Ditzel

 

Skillfully handpainted in brilliant colors, this Chilean ocarina is typical of the varieties commonly sold today. Note the stepped pyramidal design - a symbol used throughout North and South America - which may represent mountains, clouds, or pyramids.


Ocarina Photo

Credit: Ignacio Merlo

 

A modern, painted Ocarina of the type sold in shops and on the streets of cities in Peru. These handmade ocarinas are beautifully handpainted by talented craftspeople. Note the string, which enables the ocarina player to wear this small instrument around his neck so that he can play it whenever the mood strikes.

 

OCARINA VIDEOS

 

Modern music with Andean instruments including Ocarina

 

Fascinating documentary about a Peruvian Ocarina maker
(in Spanish)

 

Gentleman demonstrating his own Ocarina

 

Exceptional documentary on ancient Andean instruments, including Ocarina (in Spanish)

HISTORY OF THE OCARINA

In order to fully appreciate the fascinating story of the ocarina, or globe flute, it is important to have at least a cursory understanding of three of the most impressive cultures of the early Americas: the Inca, Aztec and Mayan Empires. The following map and key summarizes the locations, dates and some of the outstanding features of these Indigenous cultures.

Map of Early American Empires

Mayan Empire (2600 BC - 900 AD)
Renowned for their fully developed system of writing, superior grasp of astronomy and mathematics and exquisite arts, the ancient Mayans left behind large city complexes, pyramids and temples that are considered archaeological treasures today. The Mayan Empire included Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. But the Maya are more than just the ancient pyramids at places like Chicen Itza and Tikal - they are a modern people with deep roots stretching backward from the 21st century into the very distant past.

 

Aztec Empire (1325 AD - 1521 AD)
Sensationalist accounts of life in the Aztec Empire tend to focus on the violent aspects of their religious rituals, overlooking the finer nuances of this ancient culture which was remarkably committed to education, loved poetry and absolutely revered flowers. The Nahautl-speaking descendents of the Aztecs and their neighbors continue to dwell in their ancestral land, with Mexico City having been built right on top of the old Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

 

Inca Empire (1442 AD - 1572 AD)
Though the Inca rulers were relative latecomers to the story of Andean civilizations, this empire is renowned today for its almost incredible powers of organization. Within little more than a century, the Incas had bound into a single tributary system nearly all of western South America, from Colombia in the north, to Chile in the South. Especially revered for their colossal stonework, the Incas' structures remain to this day, and in some regions of Peru, descendents of the peoples once ruled by the Incas are still living in Inca dwellings.

Their calendar was more exact than the one we use in modern times; their buildings far more beautiful than our featureless skyscrapers. They cataloged fossils, numbered the stars, and ordered their society in keeping with an aesthetic and spiritual sense of values arguably more concrete than our own. Small surprise to learn, then, that the Mayan civilization was playing complex clay ocarinas while Europeans had only developed the simplest of flutes.

Today, museum collections boast countless samples of exquisitely-made ocarinas, some dating back as far as 2000 B.C. There are records of these instruments being made of gourds and fruits, but clay appears to have been the most common medium. Its malleability enabled artisans to create ocarinas in fantastic forms - human figures, birds, armadillos, reptiles and geometrics. While most of these ancient woodwinds feature a single interior chamber, examples have been found of ocarinas with as many as 3 chambers, capable of producing up to 17 notes. Far from being toys, the ocarinas of antiquity are marvels of design and musical knowledge.

 

The later Aztec and Incan Empires also knew and treasured the ocarina, continuing the custom of utilizing imaginative forms for this delightful handheld wind instrument. It was, in fact, from the Aztecs that Europeans first learned of the ocarina.

 

In 1527, the ruthless conquistador, Hernan Cortez, sent a group of Aztec alto-plano bird dancers and musicians to the court of Emperor Charles V. There, they performed dances to the accompaniment of ceramic ocarinas and researchers assert that this is how the instrument became known in Europe.

 

NativeFlutesWalking.com encourages all modern ocarina fans to learn about the lives of the ancestral Mayans, Aztecs and Andeans as a mark of appreciation.

Photo of Man Playing Ocarina
 

Exact replica of ancient Andean ocarina-type instrument, based upon an example at
the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia,
Antropologia e Historia de Peru.
Source: YouTube

If your life is enriched by this intimate fippled flute, consider giving thanks to the Indigenous artisans who developed this art form to such an admirable degree.

THE OCARINA IN MODERN TIMES
Professional Ocarina Player
 

Gentleman playing a beautifully painted modern Ocarina. The stepped symbol painted on this flute is Pan-Indian, appearing in Indigenous Art from South America to the American Southwest. It can be mountains,
pyramids, clouds and other elements.
Source: YouTube

The story of the ocarina resumes several hundred years later and across the sea from the Americas. Italian craftsmen had taken the ocarina in hand and by the 1800s were creating models capable of playing complete western scales. One popular account tells of a 17-year-old brickmaker named Giuseppe Donati, who relieved the tedium of his work by crafting fippled flutes he supposedly dubbed 'ocarinas', meaning 'little geese'. Donati was a fine musician and in addition to vending his ocarinas from his workshop, he organized an ocarina orchestra that toured Europe in the mid-19th century, rendering period and Baroque music.

 

In the early 1900s, Asian artisans began producing their own modern take on the ocarina, which has a 7,000 year-long history in that part of the world in the form of a flute called the Xun. These new models featured up to 12 finger holes, expanding the instrument's range by 3 semi-tones.

 

Almost completely ignoring Indigenously-produced ocarinas, enthusiasts in the United States were importing these instruments from Europe. Then, the Gretsch and Waterbury companies began domestic mass-manufacture of these in-demand vessel flutes. By a strange turn of events, American soldiers then took these back overseas during World War II.

Bakelite ocarinas, complete with military music instruction books, were issued to the soldiers as a morale-booster. Back on the homefront, the Sears-Roebuck Catalog began selling the mass-produced ocarinas to an eager public.

 

As with other Indigenous woodwinds such as the Ocarina, Anasazi Flute, Woodlands Flute, Andean Panpipes, and Quena, the ocarina began to be incorporated into American popular music, folk music, and new age music during the last few decades of the 20th century. During the past 10 years, the popularity of this well-traveled instrument has gained an entirely new boost because of its incorporation into a Nintendo video game, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which has sold some 250,000,000 copies. Video gamers are not only purchasing ocarinas of all types, but are learning to make their own from clay, wood and even vegetables such as carrots!

 

Meanwhile, the unbroken tradition of crafting and playing ocarinas has continued in Central and South America. Both folk and pop groups create musical arrangements incorporating traditional instruments such as the siku, quena, charango, and the ocarina.

 

It is remarkable to think just how many times this immensely likeable handheld vessel flute has changed hands across cultures and across millennia.

How Difficult Is It To Play The Ocarina?
Ease of playing must certainly be one of the key factors in the popularity of the ocarina. One simply places the lips to the mouthpiece and blows, opening and closing the finger holes to produce desired notes. Getting a sound from the ocarina is so easy, this ancient instrument has often been misclassified as a child's toy. However, simply making notes with the ocarina is only the first step and devotees will go far beyond this, learning to utilize a full range of notes in order to perform complex songs of both traditional and modern origin.

 

When purchasing your ocarina, you will discover you have a tremendous number of choices, and options to purchase from many different countries. You may be satisfied with a plastic transverse ocarina (called the sweet potato ocarina), easily found in a local novelty store. These modern plastic models are credited to the inventiveness of Giuseppe Donati.

Ocarina mouth position
 

A collection of modern ocarinas, including sweet potato shapes, egg shapes,
and other forms. The options are almost limitless for purchasing an ocarina
that suits your taste and budget.

You may wish to seek out a clay or wooden ocarina in the form of an animal or bird with a particular meaning to you, regardless of where it is produced. Or, your aim may be to find a traditional Indigenous American ocarina, of the type once used by the Inca, Aztec and Mayan civilizations in their rituals, dances, for courting, and for personal expression.

 

The following chart will introduce you to some excellent sources for ocarinas in the Indigenous American style:

GUIDE TO CHOOSING YOUR AUTHENTIC AMERICAN OCARINA
Company Native Made? Flutemaker Price Range Materials Special Features Additional Offerings Additional Notes
The Music Stand Unknown Unknown, but described as made in Peru $10 Clay Lovely painted design and traditional string for wearing around neck This music store sells many instruments and accessories Much like the ocarinas sold on the streets of Peruvian cities.
Visit Site »
Bolivian Mall Unknown Unknown $14 - $20 Clay Gorgeous handpainted designs This store sells a wide variety of South American products Check out the fantastic monkey-design ocarina. Really unique!
Visit Site »
Novica Native-made Patricia Jara $24 - $30 Clay Set of 4 ocarinas with neck strings This store is associated with National Geographic and has many interesting products Truly wonderful handpainted designs on these.
Visit Site »
Dos Manos Unknown Unknown, but described as made in Latin America $6 Clay Unusual Mesoamerican Parrot Ocarina This shop sells many different handcrafts Parrots were highly featured in the artworks of the Mayans and Aztecs.
Visit Site »
CONSTRUCTION OF THE TRADITIONAL AMERICAN OCARINA FLUTE OCARINA GLOSSARY

Ocarina Detail

The ocarina is termed a vessel flute, and its most distinct characteristic is that it tends to be a closed shape, rather than an open-ended tube of the type common to most flutes and whistles. The tone of the ocarina depends not on the length, as in other flutes, but in the overall volume of the globe, egg or animal shape of the vessel. The larger the ocarina is, the lower its tone, but the larger the tone holes are, the higher the pitch of this wind instrument.

 

Ocarinas may have anywhere from 1 hole to 12, or even more. Traditional American ocarinas are typically made of clay, but the purchaser will also encounter models made of wood (often rectangular in shape) or plastic (often the transverse 'sweet potato' shape). Some ocarinas are almost perfectly round, others more egg-shaped, and still others with an elongated neck or totally freeform shape. Some ocarinas have a fipple window (a whistle-like opening in the body or neck of the flute), but many do not. The above diagram depicts the major parts of the ocarina.

Mouth
A narrow slit or small hole into which the ocarina player blows.

 

Fipple Window
This splits the puff of air, creating sound. Not all ocarinas have this feature, and in fact many modern ocarinas sold in Central and South America are devoid of this feature.

 

Tone Holes
These are the holes the player covers and opens up to play various notes on the ocarina. A large percentage of the ocarinas sold in Central and South America have four holes.

 

Design
This example depicts a simple painted design. Some Indigenous-made ocarinas feature incredibly beautiful handpainted designs, including traditional symbolism, animals, birds, reptiles and more. Others may simply be glazed with one or two tones. Some feature raised designs, formed of further pieces of clay, and occasionally, you may be able to find plain, unpainted ocarinas.

 

The artists who do the handpainting of ocarinas often create absolutely beautiful images and this skill deserves praise in the world of Indigenous and folks arts.

THE SPIRITUAL VALUE OF THE AMERICAN OCARINA TODAY RESOURCES FOR FURTHER LEARNING

Americans who are products of the typical U.S. public school system have been put at something of a disadvantage in terms of picturing mankind's ancient history. We were taught the dogma that all human life began in Africa, that widely separate civilizations developed in total isolation from one another, and that no one was really on the high seas before Columbus. Happily, the ability to pursue further education enables many adults to reach the conclusion that many of the concepts we were once taught as though they were irrefutable laws are, in fact, simply ideas. No one has proved, beyond doubt, that all Peoples began in one place. No one has found a concrete answer as to why we have such remote civilizations as the ancient Chinese, the Mayans, the Sumerians, the Phoenicians sharing some cultural characteristics while not sharing others. And, as for sea travel, abundant evidence now points to fact that Christopher Columbus was not first, but last.

 

Consider the fact that we have an ocarina-type instrument in China as far back as 7000 years ago. 3000 years later, the Mayans and their neighbors are making their own ocarinas. How can this be? Is it pure coincidence or evidence of long forgotten sea trade routes that once circled the globe? Read the right books and you may come to see the oceans not as barriers, but as highways over which diverse cultures sailed their reed ships, boats and canoes in order to exchange goods and ideas. NativeFlutesWalking.com encourages all lovers of Indigenous music to head down to your local library or bookstore and start reading the works of the 20th century explorer and mariner, Thor Heyerdahl, in which he builds replicas of ancient sea-going vessels and lets the currents take him from Peru to Polynesia, and around the waterways of Africa and the Middle East. If you've never read any of Heyerdahl's books, adventure awaits you!

 

When musicians begin to pursue facility on the instruments of specific cultures, this leads naturally to an interest in the people who crafted the instruments. It is of real spiritual value if this leads the student to begin questioning the place of that culture in the context of history and the world. What better way to begin to forge a much-needed-feeling of global connectivity than through an instrument like the ocarina? Its documented history circles the globe while its unwritten story hints at fascinating relationships between ancestral peoples of long ago. We can only become stronger by recognizing the things we have in common with others, and this feeling of brotherhood can assist us in our goals of becoming much better stewards of the Earth.

Recommended Books on Early American Civilizations

  • Music in the Andes: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture, Thomas Torino
  • Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl
  • Pyramids of Tucume, Thor Heyerdahl
  • 1491, Charles C. Mann

Recommended Books on Basic Ocarina Technique

  • Mel Bay's Fun with the Ocarina, William Bay
  • 101 Songs for the Ocarina, Ruthie Bitton

Recommended Websites about Native American Music

 
 

The Ocarina May Be Right For You If...

  • You have Indigenous ancestry
  • You respect and admire ancient American cultures
  • You want an instrument that is small and portable
  • You want an instrument that is easy to begin playing
  • You would like to be able to improve your playing with practice
  • You enjoy unusual, intimate tones
  • You feel you have music inside you waiting to come out

On a personal level, the small and friendly shape of the ocarina can help individuals who are normally shy about music to try a little tune out for themselves. You can take your ocarina with you everywhere, practicing a few minutes a day on your lunch break, or on a walk in the woods or along a beach. Perhaps, when you feel confident enough in your mastery of this vessel flute, you will be ready to play some music for others. Maybe you will find a fellow ocarina enthusiast with whom you can play duets, or, if you're lucky enough, find other musicians playing the traditional Quena, Siku and Charango. Together, you can try your hands at performing authentic Andean music.

 

Like no other instrument in the catalogue of World music, the ocarina proves that good things do come in small packages.

 
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Native Flutes Walking wishes you joy through music, and a good journey along the Native flute path.