Mouthbows

Buffy_Sainte-Marie_1_(Repetities_1968-03-06_Grand_Gala_du_Disque_Populaire)

About Mouthbows

In the early 1960’s, Buffy Sainte-Marie re-introduced the mouthbow to the world. “Making music on a weapon,” as Buffy often described it, became a powerful image of what her music, her vision and her life were about.

Buffy first encountered the mouthbow through fellow singer-songwriter and friend, Patrick Sky.  He provided musical accompaniment on her early albums, and wrote the title track for her second album, “Many A Mile”. Patrick made Buffy’s first mouthbow, that she played on her first album. Buffy now makes her own mouthbows, for herself and for other people.

The mouthbow is a simple instrument. It has one string, as a regular hunting bow, with a tuning peg to tighten the string to the right pitch. One end of the bow is held against the mouth to amplify the sound. The player changes the shape of his or her mouth and bends the bow to change the notes. When it is played, its notes and haunting harmonics capture and inspire the imagination.

The following is an excerpt from Buffy’s comments on the Mouthbow in The Buffy Sainte-Marie Songbook:

“A mouthbow is probably the oldest musical instrument in the world. It is basically a hunting bow

Luba people from the Congo, playing mouth bows.

Luba people from the Congo, playing mouth bows.

and I guess somebody one day figured out that you can make music on a weapon. Maybe someday there will be virtuoso concertos to be played on M-1s and tanks.

“Mouthbows have been found all over the world among people who use handmade hunting bows and have the time to find something worth singing about. I’ve seen mouthbows from South America that were as tall as a man. Some mouthbows have a gourd attached to simplify the sound, and others have rattles tied on and they sound good when you shake them. Mouthbows have been seen in Africa, New Guinea, Borneo, Finland, Canada, and Greenwich Village. Jimmy Driftwood plays something called a picking bow made from a spinning wheel, but the ones I play are a lot lighter than a picking bow, and so flexible you can bend the bow itself.”

Go here for instructions on how to make your own mouthbow.

Go here to view a collection of historical and contemporary photographs of people from around the world playing mouthbows.

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