This year I joined the Forest Fair and a World Music Fesival Fair in Taipei, and soon there is a Shruti Box Market coming up here in Taipei (details at the bottom): time for a little background story how I got into this. Scroll down for details of the Shruti Box Sale and Shruti Nights workshops coming up in December.
How I got shruti’d
Sometime in the early 2000s I got my first shruti box. It was brought to me from India on my request by my good friend Horst Timmers, aka DJ mpsPilot. At that time it was not tremendously popular, least of all in India, where everybody started switching to elecronic shruti boxes instead of the wooden thing. But I wanted something to accompany myself and others for singing and playing. Horst got me a fantastic instrument, that has done remarkably well for almost twenty years now without problems.
I love things handmade with a personal touch. When I compare mine to other shruti boxes it is quite different. Most shruti boxes you see now are rather flat with levers to select the tones on the side. They are on a panel that actually moves all the time you play it because it is part of the bellows. The one he got for me is more box-like, which it means it is more stable when standing up. The broader space on top is used for four round, turnable buttons, with three notes for each button. The flat type shows levers arranged like a neat piano scale on the side, and is indeed tuned chromatically like a piano: each next note is a semitone higher. If you like you can open as many levers as you like, all thirteen of them even, though usually two or three is more than enough. The box-type, on the contrary, allows for a selection of at most four notes, one for each turning knob. My first instrument features several double or even triple notes: the exact same note can be chose can be chosen by several knobs. When you chose to open, say, two A’s at the same time you get a nice phasing sound – an effect I really like and one that is very important in many traditions in South East Asia (see all the horns blown in pairs by Buddhist monks, for example).
BOX / FLAT TYPE SHRUTI BOX
After so many people asking me about my shruti box, I decided it was time to go to India and find more of them. For my students, and also in the case I might ever need a new one myself. Here in Taiwan they are hard to get by, and to ship them from Europe back to Asia did not seem to be a smart idea.
Finding new shruti boxes in India
In 2017 I went to South India, as plans to go to the North stranded for various reasons. I ended up finding the maker you see on the photo: he carried on the tradition from his father who had been making shruti boxes for decades. The qualities differed quite a bit and wasn’t tiptop altogether, but I was happy to find this same model I had been using for so many years, with the buttons on top. His note-layout was also different from what I had, more organised than my somewhat messy and perhaps quirky arrangement of pitches.
I decided to set out to get other models still through other means. That proved to be an interesting and risky adventure: the first batch of shruti boxes never arrived: the owner of the reputed company of instrument makers in North India was the target of cybercriminals who relayed the comunication, and I was the victim in terms of loss. I almost gave up but then decided to push it through.That was not an easy path either. I was carefull enough to get caught up in another fraud, but it turned out that a substantial part of every delivery of shruti boxes was unsellable because one or more tones were kaput: breathy tones, de-tuned notes, funny sounds, or just air without a sound at all. Yet I was eager to get my students into singing with shruti boxes and here in Taiwan there are no reliable import channels, it seems, so I pushed on.
So since this year I am selling many types of shruti boxes here in Taiwan, mostly to people who joined my workshops. And sometimes it works the other way around, people are charmed by this simple musical tool and then join my monthly Shruti Nights workshop. As I have tried to lay my hands on different types, the boxes now come in all kinds of sizes, shapes, colours, tunings, and qualities.
Repairing shruti boxes
With another market coming up and so many broken pieces, I decided it was time to see which of the broken shruti boxes could be fixed. I asked the help of one student-friend who bought two instruments from me, an engineer who immediately took his box apart when he bought it in 2018. Yesterday we sat down to check them one by one, and found out what mistakes were made, how different they were depending on the brand, and what we could do about it. It was great fun, really, to spend a day learning about the mechanisms, and we managed to repair the majority of them.
WHAT IS A SHRUTI BOX?
Although of Indian origin, the shruti box is now used for almost any kind of music and many different purposes. It is popular for healing and therapeutic music, music based on drones (see below), intuitive music making and improvising and all music genres.
The shruti box is a wind instrument from the Indian subcontinent. It is used for accompanying singers and instrumentalists. Traditionally, in much of Indian music, a stable, continuous tone (called a drone) provides the foundation for all the melodic variations. It is the beginning and end of all Indian music, litterally, as it starts before and finishes after other musicians do their parts.
The shruti box is powered by hand through the bellows, just like an accordeon. By opening one or more levers or turning a button the air passes by the brass reeds inside the instrument, producing one or more tones.
EASY TO PLAY
No skills are necessary, all you need to do is open the hooks and gently pump.
Most of these shruti boxes have adopted the Western chromatic tuning system, like a piano keyboard. Most of them actually run from c-c’ and are arranged exactly like a piano keyboard. Each adjacent lever is a semitone apart and the whole series covers all the twelve tones of the octave. The thirteenth lever or tone completes the octave. They are tuned roughly to the standard concert pitch of a = 440 Hz, but small deviations are common.
The shruti box is derived from the harmonium, a portable keyboard instrument introduced by the British in India. Local instrument makers copied harmoniums and eventually developed this new instrument by leaving out the keys, using only the ‘stops’ that provide drones. I haven’t been able to find much information about the shruti boxes yet, but there is a book about harmoniums by Birgit Abels detailing how the ancestor of the shruti box became part of the Indian musical landscape.
Shruti Box Market in Taipei
Looking for fine, original Indian shruti boxes to make music alone or together with your friends or group? I have about ten different models (size / tuning / quality) on offer and also some used, nearly new models. Come and check on December 3 when we bring them all over to the Canjune Training Center.
Watch a video of Mark singing and playing shruti box here:
Right after the sale the seventh series of Shruti Nights is starting. The Shruti Nights is also a general class for developing your own vocal improvisations, with or without a shruti box.