Africa has long been a place where practically everything is eventually turned into a musical instrument.
As we gradually surround ourselves with the detritus of industrial civilization, it is some comfort to realize that not everything that we’ve turned into trash has to stay that way. As with the repurposing of 55-gallon oil drums to make the brilliant steel drum ensembles of Trinidad, the detritus of fossil-fuel consumption has the potential to be turned into stringed instruments of enormous expressive power.
As witness the Township Guitar.
South African artists Dani Ngwenya and Jay Fisher perform “Cape Pace” on their CD titled “Township Guitars”. Songs on this CD feature African Oil-can Guitars.
The guitars are based on traditional African instruments having originated from the “ramkiekie”, a four stringed oil can guitar invented by the Khoi, when coming into contact with early European settlers.
These instruments are made from a 5-liter oil can which has been cleaned, repainted (frequently in patriotic colors), and outfitted with a rosewood fingerboard and a maple neck.
“When we were kids we couldn’t afford to buy a guitar so we used to make our own guitars, with a can used as an acoustic kind of body — but these (Township Guitars) are just purely electric,” adds Ngwenya, an accomplished guitarist himself.
The idea of the oil can guitar is very much a South African thing.
“The idea of the oil can guitar is very much a South African thing,” explains Roy Bermeister, chief executive of Township Guitars.
Bermeister says that when European settlers arrived in South Africa, they brought with them oil cans, which locals transformed into musical instruments
“Some turned them into drums; some turned them into bass guitars; and some turned them into what’s called a ramkiekie,” says Bermeister — a ramkiekie is an early-style four-string guitar that features an empty oil can as its body.
Making a simple oil-can guitar
It’s not just oil cans, of course. Any sort of metal container can be easily equipped with neck and strings:
Gary T Nordby made this mandolin out of a cookie tin.
Handmade Music Club House is a nice group site for instrument-making enthusiasts.