Seven musical instruments you’ve never heard before at #sydfest

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October 30, 2017
Nick Jarvis
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Sure, your taste in music is eclectic – but can you lay claim to appreciating tunes that literally nobody else you know has ever heard?

At Sydney Festival next January we’ve locked in some artists so underground that their music has never (in most cases) been performed live before in Australia. Check out seven rare, unusual, exotic and experimental instruments below that will make an appearance at the Festival.


1. Crystallophone


You’ve never seen instruments before like the ones that will be played in AquaSonic – because they’ve only just been invented.

Experimental Danish group Between Music spent years testing and researching instruments that could be played under water, enlisting the help of scientists, craftspeople and deep sea divers to develop creations like the crystallophone.

You know how good quality wine glasses will make a high-pitched hum if you wet your finger and trace it around the rim of the glass? That’s pretty much how a crystallophone works – check out the video by AquaSonic below, and at Carriageworks between 6 and 9 January.

2. Electromagnetic harp


Electricity and water – a killer combination. So the Between Music team must have some kind of death wish to start experimenting with an electromagnetic harp that can be played underwater. How does it work? Sorcery is the only answer. Check out a video below of the electromagnetic harp’s early development.

3. Erhu


You know that plaintive, keening violin sound often acquainted with Chinese music – the one that sounds like a wronged lover lamenting her loss? That’s the Erhu, a two-stringed instrument played with a bow.

You can hear the Erhu – as well as other Chinese instruments like the ruan and pipa (two kinds of lute) – when they visit Australia for the first time to play the evocative melodies of classical Chaozhou, Cantonese and Guangdong Han music.

4. Ondioline


The French have a habit of creating overly-complicated, futuristic precursors to technology that other countries perfect and simplify (I’m looking at you, Citroen and Minitel). The Ondioline (pronounced On-d'ya-leen) is an extremely rare French electronic keyboard invented in 1941, which paved the way for today’s synthesisers and laid the foundations for synth-pop, techno, house and acid.

Most electronic music fans are familiar with the name Moog, but less would be acquainted with the oeuvre of Jean-Jacques Perrey, the maestro of the Ondioline, who used the instrument’s warm synth sounds and literal cut-and-paste audio editing techniques to create some of the first looped electronic music.

Australia’s own musical magician Wally ‘Gotye’ de Backer is working hard to get Perrey the recognition he deserves. Gotye’s spent the past 12 years collecting extremely rare Ondiolines, and he’s now gathered musicians for an Ondioline Orchestra, to pay tribute to the whimsical and seminal music of Jean-Jacques Perrey.

The sound is warm, kooky and retro-futuristic, like a Jacques Tati film – you can hear Gotye and the Ondioline Orchestra in action at Carriageworks during Sydney Festival.

5. Theorbo


The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has all kinds of rare classical instruments, from the Lirone (a kind of viola) to the Sackbut (a Baroque trombone).

But one of the most unusual looking is the Theorbo, a long-necked lute that has a wider range of pitches than a regular lute (it also looks like a nightmare to transport anywhere). As for what it sounds like? A little bit Medieval, a little bit flamenco.

You can hear a Theorbo in action, played by lute specialist Tommie Andersson, when the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra perform as part of Rembrandt Live, bringing to life the sounds of the golden age among 17th century Dutch Masters at the Art Gallery of NSW.

6. Ngoni


The ngoni – a traditional West African lute (and precursor to the banjo) – is usually made from bottle gourd with dried goat skin stretched over it. It has been played for hundreds of years, but the instrument’s foremost practitioner right now, Bassekou Kouyaté, is the first to wire up his ngoni and play it like an electric guitar.

The result is African rhythms paired with swaggering electric blues – stick around for the ngoni solo halfway through Jama Ko, below. Catch Bassekou Kouyaté and his band of ngoni players and percussionists at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent on 16 and 17 January.

7. Oud


The oud is only occasionally heard in the West – but in North Africa and the Middle East you’ll hear it everywhere, and its signature tone is synonymous with Middle Eastern classical music. They’ve been around a minute as well – ancient Egyptian frescos show that musicians were playing oud-like lutes over 1000 years before the Common Era.

One of the finest oud players right now is Rahim AlHaj, the Baghdad-born and US-based composer whose work combines the 400-year-old Iraqi maqam genre with contemporary influences to tell heartbreaking stories of loss, hope and longing in his fractured homeland.

Catch him with Tunisian protest singer Emel Mathlouthi at City Recital Hall on 19 January, and with cellist Karim Wafi at the Seidler Penthouse in Milsons Point on 18 and 18 January.



Nick Jarvis is a journalist, copywriter and Publications Editor at Sydney Festival and Sydney Film Festival. He's written for Vice, Time Out, inthemix, Junkee and various other online media and street press over the years.

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