The Dark Side of Music: Clarinets, Woodwinds and the Mpingo Tree

The Buffalo Story Project

December 9, 2012

By Robert Salonga

Even if you know nothing about the oboe or the clarinet, about how these instruments are made or how they make their music, you would know that the heartwood of the African blackwood tree is something special.

The material is dense and dark: black like coffee or molasses or the armor of a triceratops beetle. It’s wood the color of chocolate, wrapped in a lining of oatmeal bark.

In Tanzania and Mozambique, two of the last places in the world where the African blackwood grows in commercially viable quantities, locals know the tree by its Swahili name, mpingo, or by its Portuguese name, pau preto. From these countries, the timber makes its way to opera houses, jazz clubs, concert halls and festivals around the world.

Musicians know the wood as grenadilla, the material of choice for bagpipes, oboes and clarinets. What many don’t know is that the tree is often logged illegally and that stocks of the species are dwindling.

Take John Fullam, principal clarinetist of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra ... He has written essays on the history of the clarinet and its music, and says the instrument is an extension of the self: a larynx, a voice box, outside of the body.

And yet, he believed that African blackwood trees grew in large numbers in southern Germany, France and Austria—misinformation, according to Neil Bridgland, director of Sound and Fair, a social enterprise that supplies manufacturers with legal grenadilla...

...Traditionally, before the 20th century, woodwind instruments in European orchestras were made from boxwood trees native to the continent, Bridgland said.

But about 100 years ago, “linked with the colonization of Africa, makers started using blackwood because it was a superior species,” he said.

Grenadilla is dense, fine-grained and resistant to cracking—properties that make it easier for manufacturers to drill well-defined finger holes and obtain a smooth finish, as desired, in the interior wall, said Ulrike Wegst, a Dartmouth engineering researcher who has studied the construction of musical instruments.

Finding new materials that replicate these qualities is one way to relieve pressure on African forests.

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