Creativity with Spiders - Instruments

Music has been a part of human culture for centuries, created to inspire and empower, to tell and share stories of life lessons and personal thoughts. Various natural and synthetic materials are now used to make the instruments. Woods, gourds, metals, horse hairs, goat skins, pig intestines, plastics, and, yes, spider silk. When thinking of instruments, the only way to possibly connect arthropods to music was the maintenance; some insects can damage priceless instruments, especially those made with all-natural materials. However, the peoples of West Africa have utilized spider silk in their amazing buzzing pentatonic instrument - the gyil.

The gyil, a marimba-like instrument with gourd resonators from West Africa.

The gyil has many names depending on locality - balafo, bala, balaphone, balaphon, balaphong, balani, balafon, and balangi. In Ghana, the 14-keyed gyil is played in pairs and sometimes accompanied by the kuor, a gourd drum. Performers may also wear belled straps around their wrists to accentuate the rattle.

But what makes this instrument so unique is the buzzing noise produced with each stroke of a rubber mallet. You can hear the rattle in this video, performed by Mike Vercelli and Bernard Woma in Ghana (and check out this video of my friend Luke Rivard performing with his teacher Ba-ere Yotere). The holes on the gourd resonators project the sound. When covered, these holes are the source of the beautiful buzzing that make this instrument unique (see the white spots on the gourds in the image above). The covers are traditionally made of spider egg casing silk.

Collecting spider egg-sac silk for the gyil gourd resonators. Photo credit Luke Rivard

The spiders lay their eggs inside a silken sac, and attach it to a corner with flat surfaces. Both the placement and the silk protect the eggs till they hatch, and the spiderlings break through to start their lives. I have yet to find the species of spider used, but they might be in the family Araneidae or Tetragnathidae, the orb-weaving spiders. In recent years new gyil are constructed with thin pieces of paper covering the gourd holes like the one in the second video link.

Spider silk was recently used to complete the construction of a violin. The Australian golden orb weaver naturally uses its silk to send vibrations through the web, thus communicating with other nearby spiders. Luca Alessandrini, a postgraduate from the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College in London, placed three strands of spider silk over the front of the silkworm-composite violin, with the same result as seen with the gyil, though to a lesser extent. This new violin construction is set to start production in 2017, allowing for customization of sound production.

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