Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Tree That Makes Music

There is a tree that grows in Africa, which goes by the nickname "The Tree that Makes Music."
The world's finest clarinets and oboes are made from this east African hardwood. It is sometimes referred to as Grenadilla wood. In Swahili, the tree is called 'Mpingo.  The Portguese know it as pau preta. Its Linnaean taxonomic name is Dalbergia melanoxylon
It is an angiosperm in the family Fabacaeae, and it is endangered. The only remaining viable stock is in northern Mozambique, Tanzania, and southern Kenya.
The 'Mpingo has been called the "Tree of Music"  because, for two centuries, oboes, clarinets, highland bagipes and their chanters, Northumbrian bagpipes and their chanters, wood piccolos, some transverse flutes (Blockflote), and the black keys on the finest pianos, have been crafted from this amazing, hardy, incredibly dense, and now sadly depleted woody perennial.
(East African blackwood is no longer called "ebony." That term is reserved for a timberwood of the genus Diospyros; these have more of a matted appearance and are more brittle).
The genus Dalbergia  yields other valuable and "musical" timbers such as Brazilian rosewood  (Dalbergia nigra) and cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa).

Barrel and Bell of Cocobolo wood (Dalbergia retusa) by Backun

I have several clarinet barrels  (the cylinder between mouthpiece and upper joint) of different lengths, one made from  'Mpingo, one made from rosewood, and several made from cocobolo.

A Clarinet barrel manufactured by Chadash.
Notice the lathe above the wood barrel cylinder.

Each of these barrels has its own subtle and distinct timbre and resonance, based on the unique acoustic characteristics of the specific wood.

"The Tree That Makes Music"
Dalbergia melanoxylon
East African Blackwood
The cortex (the heartwood) of the 'Mpingo is the hardest known material in the plant world, behaving more like stone or metal. It is this feature that makes the wood  ideal for crafting fine woodwinds as it can tolerate multiple lathe shaving and drill holes without cracking.
Cross section of the trunk of a Dalbergia melanoxylon tree
Until recently.
As you might imagine, like any commodity in  great demand with limited supply,  'Mpingos are being overharvested, felled before maturity, and smuggled. Poachers clear cut these magnificent trees, and brush fires in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique are destroying them; the fires weaken the cortices of those trees which manage to survive.
This sad fact was brought home to me shortly after I bought my A clarinet and my Bb clarinet, at the House of Woodwinds in Berkeley, California during my internship at UCSF, in 1978.
In the early 1980s I  read a news article about clarinet and oboe  craftsmen in the venerable old line manufacturing facilities, Selmer and Buffet Crampon in Paris, and similar workshops  in Vienna and Germany, began noticing that the timber was cracking under the lathes during polishing and drilling. The cracking was analyzed and  was determined to be secondary to the fires in east Africa affecting the usually extremely hard, dense and strong Dalbergia melanoxylon.
The Buffet Crampon Company in Paris  developed their Greenline series, in which scraps of cracked and broken Dalbergia melanoxylon, instead of being discarded, are crushed and mixed with resin, making a material that can be crafted into perfectly serviceable clarinets, though not quite the same as those made from natural 'Mpingo.

Today, conservation efforts such as Clarinets for Conservation, The 'Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI), and the African Blackwood Conservation Project, are raising awareness in the region, planting new Dalbergia melanoxylon saplings, all the while teaching music to children.
These projects are helping to bring forth new and wondrous "Trees of Music" so that the next generation (maybe we have to wait for the generation after that, as the trees take almost 70 years to mature), and future generations will be able to play their clarinets, oboes and bagpipe chanters on wood from the 'Mpingo.
There is a wonderful movie, entitled    "'Mpingo:  The Tree That makes Music," which came out in 2001.

Here below is the world's greatest clarinetist, the remarkable phenom that is Martin Fröst,  playing Mozart's indelible concerto for basset clarinet and orchestra in A major KV 622 (a basset clarinet is a clarinet with four extra semitones at its bottom-you can see and hear it).
Fröst, himself  a god of Music, is playing a Buffet Crampon basset clarinet pitched in A, made out of, what else, the 'Mpingo, wood from the  "Tree of Music".
And isn't it perfectly appropriate that the  adagio movement of the ineffable Mozart basset clarinet concerto was made famous in the movie, Out of Africa (of course ! ).


  1. Especially one for delicate instriment

  2. Yes, Nadia, I agree. Thank you for your comment. Vincent