Contrabass Digest

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Date: Sat, 21 Aug 1999 19:55:32 -0700
From: "Timothy J. Tikker" <>
Subject: Re: [Contra digest]

List Server wrote:
> Contra-bass suona? Visit a Hindu temple. A double reed instrument
> three/four feet in lenght is often played in rites. The lower pitch is
> easier on the ears.
> Joel Koh

The instrument is called Nadaswaram.  I know a store which seels them, or at
least did a few years ago when I was there last:

tel 510 548 4110
fax 510 548 1115

They had at least two sizes, $80 and $90.

I have a couple of recordings of Nadaswaram, both featuring the same player,
Sheik Chinna Moulana (both dating from 1992):

EMI CD PMLP 5483:  Sheik Chinna Moulana (Carnatic - Nadhaswaram)

Weltmusik/Wergo SM 1507-2:  Nadhaswaram: Sheik Chinna Moulana (also Sheik
Kasim & Sheik Babu on N, plus Sheik Subramaanian on Thavil)

The first has shorter numbers recorded in a studio.  The second is from a
live concert and has more extended numbers (better sound engineering, too),
plus excellent program notes.

The playing is often very lively (!), and the drumming is especially
energetic.  Highly recommended!

- Timothy Tikker


Date: Sat, 21 Aug 1999 20:50:50 EDT
Subject: Re: monster instrumentation

Jim Lande describes his sua na:
> > The reeds are very short, perhaps a half inch.  As Lelia says, the
instrument has no keys but does have six finger holes plus the left hand
thumb hole.  [snip]  I believe the body is conical, but not more than an inch
and a half in diameter at the bottom.  It is made of some sort of very dark
wood with a pretty, fairly open, curly grain.  Most interestingly, the wood
was turned so that it was thinner where the holes were placed.   I don't know
whether or not this would affect tone.  I was told that you could get plastic
versions.  The bell fits very loosely at the end and slips off for storage. >>

I got the spelling "sona" from a flea market vendor, so I'll take your
spelling instead, Jim, thanks!  Mine are similar to yours and to the one on
the Lark in the Morning web site (thank you for that link, Grant! -- I
bookmarked it to drool over it in detail later) but not identical.  The Lark
in the Morning picture (they spell it "suona") unfortunately is so grainy and
dark on my computer screen that I can't tell how many finger holes that
instrument has.  Mine each have the thumb hole plus *seven* finger holes (not
six).  Otherwise mine look similar to the one in the LiM photo, with the wood
sculpted in and out, thinner between the finger-holes, as Jim describes.  The
wood is dense, red-brown hardwood with darker streaks of brown to black.
It's the color of cocobolo.  It has a fairly straight grain.

Above the top finger hole, the body is wrapped tightly with thin, waxed brown
thread.  Above that is a decorative neck, a thin-gauge pipe (I forgot to
measure it with calipers, but I think it's only about 1/8" diameter), made of
impure copper or perhaps brass with a high copper content.  Now here is
another difference between mine and the LiM photo:  On each of mine, the neck
(probably not detachable -- haven't tried it) is fitted with two slightly
flattened spheres, probably for decoration (I don't think the windway opens
into them) topped by a disk (as in the LiM picture), all of the same metal,
through which the pipe protrudes to receive the reed assembly.

The larger sua na is 13-7/8" with the bell.  I bought this one with the
assumption that this bell is not the original.  It's tin, 6-1/2" in diameter,
and machine-made with a rolled edge.  It looked to me like an ordinary
kitchen funnel with the spout end cut short, probably the flea market
dealer's bright idea, since he bartered by casually tossing the questionable
horn into the deal "for free" when I showed no interest in it.  (In other
words, he intended his price to cover both horns to begin with, in order to
unloaded the questionable one that he was afraid he couldn't sell.)  But
maybe it's an original suona bell after all (though probably not the one that
originally came with this particular suona), because it does look like the
one in the LiM photo.

On my smaller instrument, the bell is proportionally smaller and less flared
than that, and it's the same dark copper or coppery brass as the other metal
on the instrument.  Without the reed, but with the bell, the smaller sua na
is 12-3/4" long.  Its bell is about 3-1/4" diameter (handmade of sheet
copper, somewhat crude and irregular).

The reed assembly, complete, is 1-9/16" long and from what o ther people and
the LiM describe, it's probably not the proper reed.  The lower 1-1/4" is a
cylindrical cork, 1/4" in diameter. The double reed above is held to the cork
with thin, red thread, closely wrapped 9/16" up the heel end of the reed.  On
the bark of the reed is a small encircling twist of very thin copper wire.
Above the bark of the reed, from shoulder to tip, the cut end is 9/16" long.
However, I'm unfamiliar with double reeds and don't know whether these are
original reeds intended for this instrument.

I've never had a lesson on sua na, but what produces the sound for me is a
trumpet embouchure.  Just forget the reed is in there, "buzz" with the lips
as compressed as possible and blow until your brain bleeds.  I've only got
the two reeds that came with the horns.  One of these reeds is mangled and
unusable, so I've got no spare -- part of the reason why I had mercy on the
cat and quit trying to figure out how to play them.  Wonder what makes sua
nas so loud?

Jim wrote,
>>     A few weeks ago I cleaned up my workroom.  Not enough to actually make
the place clean or even to look neat.  (Sort of the fire break approach to
cleaning.)   I don't know where the sua na ended up. I suppose I will have to
look.  Lelia and I live just a few miles from each other.  We could sit in
our respective back yards and play duets. A contrabass sua na?   Not in the
Washington D.C. area.  They scramble jets for things that make that sort of

Yeah, I know about that kind of cleaning.  I had to shovel out my attic last
night so that Kevin could take chamber musicians up there this morning and
use my piano, after yard saleing.  His chamber music group migrates from one
house to another, like a floating craps game.  Today was our turn.  There's
room in the somewhat-converted attic for my bass sax *or* the cellist but not
both.  Stowed my bass in what we euphemistically refer to as "the guest
bedroom."  (Yeah, if the guest is small enough to sleep in the bass sax
case....)  Hey, Jim, if we both deploy our sua nas as Y2K New Year's party
horns, maybe we can blow out all the transformers in between our houses and
everybody would blame the blackout on the Millennium Bug!

Joel Koh wrote,
>Contra-bass suona? Visit a Hindu temple. A double reed instrument three/four
feet in lenght is often played in rites. The lower pitch is easier on the

That message came in just as I was about to write that I'd forgotten, when I
wrote my previous message, that in the Cambodian art exhibit at the
Smithsonian about two years ago, I saw temple art of a priest sitting on the
ground and playing a huge sua na-type horn, the size of a digeridoo (maybe
five feet long), with the bell resting on the ground in front of him.  I
didn't own my sua nas then and didn't pay close enough attention to retain
details, but I wondered at the time what the instrument would sound like.  I
imagined it as something like the pedal contra-bombarde on an organ.  I share
your respect for anyone who can actually play a sua na of any size, instead
of making the screams I make on it.

In one form and another, this instrument seems to have travelled all over
Asia and the Near East.  I saw another one like my small one once, for sale
(for too much...) by another flea market dealer who told me she bought the
instrument from someone who said he'd brought it back from Afghanistan.  I've
also got some Indian and Indonesian sculpture showing gods, demons and people
playing similar instruments.


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