When Stephens formed the Gourd Orchestra in 1993, he made all the instruments from gourds he grew. Working mainly from photographs in the few books then available, he crafted percussion, string and wind instruments. Many are modeled after traditional African, South American or Asian instruments.
This winter, the band has been building new instruments. For the first time, other band members are making ones themselves. "It's fluid work," Stephens says. "Each member is experimenting with the types of instruments they would like to make."
On a recent evening, John Ramsey buffs a small gourd that had been etched with triangular designs. It will become the stopper for one end of a gourd neck he is making into a flute. At performances, Ramsey often plays the water drums, half-gourds floated upside-down inside larger gourds. He plays other percussion gourds and sings, but decided he wanted to try a wind instrument this year. "I might just cover these over and try again," he says, pointing to the finger holes of the flute. "I didn't get them exactly in the right places."
When the musicians select a gourd to work with, they consider its aural and visual qualities. Stephens looks across a table strewn with gourds and points to a large one covered with what seemed like delicate etching. "I let the gourds mold as they dry," he says. "They'll get these patterns naturally." The lichenlike mottling will become part of the instrument's decoration.
Christopher Hibben and Barry Bless are the Gourd Orchestra's other members. Although all band members play multiple instruments, just as gourd pollen dallies amongst assorted flowers, Hibben and Bless frequently play the balafon, a xylophonelike instrument that uses gourds as resonators under wooden keys. In fact, they often play it simultaneously, from opposite sides, each with two mallets. "Hocketing," as this technique is called, produces beautifully complex rhythms and harmonies.
In addition to bulbous, curled, skinny and pear-shaped gourds, the band uses plywood, beads, leather, sticks with just the right amount of curve or knobbiness basically, anything that will help them get the sound they want. The results are sculpturally striking and astonishingly tuneful. This is no pots-and-pans posse; these are serious musicians. As serious as they can be while wearing hats made from gourds with spinners on top.
Melodic instruments on the group's full-length CDs, "Refuge in a Gourd" and "Enchanted Evening," include lute, harp and mbira, which has metal keys mounted inside a gourd and bottle caps nailed around the external edge. Friction drums, which sound like Apollo's stomach rumbling, are not quite melodic, but neither are they quite percussive.
The Richmond Indigenous Gourd Orchestra has become one of the premiere gourd bands in the country. True, it might be the only all-gourd band in the country, but nevertheless, dear reader, there's so much you don't know about the world of gourds. Every October in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, gourd artists and aficionados gather to buy and sell almost anything you can imagine and a lot you probably can't made from gourds. The orchestra has performed there since 1999, sharing ideas with Vietnamese gourd-zither players, Huichol and West African musicians.
The Richmond Indigenous Gourd Orchestra also has played all around the greater Richmond area and in Virginia Beach. The group also visits schools around the state to lead workshops in making gourd instruments.
Not many musicians in the United States practice the arts of instrument-making and music-making. The Richmond Indigenous Gourd Orchestra, with a shakere, rattle and roll, is cross-pollinating the arts.
For more information go to