December 9, 2017


DEATH RATTLE : Searching for the old jawbone (John Jeremiah Sullivan  |  November 21, 2017, Oxford American)

In the African-influenced musics of Latin America one often hears a uniquely electrifying percussion instrument known as la quijada, the jawbone. Actually it goes by multiple names in several different Spanish-speaking countries, but quijada is the closest thing to standard nomenclature. The word, in a musical context, refers to the lower jawbone of an ass or, less commonly, a horse. When the animal dies, the instrument makers cut off the head and boil it, until all of the flesh is gone, then detach the jawbone, leaving the teeth intact. Or in certain places they bury the head first. This is thought to harden the bone somehow. Most often the whole lower bone of the animal's jaw is used, such that the instrument is shaped like a giant wishbone. Other times the jawbone is (again, wishbone like) snapped in half, so that each side becomes a functional drumstick, and these sticks are then used to bang on another percussion instrument, of whatever kind. But a traditional quijada typically involves the whole jawbone.

There is a technical term for the kind of instrument it is, a wonderful word: idiophone. An idiophone is something that you hit to make a distinctive sound. That's all there is to it. No strings, no flute-holes, just an object that you strike. A triangle would be the most obvious example. The root "idio" here means singularity or itself-ness or sole, as in, "alone." Think idiosyncratic--not in sync with others, obeying its own rhythm. Or idiom--an expression that makes sense only in the language to which it belongs. Or idiot--one who can't participate in the conversation.

When playing this particular idiophone, there are two main ways to bring out its sound. One is to run a piece of iron (or whatever small, hard, stick-shaped thing is handy) down and along the rows of teeth. This produces a hard-edged rasp, a quick, zippy, grating sound, a bit like what you hear when a zydeco player runs sticks down a washboard; the washboard-as-instrument most likely evolved from the quijada. There are in fact several more traditional percussion instruments that produce a not-dissimilar sound. You have probably seen an object that looks like a little section of bamboo with a series of divots carved into it on one side. By rubbing a stick across those divots one can achieve a quijada-like effect, or rather the effect specifically of the iron-on-teeth method of quijada-playing. The other main method is different and stranger and more special. It involves punching or beating the jawbone with the side of your fist. And the sound produced by this second method cannot really be compared with anything. Because the teeth are all still there in the skull. But the gums have dried up and been boiled and scraped away. Now the teeth are hanging there in sockets that are too big for them to fill on their own. And when you bash the side of the jawbone with your closed fist, all of the teeth rattle at once. Inside the bone. It is literally a death rattle. It does something to the rhythm of a song that can't be accounted for with any musical term, sends it into not a different tempo, necessarily, but a different imaginative sphere. Envision being in a dark club, somewhere with one light bulb, and the band is ripping, everyone's dancing. Music and lust are in the air, intermingling. Suddenly there's a guy in the room who is jumping around holding an actual skull, or part of one. He's assaulting it with his fist. It is putting out a music that simply does not care if you feel like dancing or not. The feeling is of being seized, sent into spasms.

Posted by at December 9, 2017 7:52 AM


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