This Gourd Is An Instrument Of Love – Find Out Why

Musician playing a small gourd.
Is he eating a beetle? No, one of the members of Les Luthiers plays a gourd, an instrument d'amore, playfully called a yerbomatófono.
Viola d'Amore. / Andrew Plumb, Wikimedia Commons

Viola d’Amore. / Andrew Plumb, Wikimedia Commons

Ah, June. Wedding season for so many, when even musical instruments can declare their loving intentions. D’amore: Italian, meaning “of love.” And what does “love” mean? Sympathetic vibrations, a soft, comforting voice, a whisper into the mysterious dark of the ancient, natural world. Welcome to the instruments d’amore: viola, oboe, and…yerbomatófono?

The viola d’amore makes the love connection obvious: its half-dozen strings are matched by a second set of strings, strung below the fretboard, which literally vibrate in sympathy with the ones being massaged by the bow. A carved head of Cupid, blindfolded, often decorates the end of the pegbox—topping off all those vibes as a three-dimensional meditation on “Love is blind.”  Vivaldi and Bach wrote for the viola d’amore. Puccini wrote a viola d’amore into Madama Butterfly, humming along with the chorus. Of course. 

The rich, round sound of the oboe d’amore may have earned the instrument its nickname in opposition to the popularity of its higher-pitched cousin, a feature in military bands around the time of Beethoven. Indeed, “oboe,” in its French original name, “hautbois,” means “high (or loud) wood.” It’s a loud woodwind! But open out the end of the oboe’s tube into a pear shape, and you lower and soften the sound. Hence, “oboe d’amore.” Richard Strauss uses it to represent the child in his Symphonia Domestica. Ravel gives it a sexy turn in Bolero. And Prokofiev puts the oboe d’amore into his music for Romeo and Juliet. Of course.

And the yerbo-WHAT-ófono? Yerbomatófono d’amore, both ancient and new, is one of dozens of whimsical PDQ Bach-style instruments made up by a band of Argentinian musical clowns who call themselves Les Luthiers. It’s a kind of ocarina fashioned from the gourd traditionally used to drink yerba mate. The gourd is also called a mate. So Luthiers founder Gerardo Masana imagined yerba mate music: “You cut a gourd in half, and line up the two halves with great care, so the edges meet. Then, when you sing through the opening, the mate vibrates, and the sound of your voice is both amplified and distorted.” Yerba mate, the classic Argentinian drink, is said to both heal and energize. When the mate channels your voice, it amplifies and distorts. Kind of like love, right? Hence, the yerbamatófono d’amore. Of course!

So, here’s wishing you a June filled with sympathetic vibrations and soft voices. Enjoy the sounds of the natural world as you enter the season of sunshine, and, of course, remember to add a healthy dose of classical music to these long and lovely days.

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