On one of Bowen Swersey’s two trips to India, he picked up a tambora and sitar, two classical Indian instruments. Another time, he met some Japanese banjo players who taught him how to play the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute. Later, he learned how to make a kora, a West African harp, with Gambian kora maker Sidi Susso, as well as a traditional Western-style harp. He picked up a melodious rain stick from Bali and bought a 1932 nickel plated C melody saxophone somewhere in America. He also learned how to make flutes, both Japanese and Chinese style, out of bamboo — eventually making them to sell in America, under the name Dragonbone Flutes.
“To be honest, I don’t play several of the instruments in my collection, but most I can,” said Swersey, a Southwest Harbor resident and longtime area musician. “My drive to have and make these is equal parts interest as a maker and as a musician. I am keenly interested in the physics of music and sound. Making the instruments helps me to understand acoustics by experimentation.”
Swersey isn’t just a collector of interesting musical instruments, he’s the kind of guy who invests time, money and miles traveled in pursuit of understanding the different musical cultures of the world. You can see some of the fruits of those travels at the Northeast Harbor Library through the month of October, in the “Interesting Musical Instruments” exhibit. It features some of Swersey’s collection, as well as part of Bar Harbor artist Ed Damm’s collection of handmade instruments, part of Swersey’s former band mate Michael Bennett’s large collection of West African percussive instruments and a few other items loaned by island residents such as several rare early 20th century acoustic guitars and a handmade electric bass.
For anyone with an interest in music of any kind, it’s an opportunity to see up close instruments common in other cultures but rare in the U.S. — and also to see some handmade, one-of-a-kind instruments.
“Aside from a few music stores and at concerts, I have not previously shown the instruments publicly,” said Swersey, a multitalented person who also works as a stone mason on MDI and has published a book of poetry. “Every so often, someone will come up to me and say ‘Hey, aren’t you the Dragonbone Flute guy?’ That happens much less often than ‘Didn’t you used to be in a band?’”
Ed Damm, who with his wife, Anne, owns Song of the Sea Music in Bar Harbor, has made both hammered and mountain dulcimers for more than 30 years and several of them are on display at the library, each with its own unique look. There are also Swersey’s beautifully carved flutes and harps, and even some papier-mache instruments made by Mt. Desert Island elementary students.
Many of the other instruments on display were collected by Swersey and Bennett in their world travels, before and after they met. From 1996 to 2001, the pair were in the popular Maine-based West African-influenced jam band the Beatroots, which combined their love of a myriad of musical styles into one infectiously funky sound. Bennett’s immersion into West African music, in particular percussion, was so complete that starting in 1999, Bennett traveled to the Gambia for ten consecutive years, where he studied with West African musical masters.
Though it has been two years since he has been to Africa, Bennett nonetheless has one of the finest collections of authentic West African instruments in the Northeastern United States, including several balafons (a wooden marimba-like instrument) a number of djembes (hand drums), and the sabar, a drum that is played with one hand and one stick. Bennett plays the balafon masterfully, his hands switching over one another in a complex rhythmic pattern. For an instrument made only of wood, specially tuned gourds, strings and wire, it’s an extremely difficult thing to play. But Bennett cautions — he’s no master, at least compared to his teachers in the Gambia.
“The masters of this instrument over there are just on another level entirely,” said Bennett. “They can take one of these things apart in the same way that you or I tie our shoes. I don’t dare to take mine apart to tune it.”
Both Bennett and Swersey have many more miles to go and music to hear on their respective musical journeys. Swersey in particular has many more instruments to make — from flutes and harps to new ones he has never tried before.
“There is one instrument which I have designed but never made, and that is a complex kalimba with three sets of keys, one low set for the thumbs, and two smaller sets for the index and middle fingers,” said Swersey, referring to the African thumb piano. “It will be tuned like and play like a kora, but be small and portable. I have the gourd I want to use for the body, but am looking for the spring steel pieces for the kalimba keys. It has sat in my garage for fourteen years. One long winter night [it will happen].”
“Interesting Musical Instruments” will be on display at the Northeast Harbor Library until the end of October. The library is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., (9 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays).