Biography of a Medieval Musical Instrument
Say hello to Zoe, our zanfona, or in English, our hurdy gurdy.
Zoe has an interesting history. The idea for her came when we (Celt Iberia) were performing at the Celtic Nations Heritage Festival in Lake Charles, LA. One of the other performers had a hurdy gurdy which she used in her storytelling and puppet shows. She demonstrated the gurdy for us and we were hooked. We had to have one.
I looked them up on the web, and found that they were frightfully expensive, and extremely hard to get. But I also found that many enthusiasts built their own, from specialty kits or from scratch. Ahaa! I began to see a way. I put the word out to several of my guitar luthier friends to see if any of them would be interested in building an experimental gurdy. One of them, a former guitar student, took the challenge. It turns out that as a luthier, he subscibed to a professional luthier's journal, and remembered that he had seen an article on hurdy gurdy building, with plans! Within a few weeks he had built the hurdy gurdy, or in Spanish zanfona, on this page. We named her Zoe.
Actually, Zoe has evolved over the 2 years she's been in our musical family. The experiment has included a constant trial and error process of finding what kind of strings will work best. One of the things I've discovered is that there really don't seem to be such things as hurdy gurdy strings, even though some distributors and instrument makers say there are. But these usually turn out to be packages made up of other instrumental strings put together by the distributors, and are typically very expensive. So I have tried guitar strings, steel violin strings, artificial gut, and finally, harp gut strings. The harp gut strings work best on Zoe, and she sounds just like those multi-thousand dollar gurdies sold by name brand makers.
Then I discovered some design flaws. So, I looked at the instrument as a machine rather than as an instrument, and decided that it had to obey the laws of physics. The flaws had to do with the alignment of the strings upon the wheel. The strings had to be absolutely straight across the wheel, but Zoe's strings were bent across the bridges. Oh well, the Hubble Telescope had some problems too, so what the hey. And if the medieval age people could figure this out, we should be able to, also. So, with some careful measurements and some fixes made to the bridges, the strings are now perfectly aligned. I also added some newer and smaller microtuners on all strings, so Zoe is beginning to get a bit hi-tech.
Zoe sounds great as is, but for performance, I've given her a Fischer transducer, fed into a small Crate amp. And voila! Celt Iberia now has a basic hurdfy gurdy or zanfona, very much used in the Spanish Celtic music genre.
Listen to Zoe here with the Fandango de Anton Corral. Recorded in rehearsal Dec. 6, 2012 Val on Zoe, with Lucia, Juan Torres, and Marie Laplante on tambourines. fandangodecorral.mp3
Angle view of Zoe's refit April 2012
Zoe on top of her custom-buillt case