South American folklore instruments made of PVC in Mexico City:

Interview with Oscar Hernández

by Arnie D. Schoenberg


What are the most common types of PVC instruments?

Generally they are copies of South American instruments: quenas, zampoñas, sikus, quenas de pico or dulzainas and rondadores. In size, the toyos can be as big as a yard long. (Toyo is the name of the largest siku.)

Why do they make them from PVC?

They are made from PVC because of the lack of economic resources to obtain instruments made from their original material, like caña brava, or totora, or bamboo. In this situation, PVC becomes an very economical alternative, with easy access - it can be bought at hardware stores or construction materials shops. In Mexico, PVC tubes are primarily used for sewers or watering. Also PVC tubes are found in different diameters (which allows to have distinct tones).

What are the techniques of tuning wind instruments made of PVC?:

One of the techniques consists of introducing cork plugs, until the length and the space in the tube is adequately reduced in order to obtain the desired tone. Another technique is to make plugs with natural wax, but one needs to be very careful using wax, because when it dries it becomes very hard and does not adhere to the base of the tube, which is smooth, this is why it comes off very easily. The best material I have found is natural beeswax, because when it dries, it gets hard and sticks solidly to the instrument, functioning as a seal that does not permit air leaks. One technique that I used to use was to put grains of rice in the tube until obtaining the necessary tone, and then putting melted wax to glue them in, but it didn't work very well because eventually the whole plug came out, after the wax hardens and it is being played, the saliva that enters the instrument unsticks the wax, and the tube goes out of tune.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of PVC instruments?

One of the disadvantages is that while playing a wind instrument made from PVC, the saliva that falls inside the tube is not absorbed, as happens with wooden or cane instruments, and because of this the tube becomes saturated, the PVC stays wet. For example, a zampoña made of PVC, after playing it for awhile, you turn it over and shake it and the saliva comes out, something that doesn't happen with one made of wood or cane. Another disadvantage is the problem of tuning the tubes, because the wax plugs do not stay fixed to the tubes, most of the time, and they go out of tune.

The advantages are: the easy access to the material; it can be bought at any construction supply store, or hardware store, and it is very economical, beside being much more durable then instruments made from cane or wood, because PVC, being plastic, resists knocks and falls. And, in terms of quenas, one made of PVC is easier to tune, because it does not have a grain as in wood, and with wood if you are not careful and you file too much, it opens and breaks, something that does not happen with plastic.

What are the points of comparison between PVC and natural materials?

PVC tubes saturate and fill will saliva and this is annoying, because while blowing the instrument, the saliva foams and sprays, (and when it stays in the tube, it contributes to raising the tone of the instrument). In comparison; bamboo, cane, or wood absorb the saliva.

In terms of sound, the quality of the sound of an instrument made from cane is distinct from one made of plastic, because plastic gives you more brilliant or "screeching" tones; it is more difficult to give shades of color, because it is very difficult to modulate the sound (with zampoñas or sikus), because with quenas the modulation is done by the blowing of air in the embouchure (lipping), but with instruments that you blow directly, like zampoñas o sikus, it is difficult to achieve modulation; the sound comes out without color, without shades (sad or happy, what is called [gojica] and dynamics in music)

Musicians are very prejudiced against instruments made from PVC, because they think that to make a folklore instrument from another material that is not traditional, is senseless, it results in a bad copy, not just because of the tuning, but also because of the material, because the sound that comes out of plastic is not natural to begin with. Although to me, sound is beautiful wherever it comes from, if it has a sequence, an order, and a reason.

Have you found groups that reject the nature of cane or wood instruments, and prefer the sound of plastic instruments?

In Mexico, I have not encountered any "revolutionary" groups of musicians that have rejected natural materials. Plastic instruments are adopted out of economic necessity, because they don't have enough money to natural or original instruments, therefor they make a copy in plastic. But they always have the longing to obtain an original instrument.

Are recycled PVC tubes used for instruments?

Well, for obvious health reasons, recycled PVC cannot be used to make instruments, because the tubes are primarily used for sewage or watering. The tubes should be new. Maybe for percussion instruments it is not that big of a problem, but for flutes, they should be new.

As a musician, do you prefer natural or PVC instruments?

I do not prefer PVC instruments. To me, it is an option when a group is just getting started, or a musician wants to try it out, instruments can be made at a low cost. A PVC instrument, a quena for example, costs $2 dollars (well tuned), compared to an instrument made of totora or bamboo would cost between $10 to $20 dollars, depending on the maker, and a quena can cost up $50 dollars.

But, a curious phenomenon is happening: in Peru and Bolivia, countries where cane and tortora are abundant, wind instrument are being made from PVC and covered with wood. They are well tuned instruments, not made for tourists. This is something I don't understand.

Do you know when PVC was first used for South American instruments in Mexico?

I might be able to give a tentative date of around 1968 or '69. The bourgeois musicians that started the interest in the folklore movement had access to field recordings (such as Beno Liberman and Federico Arana) and to original instruments, but the rest of the youth did not have the resources and also were not interested in Andean music, and I imagine that is where the use of PVC came about. The first time I saw zampoñas made of PVC was in 1979, and I made some, because at that time zampoñas made of cane were going for 60 pesos, and a PVC tube 6 meters long, with which I could make several instruments, cost 2 pesos.

Here in the city you can't find enough cane or bamboo to make flutes, the width of the walls of the bamboo is crucial for the sound. You had to leave the city to find good cane; you would go to Tepoztlán o Xochimilco o Yahutepec, for something that was much easier to get by going to the hardware store to buy a tube, to the pharmacy to buy a cork, and you start to work, and you make your instrument in a couple of hours.

I'm sure that every South American music groups has played on PVC instruments in its beginning. I think that the criteria is: "Until I get enough money to buy a real quena, I'm going to start on one made of PVC."

In some indigenous communities of Mexico, metal tubes are used to make flutes, like in the Sierra Tarahumara in Chihuahua. I have not seen traditional Mexican instruments made of PVC, this came about more in the world of Andean music.

In Mexico, some venders of PVC instruments won't tell you that they are made of plastic; they try to make the instruments are much as possible like wood or cane, they paint the plastic and scratch it to make it look like wood grain, and sell them as if they were made of a natural material.