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Clarinetists teach music to save African trees

March 28, 2014
By NAJ WIKOFF - Correspondent , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID -?Who knew that teaching kids to play the clarinet could inspire them to plant trees, but that's just what people attending the Intervale Lowlands home of Nancy and Larry Masters learned the evening of March 19.

The clarinet, as well as the bodies of piccolos, oboes, bagpipes, highland pipes, Scottish whistles and Baroque flutes, the fingerboards of violins and cellos, and black piano keys, all get their wood from a very special and endangered tree, the African blackwood, often known commonly as mpingo or Ebony - the world's most expensive hardwood.

Mpingo, which used to range from Ethiopia to South Africa, has been harvested to extinction throughout most of this region. It is now commercially extinct in Kenya and commercially threatened in Tanzania and northern Mozambique. Today it is harvested under very strict guidelines for local craftsmen who use it for carving, and for the leading manufacturers of clarinets and other specialized products. Even so, at the current rate of harvesting, coupled with poaching, the trees could become extinct within several decades.

Article Photos

From left are Mark Fugina, Debbie Larsen, Michele Von Haugg, Larry and Nancy Masters, and Ian Tyson. (Photo — Naj Wikoff)

"I saw the documentary, 'Mpingo: The Tree that makes Music,' narrated by Sir David Attenborough," said Michele Von Haugg, founder of Clarinets for Conservation. "That's how I learned that mpingo, the source of ebony from which clarinets are made, was being threatened. There was a reference in the film that we all have a part to play. I thought that, as a professional clarinetist, there is no reason why I can't somehow take part in this effort, so I loaded up two suitcases with clarinets donated by friends and colleagues, got on a plane to Tanzania, got a hold of Sebastian (an educator in the documentary struggling to save the mpingo tree), and his family found a school where I could start teaching. That's where it all started. This year will be my fourth trip, so it is still a very, very new program, but it has grown quite a bit."

"Most East Africans have no idea what these instruments are or that they came from this tree," said Von Haugg. "We plant trees with our students as well as teach them to play musical instruments. We have seen the benefits to be very powerful and witnessed tremendous changes in the community and in attitudes towards the tree over the past few years."

Von Haugg is originally from the small village of East Berne, located about 30 miles west of Albany. Like the Adirondacks, it is a heavily forested region. She grew up with a passion for music and nature. She continually looked for ways to connect her twin passions, which has come together in her organization, Clarinets for Conservation. Her path to Lake Placid came through Jennifer Perry, the energy program assistant at the Adirondack North Country Association. Perry is also a clarinetist, but chose a career as a conservationist, while Von Haugg, equally passionate about conservation, chose music.

"I came across an article about Clarinets for Conservation, learned that Michelle and her musicians would be touring not far from here, called her, and was able to arrange for them to perform at BluSeed and the Masters offered to host a concert at their home," said Perry, who, along with fellow local clarinetist Janine Scherline of Mountain Lake PBS, performed with Von Haugg and the other musicians. "It was so exciting to meet another with the shared passion of conservation and playing the clarinet."

The clarinet was originally made from European boxwood, which was harvested to extinction toward the end of the 18th century. African ebony came to be found and used when the European boxwood was no longer readily available and instrument makers were searching for a substitute.

"It was actually found by accident, a story told to me by instrument makers," said Von Haugg. "They said that mpingo was originally used as ballast for ships in the spice trade from Eastern Africa. After arrival, they threw the ballast in the harbors, and people started noticing that this wood was impervious to water, for long periods of time it was not sinking or rotting. Instrument makers who were looking for a new wood caught wind of these properties and began using African blackwood for their instruments, this in the early 1800s."

"I started as a member of an audience hearing Michele perform and speak about her program," said clarinetist Mark Fugina. "I joined her organization and was lucky enough last summer to go to Tanzania with her. So I have gone from wondering how it worked to seeing her put all the pieces together. It is the greatest thing I have ever seen come to life in a foreign country."

"We do a lot of outreach projects in Tanzania," said Von Haugg. "We encourage people to use their gardens as a safe haven for the young saplings. We take the mpingo saplings to schools and use them as part of our teaching. The students adopt them and treat them like pets. They come to school every day to water and watch over their saplings. They have made a direct connection between themselves and these trees that provide the wood that is used in the instruments that they play and that the local artists carve."

Von Haugg is working to have a year-round presence and locals direct the program. She found a clarinetist in the police academy band and has provided him a stipend so he can work with the students three days a week, plus he works with the conservationists going out to make presentations at schools in the region.

"Most musicians don't know that wood in their instruments comes from this single tree in East Africa," said Von Haugg. "The plastic and composite materials used as a substitute in many instruments, particularly in student instruments, are missing a creamy, caramel sound. Musicians, even young students 10 or 12 years old hear the difference."

"Those instruments are missing the way the wood resonates over the plastic," said her colleague Ian Tyson. "You just can't replicate the natural vibrations of a living piece of wood."

"I took clarinet lessons for a short while when I was 9 years old, now I wonder what that clarinet that my parents rented for me to play on was made of, wood or plastic," said Joyce McLean. "I am sure it was plastic, but I never knew. I had no idea that professional clarinets were made from this one tree much less than parts of violins and so many other instruments."

"I learned so much tonight," said Larry Masters. "I didn't know anything about clarinets, and I didn't know how many musical instruments are made of or have components derived from the mpingo tree in Tanzania. I have seen the tree, but I didn't know what I was looking at. And the music, these guys are so talented. I loved the range of the music. I've never seen the clarinet used as a percussion instrument before. And the elephant sounds. I love events like this where you learn so much."

"Without the mpingo tree, we don't have the music! I just couldn't imagine that, "said Von Haugg.

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