GENERal Harmonium Info/ FAQ
The harmonium, which was practically an unknown instrument in the USA as recently as 1989, has now become incredibly popular due to kirtan artists Krishnadas and Jai Uttal as well as Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Harmoniums are showing up on recordings by Paul Simon, Tom Petty, Tom Waits, Beck . . . the list goes on forever. Originally the harmonium was frowned up in Indian music because of it’s foreign origins but gradually it became accepted and embraced. Over time the harmonium has replaced the traditional sarangi, and sarod, as number one instrument for accompanying vocals, much to the chagrin of sarod and sarangi players. The harmonium is originally a French instrument. Harmoniums came to India in the 1800s and were used by colonialists for playing church music at home. Indians adapted the harmonium for their own use and developed different tunings for it.
Traditionally harmoniums are tuned in what is known as “equal tempered ” tuning. But Indians with no experience of European tuning standards, developed what is known as “just” tuning. A “just tuned” harmonium is set up by tuning the middle part of the keyboard to a pitch specific to the singer’s vocal range. The remainder of the harmoniums reeds are then tuned by ear to match rather than by tuning meter. A just-tuned harmonium is only useful for playing in one key. Whereas . . . an equal-tuned harmonium should be tuned "to itself" from end-to-end. An equal-tuned harmonium will sound good in any key. Gradually, harmonium players in India are abandoning the “just-tuned” standard, and are more and more often playing equal-tuned harmoniums. Many of the harmoniums shipped out of India continue to be “just-tuned” and many are as much as 15 “cents” sharp. A harmonium that is only say, 2 “cents” sharp can be sonically compatible with synthesizers and pianos depending on how sensitive your ear is. A harmonium that is 15 “cents” sharp will sound okay by itself, but will sound discordant when played alongside a synthesizer or piano tuned to A-440.
Most harmoniums utilize two banks of male and bass brass harmonium reeds. Scale-changer harmoniums and other high-end harmoniums utilize three banks of harmonium reeds. Harmoniums with three banks of reeds are manufactured with sets of Bass/Male/Male or Bass/Male/Female and are usually configured with 3.25 and 3.50 octave keyboards. Harmoniums with four banks of reeds are rare. Delhi-built harmoniums and Calcutta-built harmoniums have distinctly different sound qualities. Delhi-built harmoniums use a different grade of brass making the harmonium sound brighter and sharper when new. This style of harmonium reed however becomes mellower with playing over time and gives a very distinctive sound, typified by the Signature 23 as played by Krishnadas, and on the Tilak model played by Jai Uttal. Calcutta harmoniums utilize harmonium reeds made in Palitana or special alloy make-up that makes them sound mellower right at the start. Occasionally one hears of people looking for harmoniums with “French” reeds or “German” reeds. These types of harmonium reeds have not been produced in at least 70 years and simply are not available. We do on special order build harmoniums with what are called “English Reeds” which are a perfect copy of classic British harmonium reeds made to exacting standards from special steel harmonium reed materials. Steel harmonium reeds are not as warm sounding as brass harmonium reeds but are more stable. Steel harmonium reeds too, are very difficult to tune but hold pitch longer due to the stability of the steel alloy used in these harmonium reeds.
Folding vs. Non-folding Harmoniums
Folding harmoniums are popular because of their small size, which allows the harmonium to be taken on airline flights as carry-on and stored in the overhead. Non-folding harmoniums however, will have a wider breadth of sound because they have double the wind-chest capacity and are often preferred by studio musicians for recording purposes.
Scale-changer harmoniums utilize a mechanical device that allows the keyboard of the harmonium to be slid up or down for instant transposing. A well-built scale-changer harmonium can be trouble free for many years. A scale-changer harmonium built with “green” or uncured wood however, will warp and be a nightmare. Scale-changer harmoniums are better suited for players that will maintain them in one place like a home, studio, or a temple.
Drones and Octave Couplers
The knobs or “stops” on the harmonium are generally set up 1st/ 3rd/ 5th/ 7th/ for the ones that activate the harmonium’s wind-chest sections that supply air to each bank of the harmoniums reeds. The harmonium stops in the 2nd/ 4th/ 6th/ 8th positions will be “drones”. Harmonium drones are traditionally tuned to the black keys as these are preferred for use in Hindustani style playing. Keshav Music Imports builds the Signature 23 Harmonium with the reeds in the white keys for our Western customers. Another feature on all our harmoniums is the octave-coupler. The octave-coupler mechanically connects the note played to the same note one octave above or one octave below.
Teak vs. Pine
The majority of harmoniums produced in India are built with pine. However nearly all scale-changers and high-end harmoniums are built with teak. Pine produces a softer, diffused quality, whereas teak produces a deeper, and “darker” quality. Neither quality is “preferable” in a harmonium. The preferred quality for a harmonium's sound is subjective to the player.
Why are there so few good harmoniums available? And why have they become pricier?
The rising popularity of the harmonium has not escaped the attention of the craftsmen who make harmoniums in India. Craftsmen who were formerly happy with the money they earned making a limited number of quality harmoniums a year, are deserting the factories that demand the kind of high quality that only comes from slow patient crafting of the instrument, in order to work for "harmonium mills" that churn out crude, wheezy, out-of-tune harmoniums in high numbers.
Many craftsmen who used to make 60 good harmonium a year are now making 200 junk harmoniums a year. The market is flooded with junk harmoniums sold on mass-market sites and auction sites that look fine on a web-page but fall apart when they arrive.
In the meantime, the handful of uncompromising instrument makers still making good harmoniums cannot keep up with demands, and the factories have found it necessary to pay them more to keep them on staff. And naturally those costs are passed on to consumers in the West.
As the premiere seller of harmoniums in the US and Canada we at Keshav Music are struggling to maintain high standards and keep up with demand. We appreciate your patience and understanding when it comes to waiting for the arrival of high-quality instruments on those occasions when they are out of stock. The good stuff takes time.
Who's playing harmoniums by Keshav Music?
We have provided harmoniums to Krishnadas, Dave Stringer, Jai Uttal, Vilayat Khan, Vishal Vaid, The Pharoah Sanders Group, Bill Laswell, Rick Rubin, Duncan Sheik,The National, Amanda Homi, Brooklyn Qawwali Party, Rusted Root, Babukishan Baul and Yaiyasaki Das as well as to the Jivamukti Yoga Centers in four different countries, numerous harmoniums to the Shivananda Ashrams, The Self-Realization Fellowship, Siddha Yoga Satsang, Amma Satsang, Vivekananda Temples of Boston and L.A., Integral Yoga and literally thousands of yogis around the globe.
Our harmoniums are used by many top studio musicians and can be heard on recordings by Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful, David Sanborn, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, James Taylor, Tom Petty, Beck, and many others.
Over the years we have provided instruments, repairs and support to many of the finest musicians in the business including, Ustad Shahid Parvez, Kiran Aluwalia, Rez Abassi, Karsh Kale, Shilpa Rea, TV Gopalkrishnan, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Hamid Drake, William Parker, Omar Hakim, Victor Rendon, Jai Uttal and Cyndi Lauper.
***While Keshav Music Imports sells all Indian instruments, the harmonium has been and continues to be our main focus. Keshav Das has spent years working directly alongside the luthiers that build our instruments and learned tuning and repairs at the Bina harmonium factory, the DMS harmonium factory and the Monoj Kumar Sardar harmonium factory. He personally checks all harmoniums for tuning and keyboard set-up before they are packed.