A group of our family members were sitting around our living room on Christmas night of this past year eating pecan and lemon chess pies and drinking hot cocoa, talking about the spirit of Christmas time and the variety of music we hear at church and at home at this time of year. One of the young men, Brian, went out to his car and returned with a 6-foot, 4-inch long musical instrument called a didgeridoo. It is a wind instrument, originally made by Aborigines in northwest Australia. In Australia, the instruments are often made from one of several varieties of eucalyptus trees, which are hollowed out naturally by termites.
Brian told us that his didgeridoo was made from a California yucca cactus. He took 10 weeks of lessons, learning to play it. He is still not proficient, but is on the way to mastering it. As he played for us, it seemed to have a narrow range of pleasant, deep bass tones.
Ten minutes later, another of the young men, Alex, went out to his car and brought in an electric guitar and a djembe (pronounced jam-bay). The djembe is a variety of drum from West Africa. It is associated with the Mali Empire, which dates back to 1230 AD. It is carved from hardwood, in the shape of a goblet about 2 feet high and 15 inches wide. The head is made of untanned goatskin. Djembes were never used as signaling drums, but I have read that the Africans say that a good player is able to tell an emotional story with his playing.
Traditionally, only men play the djembe. We watched Alex hold it between his knees as he sat on the sofa and use the fingers and palms of both hands to play it. I have read that the djembe is a loud drum and can produce a wide variety of sounds, making it a versatile instrument. In our living room, it did sound loud, and we could see that it could be used as a solo instrument over a percussion ensemble playing traditional African music or, as Alex probably uses it, in modern American jam sessions.
Then 4-year-old grandson, Marco, asked Sally if there were any other musical instruments in this house. Sally reported that there was a bugle in the garage that Grandpa used to play in a drum and bugle corps about 75 years ago. Richard went out to find it for Marco. To everyone's surprise, Marco got two good notes from the bugle right off. Richard picked up the electric guitar and the four guys played their instruments in unison and separately, and the sounds they made seemed mostly like noise to us, but we enjoyed the playing greatly. It was in the spirit of the season.
It reminded me of the story of the juggler who used the only talent he had to please the Lord. These young men were using their talents to please our family. This whole musical evening was an education for me and the rest of the family.
I thought how different this Christmas night was from those I remember as a child. We had similar family gatherings but there were no exotic musical instruments there. For instance, I recall the planning and laying out of an electric train around the Christmas tree about 80 years ago. The various components - locomotives, cars, track, crossing lights and the like - were positioned and repositioned until they pleased my father and my Uncle Bob. They had never had electric train sets of their own when they were my age, and although these were my Christmas gifts, they seemed to get more fun out of assembling it all than I did. Yet I still have fond memories of enjoying the trains together.
In both this last Christmas night of music and the laying out of the trains so long ago, I was mostly an observer, but all the same, both experiences have made for fond memories of the season and family togetherness.