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World Musical Instruments That Every Family Should Own

Real Instruments for Real Budgets

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Exposing your kids to world music is as simple as popping a CD in the player every so often, but there's really nothing quite like the fun of an impromptu, child-led jam session.  Spontaneous musical play has lots of benefits, and for young children, instruments can be as simple as pots and pans and old oatmeal drums and other homemade things. Once they get a bit older, though, they might think it's pretty great to have some real musical instruments around, both rhythmic and melodic, and these ten affordable, easy-to-play instruments from around the world would make up a fantastic home collection.

1. Djembe

Picture of a simple Djembe
(c) Getty Images / Stockbyte

A djembe is a simple wooden hand drum that is easily portable, affordable (simple models can generally be found as cheap as $20), and very easy to get a nice tone out of. They're also pretty easy to find, as they're popular among the drum-circle culture; your local music store will likely have one or two in stock, and any given African import or gift shop most certainly will.  The best part?  Because they're typically carved out of thick wood, they're pretty close to indestructible -- that is to say, toddler-friendly.

Say it with me now: "JEM-bay"

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2. Bodhran

Picture of a Bodhran
(c) Stockbyte / Getty Images

Hand-drumming is great fun, of course, but it's also great fun to hit a drum with a stick.  The problem is, the kind of drums you hit with sticks tend to be really loud.  For a quieter and equally entertaining alternative, give the Irish bodhran a try.  It's a frame drum that you hold with one hand while playing gently with a short stick called a tipper.  The nice, large drumhead gives it a deep, mellow tone (unlike the rat-a-tatting snare drum that mothers have nightmares about).  A lower-end but fully playable bodhran can be yours for under $35.  You might be able to find them in a well-stocked local drum store or Irish import/gift shop, but they're readily available online as well.

Say it with me now: "BOW-rawn"

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3. Maracas

Picture of Maracas
(c) Photodisc / Getty Images

Don't knock-a the maraca. (Sorry.)  Seriously, though -- maracas are a very real and very important instrument, crucial to the rhythm of multiple genres of music (rumba, mambo, mento, and so many more).  Playing them is deceptively difficult to master, but certainly easy enough to start.  They're also very easy to find and they're cheap, cheap, cheap.  If you want to get exotic, pick up a few different sets of maracas made of different materials (plastic, wood, leather, coconut, gourd...), put on some Cuban music, and play along!

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4. Washboard

Picture of Musical Washboard
(c) Photodisc / Getty Images

Instruments that fall into the "scraper" category are found throughout the world, from the South American guiro to the Asian frog rasp.  The musical washboard is a particularly snazzy little number, though. A traditional American found object instrument, it's played with spoons, thimbles, old-fashioned bottle openers, or any ol' metal thing you can find to scratch it with, and it's noisy and boisterous and tons of fun.  You can buy standard washboards brand new through any number of online or catalog sources, but odds are good that your local antique mall will have one or two kicking around for ten or twenty bucks, so either way is fine.  A fancier zydeco vest-style frottoir is harder to come by and will set you back well over $100, but if you keep your eye on online auctions and the like, you might be able to get one cheaper.  

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5. Didgeridoo

An Aboriginal Man Plays the Didgeridoo at Live Earth Sydney
(c) Sergio Dionisio / Getty Images, 2007

Your kids might have a bit of a tough time figuring out how to make any sound with the Aboriginal didgeridoo, but they will most certainly have a great time trying, and once they get it down, they'll have a lifelong skill that can help them fend off sleep apnea, among other benefits. Formerly only obtainable by those with oodles of disposable income, in recent years, some very playable and nice-sounding fiberglass didges have come on the market, making it possible for anyone with thirty bucks and an internet connection to get ahold of.  

Say it with me now: DIDGE-er-ee-DOO

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6. Xylophone

Xylophone - West African Balafon
(c) Getty Images / Stockbyte

The xylophone, that bastion of Orff-Schulwerk that has made its way into just about every elementary music classroom in the world, is actually the name for a family of musical instruments that provide percussive melody lines to traditional genres of music on nearly every continent.  The West African balafon, the Indian ranat, the Southeast African mbila, the classical European glockenspiel, the Indonesian gambang (part of the gamelan orchestra)... the list goes on.  If you happen upon any number of these varieties of xylophone, don't be afraid to pick them up, but if not, a simple wood or metal xylophone -- easy enough to find -- is a great (and cheap) place to start.  You can even call it one of those other names, if that feels more glamorous to you or your kids... it may not be 100% accurate, but who's going to correct you?

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7. Mbira

Mbira - The National Musical Instrument of Zimbabwe
(c) C Squared Studios / Getty Images

The thumb piano -- also known as an mbira or a kalimba, among other things -- is a fairly simple Eastern African instrument that consists of a resonator box and a row of keys which are attached at one side and free on the other side.  When you pluck the keys, they make a humming little plunka-plunka sound which, when performed by a master, can be breathtakingly beautiful.  It takes awhile to get to that level, but it's still great fun to try to pluck out little melodies or melodic progressions.  The keys are also tunable (you slide the key itself into or out of the bridge that connects it to the instrument) which can be the basis for a nifty little mini-lesson on acoustics and the science of sound.

Say it with me now: mmm-BEE-rah, ka-LEEM-ba

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8. Ocarina

Clay Ocarinas
Image courtesy Pricegrabber

The ocarina is one of the oldest known types of flutes, known in both Chinese and Meso-American cultures for at least 10,000 years.  Traditionally made of clay and small enough to hold in your hand, the ocarina is a fantastic kids' instrument: it's exceedingly easy-to-play, it's not too harsh-sounding, and the market value for a decent one is generally somewhere in the $10-$25 range.  As a bonus, modern ocarinas are often sculpted to hang on a string -- what little kid wouldn't want to wear their instrument on a necklace?  There are lots of varieties of instruments in the ocarina family, with various shapes, fingerings, and so on, but don't overthink it -- find one that looks nice and sounds good to you, and you're golden.

Say it with me now: OCK-ah-REE-nah

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9. Tin Whistle

Tin Whistle (or Penny Whistle)
Getty Images / Stockbyte

Let's revisit Irish music again for a moment, and have a look at the melodic side of things: accordions and fiddles are rather expensive, and a bit fragile for free play, but don't forget about the fabulous tin whistle!  It's a lovely, mellow little instrument that costs under $20 and usually comes with a handy fingering chart, making it quick and simple to learn at least a few songs.  They also share a fair bit of their fingering with the standard recorder, so if your kids have learned that instrument in school, they'll take right to the tin whistle.

10. Ukulele

Ukulele Picture
(c) Stockbyte / Getty Images

On this list we've got things that you hit, things that you blow, and things that you scratch, but no instrument collection would be complete without at least one thing that you strum.  For kids, I like ukuleles -- those magnificent little Hawaiian guitars that have taken the world by storm.  They're kid-sized, relatively sturdy, and can be purchased within a reasonable family budget.  It's easy enough to find ukes at online stores, but don't hesitate to go down to your local guitar store and see what they have to offer.  Sometimes they'll have some used ukuleles at good prices, but the folks who work there will at least be able to guide you to a good new ukulele with the best bang for your buck.  You can pick up cheap ukes for around $25, which is fine for very little kids, but you can still get a very good student-quality uke that'll play nicer and stay in tune better for under $100.

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