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World music for woodwind

When you think of styles that are associated with the clarinet or saxophone you might think of classical, klezmer, or jazz, but these instruments are also well-suited to many world music styles. Ros Stephen explores this concept in the Globetrotters series, with original pieces in styles from across the globe.

Saxophone Globetrotters
Melanie Henry recording the Saxophone Globetrotters CD

For example, in this clip of ‘Guanabara Bay’ from you can hear the saxophone taking on the bossa nova, a style from Brazil that developed from the samba. As you’ll hear, bossa nova is very relaxed and laid-back—imagine sunning yourself on a beach in Rio de Janeiro. Bossa nova is characteristically performed by guitar and voice; in this piece the saxophone acts as the vocalist and the part of the guitar is taken by piano, double bass, and percussion.

In contrast, in this next video the clarinet plays a lively, upbeat Cuban cha-cha-cha. The cha-cha-cha is one of several dance styles that make up salsa music. Rhythm is very important in Cuban music, with many different rhythmic patterns played simultaneously. Listen out for the clarinet’s syncopated rhythms offset against the steady rhythmic pulse of the cowbell.

Woodwind instruments also work well in folk music. ‘Breton Mariner’s Song’ is in the chants de marin style, which grew out of Brittany, in northern France. The style is characterized by sea shanties and ballads traditionally sung by sailors, telling of travel and adventure or shipwrecks and war. Whereas the previous two pieces prominently feature syncopation, this piece is strictly rhythmic and firmly rooted in a lilting 6/8.

Of course, these are just a few examples, and there are many more world music styles to be explored. Moreover, many musical traditions have instruments that are very similar to the clarinet or saxophone—for example the Romanian taragot, the Egyptian arghul, and the Breton treujenn-gaol—and, thus, the music from these traditions translates particularly well to standard woodwind instruments. So, next time you’re thinking of music for clarinet and saxophone throw some world music styles into the mix.

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