Junk Jazz: how eco-consciousness is spurring musical creativity
Updated: Aug 23
On the release of a new album by Belgian ‘junk jazz’ band Schroothoop, Gail Tasker explores the history and legacies of music made on reclaimed and repurposed objects. She meets the band, and discusses the cultural repercussions ofa less impactful approach to music-making.
Every cloud has a silver lining, or so they say. 2020, the year of the virus, has witnessed a flourishing of innovation amongst creative musicians, who have adapted out of necessity and transformed the unwanted, unforeseen limits of lockdown into fresh, imaginative music-making opportunities.
Examples: live-streamed concerts via Twitch, music videos set in living rooms, free download deals from Ableton leading to a boom in bedroom beats. Hand in hand with this move, at a time where consumerism and environmental damage have been forcibly curbed by governments out of medical necessity, we are seeing a renewed emphasis on the possibilities of sustainable music practices. The crucial theme here is the embrace of new or alternative technology and media – yet few have gone as far as Brussels-based group Schroothoop.
The trio was formed last November by strings and wind player Rik Staelens, percussionist Margo Maex, and bass and clarinet player Timo Vantyghem. They have demonstrated what is possible by creating their own DIY brand of ‘junk jazz’, using old, discarded materials to make their own unique instruments. Their new album, klein gevaarlijk afval, is the result.
The art of making your own instruments from scratch is hardly a mainstream practice in modern, Western music, though there are well-known exceptions. New York-based free jazz musician, composer, and story-teller Cooper-Moore has been creating his own instruments since the 70s. They range from percussion items such as his xylophone-styled Ashimba and eight-string zither known as the Taiser, to various flutes and whistles. In his case, the instrument is a medium, nothing more, as he pointed out in a recent interview – ‘If one goes missing I build another one.’ Another famed New Yorker, the now-cult figure Moondog, whose work was highly influential on minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, was active in the mid-20th century as a street busker, composer, and instrument-designer. His inventions include the trimba, a triangular form of percussion, and the utsu, a pentatonic keyboard. They are still used to this day. Some might also be aware of the Oscar-nominated film composer and singer Mica Levi, who forms part of UK-based band Good Sad Happy Bad and who is known to create and perform with homemade instruments. Amongst her arsenal, the ‘chopper’, based on a guitar crossed with a hurdy-gurdy crossed with a turntable, and the ‘chu’, a jarring, one-stringed, guitar-style instrument.
In his case, the instrument is a medium, nothing more, as he pointed out in a recent interview – ‘If one goes missing I build another one’
Yet, on speaking to Staelens, Schroothoop’s resident wind and strings player, it becomes clear that the world of DIY instrument-making is a larger one than previously imagined. In Brussels, where he is based, Staelens mentions a masterclass he attended with Laurent Taquin and Max Vandervorst, both experts in the field of instrument-building from scratch, as well as projects with drum-maker artist Jo Zanders of Bruital and Drom, street theatre group Warner & Consorten, who use various DIY instruments, and Why the Eye, who work with homemade electronics. He also hints at a wider online culture surrounding it:
‘There is a wealth of information and inspiration on the internet and Facebook if you look for homemade, DIY or weird instruments. I appreciate the efforts of Nicolas Bras who frequently showcases his new inventions on the Facebook page Musiques de nulle part. Linsey Pollak makes really cool clarinets from almost anything. Last but not least, I have to mention Bart Hopkin, who wrote some excellent books on the subject.’
The avant-garde Schroothoop have forged a path within this maverick culture with klein gevaarlijk afval, a 25 minute mini-album
The avant-garde Schroothoop have forged a path within this maverick culture with klein gevaarlijk afval, a 25 minute mini-album, released jointly in May by Belgian labels Rebel Up Records and Stadskanker on homemade vinyl and digital.
With the title roughly translating as ‘small domestic hazardous waste’, the concept was birthed from an evening spent in the Brussels’ suburbs of Jette and Laken before a jam session, where the three musicians happened upon an assortment of illegally dumped materials: old tires, mattresses, metal cans, buckets and more. From there, they spontaneously built a drum kit out of rubbish bins, a bass out of a washing line, and PVC pipes became flutes and clarinets, to great acclaim at the ensuing concert that same evening. Fast-forward a couple of months later, and the trio has created and recorded their own style of self-titled ‘canned junk’.
The improvised nature of this act, of creating your own medium and rejecting traditional instrumentation in the process, unites the practicalities of instrument-making and the actual musical content itself. Staelens’ flute solos, full of breathy harmonics and semi-free, angular lines call to mind a perilous journey through a wind-swept desert. Tracks like Mammoettanker descend into a screeching anarchy, with humorous interplay between Staelens’ and Vantyghem’s PVC ‘clarinets’ and Maex’s treble-filled soundscape of plastic clicks and taps. A sawing, friction-filled soliloquy played by Staelens on a homemade ‘street-i-varius’ in Rostfrei is dissonant and raw, embracing unconventional harmonies and an out-of-time feeling over Vantyghem’s washtub bass.
The improvised nature of this act, of creating your own medium and rejecting traditional instrumentation in the process, unites the practicalities of instrument-making and the actual musical content itself
This improvisatory perspective resonates with the ethic of ‘outsider art’. Playing traditional music on a non-traditional instrument would make no sense. When asked about this aspect, Maex explains further.
‘What I love about DIY instruments is that they sound unique, quirky, imperfect and can be pretty unpredictable. Working with recuperated objects means having to listen to what sounds these objects are able to produce, figuring out how to implement them and then swiftly reacting when they are acting in an unpredictable way through improvisation. It brings along some adventure during our live acts.’
‘Some imperfections in the instruments invite us to play with coincidences, like the random group of notes which occur on the backside of the kalimbas or the loud and raunchy buzz which came out of the violin, because the bridge was made a bit sloppy. The limitations of the instruments also encourages us to be creative with them. If we can only play the five notes of a pentatonic scale, it forces us to really dig deep into the possibilities they offer melodically, harmonically and rhythmically.’
Despite this, klein gevaarlijk afval is more than just free-form improvisation – Schroothoop is emblematic of Brussels as a cultural melting pot, using rhythms and ideas from North Africa, Greece and Eastern Europe, amongst other geographies. As Staelens states, in Brussels he has ‘the opportunity to play with people from around the world. Belgians and people from our neighbouring countries of course, but also musicians from Morocco, Senegal, Egypt, Nigeria, Yemen, Turkey, Rwanda, Congo, Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, Poland, India, Haiti, Brasil…’
And it goes without saying that within many of these cultures, instrument-making is not unusual. Staelens points out that ‘DIY instruments have been around in blues and early jazz: diddley bows, washboards, washtub basses, comb kazoos, jugs, spoons. South African kwela music features tea chest basses and sometimes homemade flutes… I remember playing briefly in an Afro-Cuban brass band in which some of the musicians used shovels and car brakes as percussion instruments.’ He also mentions the ‘Kinshasa scene’ of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – comprised of such figures as Fulu Muziki, Konono N°1, Staf Benda Bilili and Kokoko – where many of the instruments are DIY.
DIY instruments have been around in blues and early jazz: diddley bows, washboards, washtub basses, comb kazoos, jugs, spoons. South African kwela music features tea chest basses and sometimes homemade flutes
In klein gevaarlijk afval, sounds inspired by multiple cultures are present throughout, from the percussive interlude in ‘Plastic is Burning’, with krakeb and cowbell-toned rhythms inspired by Moroccan gnawa, to the Afro-Cuban beat, tuba-esque riffs used in ‘Magnetron’. Maex explains how the band is able to explore the ‘unique’ and ‘raw’ elements of homemade instruments, unlocking previously-unheard timbres and textures. Staelens’ organic flute tone is particularly notable throughout the album. He highlights the ‘colourfully hoarse and pastoral sounds’ that are possible with his self-made flutes. ‘Very different from the classical transverse flute. They can sound quite exotic, yet the kaval and fluyera are common in Greece, the Balkans and Turkey. Their sound production is similar to the ney, gasba and kawala and to some extent also related to the quena or even shakuhachi.’ By moving away from traditional, Western instruments, and creating imitations of instruments from across the world, the band is able to embrace a more varied sonic palette.
And yet, on speaking to Schroothoop, it is clear that sustainability is second-nature to them, a by-product of their interests in world music as well as their own environmentally-friendly private lives. As Maex, who is a biologist, notes:
‘As a band, we hardly ever discuss these things, but actually none of us owns a car, we all avoid taking airplanes, we bump into each other on climate or black lives matter protests and always put three veggie meals on our hospitality rider. It just seems that we are on the same wavelength when it comes to ecology, politics and economy. Logically, this radiates through our music.’ Logical though it may seem, Schroothoop are admirable in their steadfastly DIY approach, from making their own instruments, to funding their own recordings, to pressing their own vinyl. Their album of 'junk jazz’ explores new sonic possibilities via the oldest methods of all, creating a natural, honest music which seems to offer a different path to the future.
You can listen to klein gevaarlijk afval on Bandcamp.