Abu finds music in ordinary objects


February 17, 1993|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

The musical instruments in the living room of Abu's West Baltimore rowhouse are a testament to his creativity.

His "clarabu," a woodwind instrument made from a hollowed out chair leg with a bicycle horn attached to it, rests on a coffee table. Homemade bamboo and Popsicle stick instruments are scattered throughout the room. A crude harp made from a worn trash can sits in a corner and when stroked, makes "heavenly" music, says Abu.

"It was a brand new can when I first started using it 17 years ago. And it was shiny then," says Abu, a Muslim who uses only one name, which means father in Arabic. "I see a musical instrument in everything. It's just a matter of adjusting it and tuning it."

For more than 20 years, Abu, 52, has used whatever is handy to make musical instruments.

He's made drums from poles; used steel straps attached to dresser drawers to make kalimbas, which are plucked; and created more than 2,000 types of woodwinds using other discarded materials.

And Abu has taught himself to play jazz and traditional songs on each instrument. "I had no musical training and I play [music] by ear," he says. "It's enjoyable. It's like a high."

He's a small man who wears a colorful striped kente cloth headpiece and a --iki. He leads a visitor into his living room in his home in the 1400 block of Madison Ave. and picks up a "bedpostaphone" -- a hollowed-out bed post, four feet tall, that sounds like a saxophone -- and plays a few bars of "My Favorite Things."

"I taught myself to make it and to play it," Abu says. "When I want to make an instrument, I see what resembles what I'm looking for and use it. I go in moods. One day I want to make one kind of instrument, the next day I want to make something else."

He took two small pieces of bamboo, drilled several holes in each and made a "nose flute," which is played by putting it to your nostrils and exhaling. He made an "ooj" by attaching a steel wire to a trunk of palm and bamboo; it is plucked like a one-string guitar. He made a set of "thunderdrums," 6 feet tall, from porch columns.

Abu made the trash can harp because he didn't have the money to buy a harp.

"I didn't have $900 to buy a bass harp so I challenged myself to find something in my environment to make the same sound and give me the same pleasure," he says.

For buyers, the cost of Abu's instruments range from $5 for hand-crafted whistles to $600 for a mirror xylophone. He once sold a flute to jazz musician Herbie Mann.

Throughout the city, Abu performs at musical craft shows, church events, community and recreation centers, in schools as part of the public school system's cultural enrichment program, and at homeless shelters. He's performing at Bea Gaddy's Women and Children Shelter, 140 N. Collington Ave., at 5 p.m. tomorrow.

He especially enjoys performing for students.

"I've always had a campaign to get kids off the corners and let them know that they can do positive things with their hands," Abu says. "They can create."

Abu attended Baltimore City Community College but decided that he could make musical instruments, which would allow him to work with his hands -- and make a living.

"I was talking to one of my professors and he asked me what I wanted to do and I told him work with my hands," Abu recalls. "I was always fixing things and making things so I started to make instruments."

One of his favorite instruments is an elephant horn, also made from a bed post. But he doesn't take it out of the house too often.

"I stopped carrying it because when I did, police thought it was a weapon and they stopped me and had their guns drawn," he says. "They didn't know what it was."

Possibly his favorite instrument is a xylophone with keys made of glass. He got the inspiration for it when movers shattered the mirror for his dresser.

"When I first heard the mirror break, I said that could be the sound of a musical instrument," Abu says. "It was a rich sound that didn't sound like regular glass breaking."

So he experimented by breaking more glass and noticed that different size pieces had different sounds when struck with small wooden hammers.

"It took me a bunch of glass and about 3 1/2 months, but I finally made that glass xylophone," he says. "And it sounded good, too."

Like different pieces of glass have different sounds, each person has a musical key note based on their astrological sign, Abu says. Accordingly, he makes instruments to match the signs.

"Everyone has a tone, a mantra," Abu says. "C-sharp is the Aries key note. F-sharp is the Gemini key note. Libra is D-natural."

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