THE RAGMAKAMTAR STORY
Edward Powell (Jan.18, 2014)
After 30 years as a professional musician and disciple of Indian and
Oriental music I found myself perplexed by several unanswered questions:
1. How to achieve musical originality? How to create a new sound, a new
look, a new music, a new and meaningful purpose, and a new approach?
2. As a Westerner playing Eastern instruments, how to avoid the inevitable
comparisons with indigenous traditional masters, and at the same time
be free to utilize every aspect of my accumulated musical experience?
3. How to be a multi-instrumentalist but at the same time be able to live
without having to own a car?
4. How to be a multi-instrumentalist but only have to practice and carry
around one instrument?
5. How to help music in general to evolve away from European dominance
and the global tendency towards Equal-Temperament? How to help Eastern
musics to evolve by looking to other forms of Eastern musics for inspiration
rather than the current trend of mostly looking to Europe and America
for new inspiration.
The answer came to me one day in January 2006 while on a musical retreat
on Crete at Ross Daly's center "Labyrinth Musical Workshop".
I was there off-season with practically nobody around with nothing but
the keys to Ross's instrument museum containing over 200 original oriental
instruments. I lived there in that museum for 2 months deeply immersing
myself in the study of Oriental music, atmosphere of all those instruments,
and the occasional musical activities which occurred there.
At this time in my musical life I was focusing on composing for, and
recording/performing with 3 instruments: sitar, oud, and fretless guitar.
For so many years I had felt burdened by the training requirements, and
transportation difficulties of being committed to 3 different instruments.
At the same time I felt that I had not yet found my own unique musical
voice and identity.
In the months preceding my pilgrimage to Houdetsi, Crete, I had made
some initial attempts at solving some of these issues by designing and
building both a small fretless guitar and a small oud, intended to give
unique tones and be easier to transport. Then it happened that one day
at Ross Daly's museum the idea came to me to simply combine these two
instruments into one single instrument with the addition of 12 sympathetic
strings, thereby combining an oud, a fretless guitar, and a sitar all
in one instrument - the completion of which would effectively allow me
to reduce all three of my instruments to one single instrument, and at
the same time create something new and original.
Returning home weeks later I immediately built the first "Ragmakamtar"
prototype which surprisingly had a very sweet sound. The only problem
was that the low-middle range of the nylon string neck was lacking in
depth... hence, soon thereafter I designed a second version with a larger
body and quickly constructed this, only to discover that the first version
in fact sounded better.
In the summer of 2006 I was awarded a grant from the Canada Council for
the Arts to study oud/Turkish music in Istanbul for one year. I arrived
there in early Autumn and after a few days went with my Ragmakamtar version
1 to meet the renowned oud maker Faruk Turunz. Faruk, who is a pioneer
deeply devoted to the research and development of new instruments, was
instantly intrigued with the Ragmakamtar and invited me to come to his
workshop and design and construct a new one. Obviously this was an offer
impossible to refuse and I consequently spent the next 7 months everyday
in Faruk's workshop creating, with the help of Faruk and his team, Ragmakamtar
Ragmakamtar version 3 is a elegant instrument on which I performed many
concerts: in Istanbul, Amsterdam, Budapest, Venice, Vienna, Prague, New
York City, Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle. Additionally my "Ragmakam
CD " was recorded entirely with Ragmakamtar version 3. Although very
satisfied with this ragmakamtar I still felt that the low mid-range was
lacking in depth, therefore I designed and built Ragmakamtar version 4
with the intention of solving this issue. Unfortunately version 4 did
not solve this problem and I then came to the conclusion that in order
to achieve a deeper mid-range tone I would need to abandon the 'guitar-body'
design in favour of a round-back body design.
Designing a round-back ragmakamtar presented a new challenge in that
I felt at that time that the body shape needed to be irregular, and it
is near impossible to construct an irregularly shaped rounded back from
thin wooden ribs like an oud or a lute. I had heard that the innovative
master builder Fred Carson had built some instruments with papier mache
backs, so decided to give this a try. Ragmakamtar version 5 was the first
of the UFO-type ragmakamtars. Version 5 did in fact achieve the deep mid-range
on the oud that I was seeking however the sarod sounded like an anemic
banjo... my diagnosis of the new problem was that the soundboard needed
to be larger in order to allow both bridges the space to resonate individually
and freely. This resulted in Ragmakamtar version 6 which is an enormous
modern looking instrument which is a ergonomic masterpiece.
Version 6 definitely was a major step forward in terms of achieving an
overall balanced tone with some depth but I was still far from fully satisfied.
However at that time I simply could not think of anyway to improve the
design, and decided instead to use this version 6 to play a lot of concerts
and record a new CD "Pilgrim".
One of the problems with playing the ragmakamtar is that one neck has
nylon strings, and the other neck has steel strings, and each of these
string types requires a very different type of pick. I had always tried
to solve this issue by using a pick with characteristics somewhere between
an oud pick (extremely soft) and a sarod pick (extremely hard), always
with less than fully satisfactory results. However one day it occurred
to me that I could clamp to my index finger a metal sitar pick, and at
the same time hold with my second finger a thin oud pick thereby theoretically
allowing me to alternate between the two picks without having to put one
of them down. This took quite some practice to master but resulted in
a enormous improvement in tone from both necks.
In the beginning of 2011, I began to feel that the somewhat unsatisfactory
tone from version 6 was due to several factors including: non-resonance
hard paper back, overly large soundboard, lack of clear and tuned helmholtz
resonance, and having two bridges on the soundboard effectively blocking
the resonance of the other one. I also began to feel that I could further
simplify the instrument by combining both necks into one wider single
neck. The manifestation of these new ideas was Ragmakamtar version 7,
which was certainly a valuable and interesting experiment but ultimately
not completely successful.
At that time I began to gather together and analyze the properties of
all the instruments I had which had great tones. For months I pondered
the question of what makes an instrument sound great. What are the common
features shared by all great sounding plucked stringed instruments. The
list I came up with after some time looked something like this:
1. light construction
2. symmetrical construction
3. single bridge in central position of soundboard
4. a strong, clearly defined helmholtz (AIR TONE) resonance tuned to a
note in a register which benefits from some added punch.
So with these new ideas in mind I designed and built Ragmakamtar version
8, which did have an amazingly rich sarod sound but the oud was both still
lacking in tone and was ergonomically difficult to play due to the new
"one fat neck" design. However Ragmakamtar version 8 was my
main concert instrument for 6 months and left me with some very satisfying
As you can probably imagine, after 5 years of experimentation, only to
produce less than fully satisfactory results, I was left in a somewhat
desperate emotional state wondering if I had made a miscalculation by
even beginning the Ragmakamtar project. I therefore decided that once
and for all I needed to come up with a design that would definitely work.
I needed guarantees. I could not afford to continue year after year building
partially unsuccessful experimental prototypes. So my need for a guarantee
lead me to look for something that I knew for a fact works. I knew for
a fact that a lute/oud body and soundboard works. It works perfectly for
nylon strings. From the Cretan lauto we also know that a lute-type body
also works for a steel stringed instrument but just to be sure I put sarod
strings on one of my ouds, and these strings sounded wonderful on this
The next step was to construct an oud with an extra neck for sarod strings.
Of course I was aware that extra tension on the bridge from the sarod
strings was going to affect the soundboard's acoustic response therefore
I eliminate some of the oud and sarod strings and used as light strings
as possible in an attempt to reduce the general tension on the bridge.
The completion of version 9 was like a dream come true. The tone was
absolutely perfect... ...exactly what I had always imagined as the ideal