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 version 3.



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 videos.



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 oud.

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 Ragmakamtar tone.