From Bach to Beethoven to Mozart to Haydn, we learn many of music’s prominent historical figures in our music history courses. At the same time, we don’t hear some names such as Beach, Farrenc, or Lateef. In fact, some probably don’t know who any of the names I just mentioned are! It’s blatantly obvious that in learning about music history, there are many composers and musicians that we don’t touch on, and even more that we just don’t have the opportunity to learn about. It’s important to always expand on the knowledge we gain, and realize that there are infinite topics to cover, even if we don’t hear about them in a textbook.
One example would be instruments. One instrument that we don’t hear about today, but that is still fascinating is the Ocarina. More specifically, it’s ancestor the Xun. In this recording, the airy instrument we hear is the Xun, played by Yusef Lateef.1 The Xun is an aerophone that was created in China approximately seven thousand years ago. It is similar to the ocarina, without the flippant mouthpiece.2
This instrument is similar to the more well known relationship between the flute and the piccolo for example. While one instrument may seem more normal or be more well known, the other is just as important and still within the family of the first instrument. It’s fascinating to study both of them, and an example of something worth studying.
In Yusef Lateef’s autobiography, he touches on the importance of listening to multiple accounts regarding the origins of instruments and music itself. When discussing the origins of some jazz music and a group of white musicians, he states that “because they were among the first to be recorded it followed that they would be considered the inventors of the music. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”3
Yusef himself was an accomplished musician, and someone that we don’t learn about today. In newspaper articles, people referred to him as an “outstanding multi-reed man”4 with an “amazing certainty as a bass soloist.”5 They said his performances “take you on a specialized trip.”6 He was an extremely accomplished musician who was known to many, but not known by all.
It’s inconceivable that everyone learn everything about music history, but these are a couple examples of the broad world that is encompassed by music. The Xun is a beautiful sounding instrument, especially when played by such a talented and accomplished musician such as Yusef Lateef. For most of us, this instrument and performer were beforehand unknown to us, but with some time and research, fascinating and new things can be learned, and our knowledge can be broadened.
“Music Whirl.” Tone, October 1, 1960.
“The Diverse Yusef Lateef.” Soul, April 6, 1970.
“Yusef Lateef’s Detroit.” Soul, June 30, 1969.
Yusef Lateef: Eastern Sounds, composed by Yusef Lateef, 1920-; performed by Yusef Lateef, 1920-, Barry Harris, 1929-, Ernie Farrow and Lex Humphries, 1936-1994 (Prestige, 1991), 40 mins, 9 page(s)
Yusef Lateef, “The Gentle Giant: The Autobiography of Yusef Lateef.” (Irvington, NJ. Morton Books Inc. 2006. Pages 2-3.