Oran Etkin Brings Instruments to Life


Clarinetist Oran Etkin teaches children about instruments and songs from around the world.

(Photo: Dusan Reljin)

In a video from the 2015 International Jazz Day, filmed in Paris, clarinetist Oran Etkin and keyboardist Herbie Hancock are joking around. “I wanna say hi to all the Timbalooloo kids,” says Hancock, directly to the camera. “Thank you so much for being part of this program and thank you for doing my music. Maybe I’m the Watermelon Man!”

Hancock’s 1962 classic “Watermelon Man” is one of the tunes that Etkin teaches to kids in Timbalooloo, his inventive, jazz-based music education program. In engaging with students, he sticks to the song’s fundamentals—humorous lyrics, syncopated rhythm, bluesy melody. At the same time, he gives students a lesson in music history—who Hancock is, what instrument he plays, the song’s backstory. Etkin does this in about five minutes—with kids who aren’t even in kindergarten yet. The young faces light up as the information sinks in.

Etkin, who founded Timbalooloo in 2005, would disagree with those who think that pre-K children are too young to understand complex music forms like jazz, blues and bebop. “In the United States, the approach [to music education] has been to water it down for kids—kids’ music is all in 4/4, on the quarter note, in major scales,” he recently explained. “But that’s not how kids learn language. I think it’s important to give them the full vocabulary of music, the way you would express it yourself.”

His new album for Motéma, Finding Friends Far From Home: Clara Net Around The World, which launched Oct. 5 with a family-friendly concert at Symphony Space in New York, does just that. Recorded in five different countries, the album’s seven songs tell the story of Clara Net, a young woodwind surrounded by instrumental pals who represent a cross-section of the world’s musical languages.

The program includes “Chaye Shukariye,” an infectious Roma dance melody from the Czech Republic that spins happily against Etkin’s klezmer-inflected clarinet lines. The Zimbabwean chant “Kariga Mombe” is an inviting introduction to polyrhythm on the mbira (thumb piano). On the Japanese air “Sakura,” a shamisen (a three-stringed instrument) and a guzheng (a Chinese zither) join the clarinet to express an eerily beautiful Japanese scale. A folk tune from Elkin’s own childhood, “Tumbalalaika,” blends Yiddish and Russian traditions with the djembe (a West African drum). And on “Dandini Dandini,” the only actual children’s song on the album, Etkin trills a soothing lullaby over the strumming of a kopuz (a Turkish lute). Unhurried, unforced—the commingling of sounds and cultures occurs naturally on these tunes.

“The basic idea behind Timbalooloo is that all the instruments come to life and talk to each other through their music. So, the children can see music as making the instruments talk,” Etkin said. “It’s an antidote to having kids just think about executing notes on a page.”

Lest there be any question about it, Etkin himself is an expert at executing notes on a page. He started playing instruments early and received tutelage from some high-profile reedists like George Garzone, Yusef Lateef, David Krakauer and Dave Liebman, the latter two at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, where Etkin earned a master’s degree in jazz performance. He regularly plays many of the big jazz festivals and venues, and his five leader albums for Motéma—three for adults, two for children—have earned critical acclaim.

This kind of balance between the didactic and the artistic is one that many musicians might envy: Just off of a busy touring schedule with the Clara Net album this past fall, Etkin will start the roll-out of his next album for adult listeners in early 2020. But there’s no question about his commitment to education.

“I’ve always felt a responsibility to teach,” he said. “It’s the best part of being a musician.” DB

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