Written by Ieteke Witteveen. Edited by Carolina Gomes-Casseres.
A Euro-inspired roving barrel piano with a cranking handle on its side marks our special occasions (christenings, communions, birthday parties and cultural events) and is a fixture at our siman di kultura. Our ka’i orgel (literally: organ box, music box, lovingly, Chinguilingui box) tradition might be imported in the 19th century, but nowadays she plays distinctly Curaçaoan tunes marked by homemade, handmade cylinders set with tiny nails. She sounds like a cross between piano, kwarta, bass and guitar and is typically accompanied by the wiri, a ridged metal tube of African origin that resembles a bent vegetable grater. According to scarce written sources, our ka’i orgel tradition is rooted in Italy. It seems Italian migrants introduced England to the street (barrel) piano at the end of the 18th century in an attempt to mechanically automate piano music and take classical music to the streets. Englishman Joseph Hicks took the Italian effort one step further by commercializing the barrel piano and introducing it to London (1805-1850).
According to Kasper Janse of the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam, “[barrel pianos] were constructed by specialized craftsmen and sold through small businesses. The first barrel organs known in the Dutch street music scene also had cylinders and the compositions were set on card board (book music) around the 1900s.” These cylindrical street organs were popular in Greece and Turkey. In Brussels, they were built by Mazzoleti. Other Italian names associated with the development of this instrument are Guiseppe Chiappa (founder of Chiappa & Co. in 1864, based in London and New York), G. Fersani, Capra, Rissone and Detoma. The barrel piano never found its way into homes, instead it was favored by street musicians and as background music at parties.
Eventually the barrel piano made its way to Barquisimeto, Venezuela, again, by way of Italian migrants in the 19th century. In those days there was a lot of trade between Curaçao and Venezuela and Curaçao native, Horatio Sprock (1866 – 1949) happened to be in Barquisimeto. So inspired was he that he established a ka’i orgel-making workshop in Curaçao together with his brother Luis.
By the end of the 19th century Curaçaoans started to import the ka’i orgel from Italy. It was largely considered an elite instrument, played by the well-to-do at fancy parties, where they’d waltz or listen to [European] classical piano and string music. But ka’i orgel’s music spread in short order (as it was intended to) among working-class districts of Otrobanda and Punda as well as Bandabou. The enterprising musically-inclined would make their own ka’i orgel, infusing their cylinders with local compositions. Granted no Curaçao ka’i orgel experience is complete without the African wiri. Curaçao loves its ka’i orgel tradition has been deliberate in transferring knowledge of repairing and renovating ka’i orgel cylinders to ensure that this musical tradition is able to withstand the test of time. Several ka’i orgel-making workshops were given by Maestro Edgar Palm in the 80s, by Maestro Serapio Pinedo in the 90s, and more recently by the Aruban Maestro Alfonso ‘Buchi’ Boekhoudt.
Ka’i orgel’s magic lies in its meticulously composed teeth- and nail-filled cylinders. Most cylinders are made of (imported) mahogany, formed by eight pieces of wood glued together, the wood is worked with a chisel and given a round shape with a lathe. A cylinder typically measures 55.5 cm and its crown must have 64 teeth. The player has to turn the handle 64 times to end up where a composition began. There are double and single cylinders, either with 64 or with 48 teeth. Dancers prefer a cylinder with 64 teeth, because the cylinder repeats the end of a composition. A double cylinder is made up of as many as 6,000 or 7,000 nails, whereas a single cylinder only has 5,000 nails. The exact number depends on the manner in which the arranger embellishes a composition. On each cylinder, there can be 8 compositions, that’s why players pack 2 or 3 cylinders for a party. Long thin nails are needed for studding the cylinder, the deeper the nail goes into the cylinder, the finer the sound. These special nails also have to be imported to Curaçao, that’s why our oldest ka’i orgel maestro, Serapio Pinedo, tends to remove and re-use nails from old cylinders.
These craftsmanship preservation efforts have largely paid off: ka’i orgel-maker and former Edgar Palm apprentice Servanio Maria’s ka’i orgel is currently displayed in a museum in the U.S. (see YouTube) So Curaçao has taken an imported instrument – imported its inputs, adapted its composition to local sensibilities – and is now able to export a unique-to-Curaçao sound and experience. Our ka’i orgel is an awesome marriage between the old and new world.
Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume, Pianola, the history of a self playing piano. London, 1984.
Serapio Pinedo, Inchi Witteveen, Manual Ka’i orgel, Pilar di Memoria Musikal di Kórsou,
Publikashon 20 aña Grupo Trinchera 1995.
Edgar Palm , Handleiding bij de studie van onze kaha di orgel, PROMUZA, 1992.
Jos Gansemans, Volksmuziekinstrumenten getuigen en resultaat van een interetnische samenleving, 1989.