The Low Whistle

 

Low whistles are part of a family of musical instruments which are the oldest melodic instrument in the world. In 2009, a vulture's bone excavated from a cave in Germany turned out to be a whistle not unlike the ones we have today.  Dated at an astonishing 35,000 years old – to a time when Neanderthals and humans co-existed on the planet – it's the oldest known example of a musical instrument, and remarkably, according to the archaeologists who found it, it still works.

Since prehistoric times, the whistle has woven its way through history, from the tribes of Papua New Guinea, to the Celts of outlying Europe. It is a musical instrument with many forms and a colourful history – so widespread it has a form in almost every culture in the world.

 But in recent times low whistles have gained most notoriety in the hands of Celtic musicians – amongst others, Irish, Scottish, Breton and Basque.  Davy Spillane's performance as part of the show Riverdance catapulted the instrument to a new level of popularity. He played a low whistle designed and crafted by Bernard Overton and in the few decades since then the low whistle has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity, with a new generation of makers and players taking their craft and music in new directions; James McNally (Afro Celt Sound System), Brian Finnegan (Flook), Peter Morrison (Peatbog Faeries), Kevin Crawford (Lunasa), Ross Ainsley (Salsa Celtica/Treacherous Orchestra), Ali Hutton (Old Blind Dogs/Treacherous Orchestra), Fraser Fifield, Martyn Bennett and Michael McGoldrick (Capercaillie/McGoldrick) have all pulled the low whistle in new and interesting directions.

 Unlike many musical instruments and styles, the low whistle has somehow avoided being formalised. There is little in the way of "accepted technique", it's more a case of "however you feel like playing", and so it has it has always retained lots of character, and been a musical instrument that is synonymous with "the folk".

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