In praise of the clavinet

It's 40 years since Stevie Wonder showed off the otherwordly range of this keyboard.

If you listen very closely to "Sweet Little Girl" from Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind album you can hear him mumble: “You know your baby loves you more than I love my clavinet”. It is certainly a song full of self-parody, but this is no mere joke because for him it was the ultimate compliment. The clavinet was the instrument that defined him and it was also, though few people recognise it, the instrument of a decade.

The notes made by this unobtrusive little rectangle sparkle through the 1970s like space dust falling on the disparate worlds of a musical galaxy. And 2012 is a double anniversary for the clavinet: 30 years since the German company Hohner ceased production and 40 years this month since the release of Wonder's "Superstition" in the US, the song for which it is best known and on which it was stretched to its fullest and most glorious extent.

From funk, soul, fusion and reggae and then to country rock, hard rock, disco and west coast AOR, this sonic will-o’-the wisp seemed somehow suited to whatever purpose it was applied. Originally created for classical music in European homes, the clicking, clucking, quacking noises it produced went on to make funk funkier, soul more soulful and rock darker and more decadent. But when the decade ended it too disappeared, superseded by new keyboards beside which it suddenly seemed tired and obsolete.

Before peering deeper into "Superstition" it’s worth looking at how the clavinet came to be made and how it generated such a unique sound. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Hohner – best known for harmonicas – had been experimenting with portable versions of familiar keyboard types. They produced the cimbalet, inspired by the harpsichord, in which strings are plucked, and various models of pianet, in which the keys activated a sticky pad that on release would vibrate a reed. In 1964 the first clavinet was produced, based on the venerable clavichord, an instrument with a 400-year pedigree that used blades called “tangents” to strike the strings. Clavichords were impractically quiet and a clavinet got round this by replacing the tangents with hammers that plunged down on to a string when a key was depressed. That string was pressed into a metal strip, or “anvil”, which made the string vibrate. The vibration reached magnetic pickups for a sound that could be fully amplified.

Not only did it produce a magical percussive twang across five octaves of 60 keys, but it was also dynamic, meaning notes could be sustained and pressed with lesser or greater force to vary volume and attack. The high notes were bright, the middle range punchy yet mellow and low notes had a visceral growl. Following a few false starts Hohner made the clavinet C in 1968, the keyboard Wonder used during his golden years. After a left turn with the L - triangular with reverse-colour keys and now as rare as a mountain leopard - in 1971 they introduced the more durable D6, the keyboard hundreds of bands relied on for the next 10 years.

Of course, most people recognise the clavinet best in the hands of one man and in the opening bars of one song. For Wonder it became not merely an accompaniment, but his second voice. In a most basic sense it meant he could play his own version of lead and rhythm guitars through a keyboard, but it developed into something much greater, allowing him to express his vision and emotions on a canvass painted from a palette all his own.

His clavinet first shows up, tellingly, as he began to grow as an artist of independent means through songs such as "I Don’t Know Why I Love You" and "You Met Your Match" in 1968 then again on his album of creative transition, 1971’s Where I’m Coming From. Another famous early appearance is on the The Band’s "Up On Cripple Creek" in 1969, on which Garth Hudson plays it through a wah-wah pedal and makes it wobble like an electrified Jew’s harp. It was around this time that almost every major funk and soul act caught on to the edge the clavinet gave their sound.

In just a couple of years the Isley Brothers, Parliament/Funkadelic, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Earth, Wind & Fire, Billy Preston, The Commodores and countless others worked the clavinet into the fabric of popular music while in the more esoteric world of fusion it became a natural staple of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

The throaty pulse of the clavinet also reached Jamaica where it emerged on reggae. Bob Marley exploited both the higher and lower range to great effect, from his mainstream breakthrough on the Catch A Fire album in 1973 (played by the American sesssionman John “Rabbit” Bundrick) through to near the end of his life on 1980’s "Could You Be Loved".

Wonder was busy throughout the period creating his own distinct song cycle, leaning heavily on the clavinet and moog synthesisers, and much of the unity of his output is down to his innovative and technically minded producers, Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff. The second album in his run of five consecutive masterpieces, Talking Book, is dripping with the sound of multiple clavinets – sometimes honeyed and at others venomous and mean.

Bands often talk about being “tight” and this is a concept that involves a lot more than technical ability. It requires an unfakeable simpatico. Wonder achieves a kind of other-worldly tightness on "Superstition" – at the age of 22 - by being in synch with himself. The syncopation of his percussive style of keyboard playing is so idiosyncratic that the only way for this track to work is for one person to play it all, including the drums. This is taken to a state of incandescent – almost absurd – virtuosity through the use of eight clavinet tracks in the recording. In a mix of 16 tracks, half were clavinet; the others being one for moog bass, three for the drums, two for his incredible vocals and two for horns (the only thing he did not play).

Syncopation – playing off the expected beat and putting stress on notes outside regular timing – is one of the keys to funk and to "Superstition". First you hear the shuffling drums and as a typical Motown drummer he makes them sound like a piano hitting the pavement from a 10th-storey window. Next comes the opening clavinet riff, which many people still assume is a guitar. On paper it is a relatively simple pentatonic run (black keys, basically) starting on E-flat around which is added layer after layer of the same keyboard, some doubling up and some syncopated slightly differently to the original). What makes the riffs sound so unusual are the extra touches Wonder makes around the core notes, sometimes called “ghost notes”. Cecil and Margouleff then add delay to two tracks to extend what you hear into a vast harmonic panorama. If grooves were deities, "Superstition"’s would be Zeus.

It is a tribute to the song that the clavinet became a shorthand for funk. Even the Goodies' 1975 novelty hit, "Funky Gibbon", predicated its “funkiness” entirely around a clavinet riff. But while the use of the keyboard was reaching a peak in quantity and quality a subtle contextual shift occurred. As it became synonymous with contemporary black music so, inevitably, a divergent number of white rock acts began to spread - and possibly dilute - its impact and whereas in funk it complemented the generally positive and uplifting feel, in rock it suggested something very different.

In the hands of rock bands it became the background noise to babylonian hedonism. It carries with it, even today, the implied grime, crime and menace of a decade and a culture in conflict. It conveys uncertainty and seediness - anxiety instead of optimism. The first instance of this I can discern is on The Rolling Stones’ 1973 album, Goats Head Soup, especially in the song "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)", which recounts police and criminal violence. Roxy Music’s "Casanova" in 1974 and Steely Dan’s "Kid Charlemagne" from 1976 – arguably the slinkiest record ever made – lay before us a noir-ish picture of nihilism, drugs and charlatans. In the hands of the sardonic Steely Dan the bass notes crackle like a brushfire in the night on the Californian hills.

Other big beasts of the 1970s, including Led Zeppelin ("Trampled Under Foot" and "Custard Pie"), Pink Floyd ("Have A Cigar"), The Eagles ("Life In The Fast Lane") and Fleetwood Mac ("You Make Loving Fun") all used the clavinet in a way that evokes not funky exhilaration, but their own destructive excesses. Even David Bowie used it to add a soiled warmth to the languid soul of several tracks on Young Americans. Although still in use through the high watermark of disco it was beginning to feel dated despite Hohner's new models in 1977 and 1978.

In this way the instrument made a journey of its own through the years from novelty, then to joy and energy and ending in a slightly tawdry darkness. Fashion killed the clavinet and production was halted in 1982. Its successor as the defining sound of a generation was the first digital sampler and sequencer, the Fairlight, which, as if to prove a point, was sounding decidedly old hat by the late 1980s (Wonder himself was one of their first clients). You occasionally still hear the clavinet but it is always as if from a different country. If you want to play one now there is a decent sample to be found in every modern electric keyboard (the real ones sell for between £3,000-6,000). But to be sure of complete satisfaction you are better off reaching for track six of Talking Book and letting Stevie get to work.

Twitter @geochesterton

Stevie Wonder performing in October 1975 (Photograph: Getty Images)

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit