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8 Strange and Different Musical Instruments

Middle school music classes will offer you a trumpet, flute, clarinet, drums, and a few other everyday musical instruments. Learn to play one of them and one day you may be asked to play a very different instrument that you might even fall in love with. Here are eight out of the ordinary musical instruments.

1. Lituus

The medieval lituus was a specified instrument in Bach's cantata O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht. But no modern musician had ever played, or even seen a lituus! The Swiss conservatory Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (SCB) asked the University of Edinburgh to recreate the lituus (also known as Bach's horn) for them. They used computer modeling to design the instrument from information about what it should sound like, what it might have looked like, and the available materials and technology in Bach's time. Two identical instruments were produced, and were played in the Bach cantata in 2009. Listen to the lituus in a video here. Get a closer look at the construction of the lituus as well.

2. Gajda

A Macedonian gajda is a bagpipe made from a goat or a sheep. The animal skin is the wind bag, and occasionally you'll see one with hooves or even a head still attached. Variations of this instrument are found in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. Hear a strangely-constructed gajda in these videos.

3. Tromboon

The tromboon is an instrument that combines the reed and mouthpiece of a bassoon and the body of  trombone. The word has become a slang term meaning a mashup that combines the worst qualities of two disparate things. The term was coined by musician Peter Schickele, and is a required instrument in some works of the fictional P. D. Q. Bach. Hear the sound of a tromboon in this video. See other trombone variations as well.

4. Shakulute

A shakulute is a hybrid of a shakuhachi, or Japanese bamboo flute, and a western silver flute. The shakuhachi is blown into from the end. To make a shakulute, you attach a special head joint to your flute so it can also be blown from the end. This hybrid instrument was developed by shakuhachi maker Monty Levenson. Listen to the shakalute here.

5. Serpent

The serpent is also called a contrabass anaconda. It is an ancestor of the modern tuba and was introduced in the year 1590. The sound is made with the mouth like a trumpet or tuba, but the notes are made by covering finger holes like a flute. See more pictures of many people who play the serpent. Hear the serpent in this video.

6. Subcontrabass Flute

Flutes are usually thought of as high-pitched instruments, but there are many types of flute that are bigger and pitched lower. The subcontrabass flute plays a fourth below the contrabass flute. The pipe is 15 feet long, but doubled, so the instrument can fit into a eight-foot box. A rare variation is the The Kotato double contrabass flute, which has 18 feet of pipe. There are only four of these existing. Shown is the contraflutes of the Metropolitan Flute Orchestra in Kylemore Abbey, with the subcontrabass flutes in back. Hear what the subcontrabass flute sounds like in this video.

7. Igil

The igil is a two-stringed traditional instrument from the Tuva region of Siberia, just north of Mongolia. A very few old igils are made from a horse's skull, which reflects the legend that the igil was first created on instructions from a horse that appeared in a dream. The igil is sometimes referred to as a horse head fiddle. Hear the igil accompanying a performance of Tuvan throat singing in this video.

8. Otamatone

The otamatone is a new electronic instrument that resembles a musical note with a cartoon face. It was invented by Novmichi Tosa of Maywa Denki, an art collaboration of the Tosa family that specializes in nonsense machines. The otamatone is now available to the public. Hear this cute little instrument in this video.

Bonus: Hosaphone

The hosaphone is an instrument invented in order to parody fans and websites dedicated to other odd instruments. It appears to be a length of tubing with a funnel on the end. Hear the hosaphone here.

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Where Did The Easter Bunny Come From?
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Getty Images

The Easter Bunny is an anthropomorphic, egg-laying rabbit who sneaks into homes the night before Easter to deliver baskets full of colored eggs, toys and chocolate. A wise man once told me that all religions are beautiful and all religions are wacko, but even if you allow for miracles, angels, and pancake Jesus, the Easter Bunny really comes out of left field.

If you go way back, though, the Easter Bunny starts to make a little sense. Spring is the season of rebirth and renewal. Plants return to life after winter dormancy and many animals mate and procreate. Many pagan cultures held spring festivals to celebrate this renewal of life and promote fertility. One of these festivals was in honor of Eostre or Eastre, the goddess of dawn, spring and fertility near and dear to the hearts of the pagans in Northern Europe. Eostre was closely linked to the hare and the egg, both symbols of fertility.

As Christianity spread, it was common for missionaries to practice some good salesmanship by placing pagan ideas and rituals within the context of the Christian faith and turning pagan festivals into Christian holidays (e.g. Christmas). The Eostre festival occurred around the same time as the Christians' celebration of Christ's resurrection, so the two celebrations became one, and with the kind of blending that was going on among the cultures, it would seem only natural that the pagans would bring the hare and egg images with them into their new faith (the hare later became the more common rabbit).

The pagans hung on to the rabbit and eventually it became a part of Christian celebration. We don't know exactly when, but it's first mentioned in German writings from the 1600s. The Germans converted the pagan rabbit image into Oschter Haws, a rabbit that was believed to lay a nest of colored eggs as gifts for good children. (A poll of my Twitter followers reveals that 81% of the people who replied believe the Easter Bunny to be male, based mostly on depictions where it's wearing a bowtie. The male pregnancy and egg-laying mammal aspects are either side effects of trying to lump the rabbit and egg symbols together, or rabbits were just more awesome back then.)

Oschter Haws came to America with Pennsylvania Dutch settlers in the 1700s, and evolved into the Easter Bunny as it became entrenched in American culture. Over time the bunny started bringing chocolate and toys in addition to eggs (the chocolate rabbit began with the Germans, too, when they started making Oschter Haws pastries in the 1800s).

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The Easter Bunny also went with European settlers to Australia—as did actual bunnies. These rabbits, fertile as they are, got a little out of control, so the Aussies regard them as serious pests. The destruction they've caused to habitats is responsible for the major decline of some native animals and causes millions of dollars worth of damage to crops. It is, perhaps, not a great idea to use an invasive species as a symbol for a religious holiday, so Australia has been pushing the Easter Bilby (above, on the right), an endangered marsupial that kind of looks like a bunny if you squint. According to some of our Australian readers, the Easter Bunny is not in danger of going extinct.

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Gregor Smith, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Men Behind Your Favorite Liquors
Gregor Smith, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Gregor Smith, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's hard to walk down the aisle of a liquor store without running across a bottle bearing someone's name. We put them in our cocktails, but how well do we know them? Here's some biographical detail on the men behind your favorite tipples.

1. Captain Morgan

FromSandToGlass, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Captain wasn't always just the choice of sorority girls looking to blend spiced rum with Diet Coke; in the 17th century he was a feared privateer. Not only did the Welsh pirate marry his own cousin, he ran risky missions for the governor of Jamaica, including capturing some Spanish prisoners in Cuba and sacking Port-au-Prince in Haiti. He then plundered the Cuban coast before holding for ransom the entire city of Portobelo, Panama. He later looted and burned Panama City, but his pillaging career came to an end when Spain and England signed a peace treaty in 1671. Instead of getting in trouble for his high-seas antics, Morgan received knighthood and became the lieutenant governor of Jamaica.

2. Johnnie Walker

Kevin Chang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Walker, the name behind the world's most popular brand of Scotch whisky, was born in 1805 in Ayrshire, Scotland. When his father died in 1819, Johnnie inherited a trust of a little over 400 pounds, which the trustees invested in a grocery store. Walker grew to become a very successful grocer in the town of Kilmarnock and even sold a whisky, Walker's Kilmarnock Whisky. Johnnie's son Alexander was the one who actually turned the family into famous whisky men, though. Alexander had spent time in Glasgow learning how to blend teas, but he eventually returned to Kilmarnock to take over the grocery from his father. Alexander turned his blending expertise to whisky, and came up with "Old Highland Whisky," which later became Johnnie Walker Black Label.

3. Jack Daniel

LeeRoyal, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel of Tennessee whiskey fame was the descendant of Welsh settlers who came to the United States in the early 19th century. He was born in 1846 or 1850 and was one of 13 children. By 1866 he was distilling whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Unfortunately for the distiller, he had a bit of a temper. One morning in 1911 Daniel showed up for work early and couldn't get his safe open. He flew off the handle and kicked the offending strongbox. The kick was so ferocious that Daniel injured his toe, which then became infected. The infection soon became the blood poisoning that killed the whiskey mogul.

Curious about why your bottle of J.D. also has Lem Motlow listed as the distillery's proprietor? Daniel's own busy life of distilling and safe-kicking kept him from ever finding a wife and siring an heir, so in 1907 he gave the distillery to his beloved nephew Lem Motlow, who had come to work for him as a bookkeeper.

4. Jose Cuervo

Shane R, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1758, Jose Antonio de Cuervo received a land grant from the King of Spain to start an agave farm in the Jalisco region of Mexico. Jose used his agave plants to make mescal, a popular Mexican liquor. In 1795, King Carlos IV gave the land grant to Cuervo's descendant Jose Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo. Carlos IV also granted the Cuervo family the first license to commercially make tequila, so they built a larger factory on the existing land. The family started packaging their wares in individual bottles in 1880, and in 1900 the booze started going by the brand name Jose Cuervo. The brand is still under the leadership of the original Jose Cuervo's family; current boss Juan-Domingo Beckmann is the sixth generation of Cuervo ancestors to run the company.

5. Jim Beam

Jim Beam, the namesake of the world's best-selling bourbon whiskey, didn't actually start the distillery that now bears his name. His great-grandfather Jacob Beam opened the distillery in 1788 and started selling his first barrels of whiskey in 1795. In those days, the whiskey went by the less-catchy moniker of "Old Tub." Jacob Beam handed down the distillery to his son David Beam, who in turn passed it along to his son David M. Beam, who eventually handed the operation off to his son, Colonel James Beauregard Beam, in 1894. Although he was only 30 years old when he took over the family business, Jim Beam ran the distillery until Prohibition shut him down. Following repeal in 1933, Jim quickly built a distillery and began resurrecting the Old Tub brand, but he also added something new to the company's portfolio: a bourbon simply called Jim Beam.

6. Tanqueray

Adrian Scottow, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

When he was a young boy, Charles Tanqueray's path through life seemed pretty clear. He was the product of three straight generations of Bedfordshire clergymen, so it must have seemed natural to assume that he would take up the cloth himself. Wrong. Instead, he started distilling gin in 1830 in a little plant in London's Bloomsbury district. By 1847, he was shipping his gin to colonies around the British Empire, where many plantation owners and troops had developed a taste for Tanqueray and tonic.

7. Campari

Michael, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Gaspare Campari found his calling quickly. By the time he was 14, he had risen to become a master drink mixer in Turin, and in this capacity he started dabbling with a recipe for an aperitif. When he eventually settled on the perfect mixture, his concoction had over 60 ingredients. In 1860, he founded Gruppo Campari to make his trademark bitters in Milan. Like Colonel Sanders' spice blend, the recipe for Campari is a closely guarded secret supposedly known by only the acting Gruppo Campari chairman, who works with a tiny group of employees to make the concentrate with which alcohol and water are infused to get Campari. The drink is still made from Gaspare Campari's recipe, though, which includes quinine, orange peel, rhubarb, and countless other flavorings.

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