Station: [62] Musical Instruments: Ocarinas and Rattles

They resemble miniature feline predators, birds, armadillos, coatis and turtles; they’re made of clay and decorated with incised geometric patterns or appliquéd figures. You only realise they’re musical instruments when you notice the holes or the mouthpiece. Latin American ocarinas are small vessel flutes modelled from clay, painted and then fired.

They couldn’t be made to deliberately produce certain notes. That’s because between two and six finger holes were cut into the clay when it was leather-hard, but the sound could only be checked after firing. In Costa Rica, ocarinas were played on various occasions as accompaniment to songs and dances. The instruments were especially important during funeral rituals, because it was thought that the religious specialist could use the sound to contact the spirit beings of the Other World. So ocarinas were part of the specialist’s paraphernalia. The form of the whistle as a supernatural hybrid creature or animal had a symbolic meaning for the musician.

Next to wind instruments, rattles were most common in Costa Rica.

Many of the vessels and incense pots on display here were in fact used as rattles. You can tell by the small slits or holes in the hollow feet and handles. They contain tiny clay pellets that produce a typical rattling sound when the object was shaken. During funeral rites, the rattles probably accompanied the chants and were subsequently buried with the dead.