Music to my ears

Posted on January 26, 2011


I started learning the Joanna (piano, for those unfamiliar with Cockney-Rhyming slang) age 6. The sight and sound of those shiny black and white keys was both intriguing as well magical. Although I don’t play that much any more, I’ve developed a better appreciation for classical music now, than I ever had before. My favourite instrument has always been the violin, which is the main reason why I never learnt it – best leave it to the gifted.

A lot of wood used to make musical instruments comes from tropical trees. Over the last few months you’ve heard me talk about deforestation in Africa, Asia and the Americas.  Habitat degradation is one of the main factors for the decline in primate populations.  I’ve also touched briefly on the issue that much of conservation is intrinsically linked to development – if you help the people, biodiversity will also benefit – the two go hand-in-hand.

Which brings me to my next question – how many musicians play instruments made from sustainably farmed timber?

Alastair Hanson with students from the Royal Northern College of Music, with a Hanson's FSC Clarinet

According to one West Yorkshire-based businessman and musician – Alastair Hanson – it’s a sector that certainly needs to brush up its act when it comes to offering consumers an ethical choice. Coffee, chocolate, clothes and jewellery have all gone the fair trade route. But calls for sustainable livelihoods for forest-dependent people, have so far fallen on deaf ears in the music industry.

Hanson’s Clarinets, is a family run business, based in Marsden. This week, it launched the first clarinet in the world to be made from sustainably farmed wood.

Alastair Hanson told me: “We buy our wood responsibly to help safeguard the hugely valuable natural resources of the tropical forests that provide the material needed to make clarinets.

“The big manufacturers are not currently using sustainable methods to farm timber and it doesn’t cost a fortune to do this. We’re a relatively small business and if we can do it, then why can’t the big brands? It only costs us an extra three to four pound per clarinet, so that would be negligible for the larger manufacturers. Musicians aren’t offered a choice and I think if there was a demand, we’d see a change in this industry.”

Clarinets, oboes and bagpipes are made using wood from the  African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) tree otherwise known as Mpingo. It grows in Tanzania, East Africa and  is among the most expensive timber in the world because it’s used specifically to make fine wood instruments, due to its strong, structural qualities. The tree has long been over-harvested across the continent to obtain its dark, lustrous heartwood and has become commercially extinct in Kenya.

African blackwood tree

Although African blackwood is still relatively abundant in southern Tanzania, illegal logging is widespread and very poor, forest-dependent communities generally receive little benefit from logging on the land around their villages.

The wood that Hanson’s Clarinets use comes from forests owned by local communities in Tanzania, which fell the trees at the rate at which it is replaced.

I decided to ask one of the big manufacturers if they would consider looking at getting involved in more fair trade practises. For the last two days I’ve left several messages for the acoustic director of Yamaha UK and Ireland to get back to me with the company’s policy on this issue. Not a peep, quite literally (If  this changes I’ll update the post, but I’m not holding my breath).

The Frankfurt Music Trade Show is in April, and it’s the perfect place for big companies to show off their latest accessories as well as endorse any new trends. This would be the ideal opportunity to showcase ethically sourced wood instruments to the great and the good in the business.

Mr Hanson told me that a business like his, is not going to dramatically change the way some  professional musicians shop, because a lot of concert-level performers will only buy top branded names, such as  Yamaha; Buffet Crampon; Leblanc or Selmer . Plus his business can only produce so many orders, they are by no means a large outlet.

According to the charity Sound and Fair, which ensures responsible wood harvesting, the woodwind industry is one of the primary drivers of illegal logging.  Around 20,000 blackwood trees are felled each year, 96 per cent of them illegally, largely to make clarinets, oboes – and bagpipes, which use at least four times as much as the other instruments.

The new clarinet, from Hanson’s, is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – certified wood, meaning that the trees are grown and the forests managed sustainably according to an international standard and local people reap the benefits. The FSC is an international non-profit organisation set up to promote responsible management of the world’s forests.

Hanson FSC Clarinet

The first FSC-harvest of Mpingo wood in the village of Kikole in the south of the county, yielded £1,200, roughly 400 times what the villagers would have received from loggers previously.

Mr Mwinyimkuu Awadhi, chairman of the village said: “We have realised for the first time the benefits from selling our own timber. All the money was paid to the villages unlike in the past where by this money would have gone to the government. We the villagers now have full control of our forest resources and we will benefit even more when we do more harvesting in the near future.”

It’s amazing to hear about such huge benefits from such small actions, but unless the big players come on board, this is likely to be a long time coming for many other villagers.

Mr Hanson added: “We hope that our commitment will help persuade other makers to join in protecting endangered species and in turn work to protect the future for forests, wildlife, communities and of course music.”