A Fragile Message

One last look at old music before it topples forgotten into history

It's simple, if you think about it: "I make people happy," says Nate Tirado, holding a guitar as he sits below an airbrushed Jesus. "You see?"

No, but we listen. Or we would if we could. These handmade instruments and their makers don't have to be so anachronistic. There are easy lines that could have been drawn—as drum-maker Rasheed Ali says he hopes to do—between these generations and ours. "Heart and Hands" could have been a flipside evolution instead of an archaeology.

Harry Partch made his own instruments in the '40s. Sonic Youth makes (modifies, whatever) their own instruments now. The Michael Yonkers Band was the Stooges with guitars from Mars in 1968. The DJs in '70s and '80s New York and Philly physically cut records apart and pieced them back together. It happens a lot, and it's the same impulse, even if it runs on the electric now.

What's important in "Heart and Hands" is not the diddley-bow or the fife or the banjo or the dulcimer. What's important here is the human being whose hands were all over it. And Jacobson's depthless photos make those humans as flat as the sheets of pine they carve. Certainly, this sort of folk-art is historical curiosity now, but it was once and can be again just another vocabulary for the same universal concepts that all music tries to express. These diddley-bows and fifes and banjos could be your punk junk, your hip-hop, your drum 'n' bass, your rock & roll. They were once all that to somebody. And now that somebody is old. But in some of those photos, slapping a twig across a hammer dulcimer, he looks so happy that when you get old, you should remember him. And try to play your songs like that.

"Heart and Hands" at Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545. Call for hours. Through Jan. 18, 2004. $4; students/seniors, $3; kids six-12, $1; kids five and under, free.

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