Islanders creating unique musical instrument
“Fiddlin'” Fred Mayer has been returning to Pine Island since 2013 and performing at several venues with his five-string viola. Today, he’s here building an instrument he calls a monokotra.
The monokotra is three stringed instruments in one. On one side of the rotating instrument is the “monochord” an 18 string “drone” type sound that originated in Greece with Pythagoras around 500 BC.
“Pythagoras used the instrument to divide chords in half into an octave or into quarters into a second octave, etc.,” Mayer said. “All musical instruments are based on that set of physics.”
On the other side of the rotating instrument is the “koto,” a traditional Japanese instrument with 11 strings that are usually strung over 11 movable bridges. Added to that are four tamboura strings used in Indian music. There are manufacturers that make all three of these instruments, but Mayer is the only one combining all three into one.
“My musical life has been one of performing, composing, teaching and sound in healing,” Mayer said. “I have a long career as a musician and built instruments my whole life. I built my first monokotra in 2013.”
In 2015, after returning to Pine Island from studies in Switzerland, Mayer performed a local concert entitled “Put your body into a balanced resonance with Sound, Color and Movement.”
“This was a ‘fusion ensemble’ performance at the St. James City Civic Association,” Mayer said. “I played the Viola D’Amore and Ndakhte Ndiaye played the African drums. Greg and Warren VanKirk joined in with Warren playing the monokotra and bass and Misty Ramsey providing the vocals.
“The monokotra has been in development for several years,” Mayer said. “Every time it would go into another iteration, I’d go to another builder. Then I met Jerry Hunt at the 2015 Taste of Pine Island. I was performing there with Strange Arrangement and Jerry had a booth selling furniture. I thought of Jerry when it was time to create the latest version of the monokotra.”
Jerry Neal Designs builds beautiful and rugged transitional custom furniture in Bokeelia and for the last several months has assisted Mayer in building the newest version of the monokotra.
Mayer describes the partnership as “I’m the guy who loves beautiful wood but doesn’t know how to put it together and Jerry is the guy that also loves wood but does know how to put it together.”
“I started making furniture as a hobby,” Hunt said. “After spending days in an office environment for 25 years, I would come home and build furniture as a kind of therapy. Then friends and family would ask for a piece and the business just grew from there.”
Hunt has been building “engineered” cases for the instruments.
“We keep making it lighter while still designing and building them to withstand the thousands of pounds of pressure of the strings,” Hunt said. “We’re using Ozark walnut, birdseed maple, giant sequoia, poplar and wide cedar.”
“This is such a huge improvement over anyplace I’ve built these before,” Mayer said. “Jerry’s experience creates a case with so much closer tolerances than ever before.
“I play whenever there’s something to celebrate,” Mayer said “If it’s Friday, it’s time to celebrate because I was born on a Friday. The performance at the St. James City Civic Association was a celebration of the Winter Solstice.
“The monokotra is an instrument for anyone who want to create their own kind of music,” Mayer said. “Anyone interested in learning more can contact me via email at Fiddlinfred51@gmail.com, or by phone at 216-225-6512.”