A Sound like No Other: The Schalmei

Looking as if it could usher in the Last Judgment, this musical instrument actually plays a rather amiable part in the history of the GDR. Schalmei (shall-my) bands were formed in factories, communities, schools and paramilitary garrisons, and they also competed under the auspices of the FDJ on the regional and national level. If there is a contemporary heartland for the Schalmei since the Wende, it is the region of former East Germany called “Vogtland”, in the southwest corner of Thuringia near Plauen or Gera where the Schalmei tradition is still very much alive in smaller towns.

In any other context, the “Schalmei” (French chalumai, English shawm) is a completely different instrument: a woodwind forerunner of the modern oboe tracing back to the Middle Ages. How the name came to be applied to two such unrelated instruments is not clear, but this otherworldly German cousin to the military bugle is also called a Martin’s Trumpet (named for the inventor Max Martin who is also remembered for the tü-ta tü-ta still used as a horn on emergency vehicles in Germany). Where this novel instrument initially caught on was in the Saarland, that disputed coal-mining territory (Think: World War I) on the French border. Roving Schalmei bands made up of unemployed war veterans in the 1920s accompanied their socialist songs with instruments of different sizes and registers. Erich Honecker’s father is known to have played in a Schalmei band when Erich (born 1912) was a small child.

Because of this leftist ancestry, the Schalmei was a natural for adoption in the GDR. The Wende Museum now owns five of them, small, medium and large. Volunteers? The stentorian outdoor sound of a Schalmei orchestra is not quite like anything else.

Go here for some contemporary sound samples:


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