By Yelitza Valencia

Boyle Heights Beat

Coming in various shapes and sizes, an ocarina can appear more like a work of art than a musical instrument.  Some are shaped as animals, such as whales, elephants or even bugs. Traditionally made out of clay or ceramics, ocarinas can also be made out of glass, wood or plastic.

The flute-like instrument, which can have three to 12 holes, dates back to ancient civilizations, including the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas, where they played a significant role in ceremonies and rituals.

The ocarina made it to Europe in the 16th Century. In the United States the government sent soldiers sweet potato-shaped ocarinas during the Second World War to pep up their spirits. When the war ended, the soldiers continued to use the instruments, but their popularity diminished over time.

It wasn’t until the release of a major video game that the ocarina gained a new following and became more popular than ever. In 1998, the “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time exposed the ocarina to a new generation. In the video game, the ocarina is used to teleport the player to different locations and open doors. The player actually creates notes and music in the game.

Durian Songbird is the founder of Songbird Ocarinas in Boyle Heights.
Durian Songbird is the founder of Songbird Ocarinas in Boyle Heights.

Durian Songbird, founder of Songbird Ocarinas, started his company in 2007 because of this new demand for ocarinas. He said he fell in love with the instrument a decade before when he heard someone playing it, echoing off the Rocky Mountains. “I found one at a little street fair and started playing it, and I was just enchanted,” he said.

Songbird says he decided to start a business in order to create his own ocarina and be proud of his own work. His shop, Songbird Ocarina, consists of a small showroom, a workshop and an outdoor kiln. Tucked in an alley along Soto Street, the business mainly ships to customers who purchased the products online.

The four employees, along with the owner, craft individual ocarinas out of clay in stations spread throughout the workshop. Each employee has a different task, from sculpting the ocarina to adding smaller details to the shell. The time process varies in length; some can take up to two weeks. When finished, the ocarina is fired in the outside kiln.

The instruments vary not only in shape and size, but in the music they produce. Some ocarinas are fashioned into tiny pendent pieces that can be easily carried around the neck.  Larger instruments can be connected to masks with feather adornments. Depending on the style, they cost from $10 to $800.

The ocarina was popularized by the video game ‘The Legend of Zelda.’
The ocarina was popularized by the video game ‘The Legend of Zelda.’

Songbird says his biggest customers are video game-playing preteens who “are interested in going beyond the virtual world of gaming into the real world of music.” He says playing the ocarina requires similar finger technique and hand eye coordination as playing a video game.

In fact, many ocarina players heard about the instrument from the video game. That’s the case with David Erick Ramos, 30, an ocarina player in San Antonio, Texas who has become famous on YouTube. Only later, in a Nintendo magazine, did Ramos learn the ocarina was a real instrument.

“It was kind of a mix of my love for video games and for music, ” he said, explaining his interest.

Ramos says the instrument is easy to learn. “The layout of the fingering is very similar to a keyboard, and with its linear finger style, people can pick it up very quickly.”

Tucked in an alley along Soto Street, the shop consists of a small showroom, a workshop and an outdoor kiln.

For eight years, Ramos has been sharing videos of himself playing the ocarina on his YouTube channel. On his channel, he creates vlogs, ocarina how-tos, covers and original content. In 2008, he organized the community of dedicated ocarina players to create a gathering.

“I just had the idea what about if we got together one weekend and share the love of this instrument,” said Ramos.

The event, in Seattle, was partly hosted by Songbird Ocarina.

Songbird says he thinks what he’s doing is like creating a bridge. Young people encounter the instrument in the video game and then learn it’s actually real.

“We are like the gateway into music for a lot of kids who are into gaming, and then they discover music is like the ultimate form of gaming,” said Songbird.

Photo above: Ocarinas come in all shapes and sizes. All photos by Yelitza Valencia.

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Boyle Heights Beat

Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

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