Although the historical timeline is not entirely certain, sources cite tangible finds of ceramic wind instruments from at least 12,000 years ago.

History of the Ocarina


E a r t h s o u n d s

Epalladio Art Workshop is in the reproduction business. We resurrect for contemporary use some of the most eminently practical (and some of the most delightfully frivolous) items from the past. This season we join the long tradition of whistle-makers with the introduction of our own line of vessel flutes, ranging from simple whistles to ocarinas. With respect to traditional shapes we have put our talent to the test by creating animal and bird shapes, as well as the more traditional sweet potato shaped instruments. When they are finished it’s a great feeling to hear their ‘earthy’ tunes! What a concert in our studio as we test each one to assure that it sounds sweet! We have had to look hard at the history of the ocarina to come up with our designs. It is not so simple a story. One need just imagine why early humans wanted to reproduce the sound of the human voice whistle, or the call of a bird, etc. Was it to facilitate hunting? To identify an individual by his specific call? To communicate? Or to have some entertainment once in awhile? Whatever the reasons, it is agreed that the appearance of the vessel flute spans dozens of centuries and any number of regions throughout the world  Everybody had a whistle of some kind; whether it was fashioned out of horn, gourd, clay, bone, jade, seaweed, (and the list goes on,) was a matter of choice, and convenience, of course.

            Although the historical timeline is not entirely certain, sources cite tangible finds of ceramic wind instruments from at least 12,000 years ago. Native Americans crafted zoomorphic and anthropomorphic fifes, whistles, and ocarinas for centuries. Tribes in Honduras personalized their whistles so that each individual could be identified by his own sound. In India the pottery fipple flute was in common use 6000 years ago. But it is the Chinese who, even earlier, had developed the true vessel flute for use as a musical instrument. The original Xun was an egg-shaped earthenware wind instrument with six holes and an embouchure. Later the Xun was made in fine porcelain and found its place as an essential instrument in Chinese music. Chinese music, however, was not easily understood by the European ear. It took a long time and an unusual turn of events before the ocarina won respect as a real concert instrument in Europe.

             In 1527 the explorer Cortez brought a troupe of Aztec dancers and musicians to Europe for the pleasure of the Emperor Charles V. These Aztec musicians staged an impressive performance playing their traditional South American fipple pottery whistles and vessel flutes, which were in all sorts of animal and bird shapes. The people were taken by these sweet-sounding little instruments. At the time it was convention for bakers to use their ovens to make low-fire pottery items. It seems one such Italian baker took to producing replicas in the shape of little geese. This novelty toy was the first European ocarina, which means “little goose” in Italian.

            The ocarina remained a very popular toy, entertaining children and adults alike throughout Europe for nearly 350 years. In the mid 19th Century a young Italian musician-baker named Guiseppe Donati, inspired by his own interest in music, started experimenting with the ocarina until he developed a prototype which could play a true pitched diatonic scale accurately. The handmade Donati ceramic ocarinas, which varied in size and number of holes, became immediately popular for group and solo concert performances throughout Europe. By 1878 there was a call for innovation in production. Caesare Vicinelli, also a kilnman and talented musician, developed a distinctive mould process for the more rapid production of ceramic ocarinas. Since this time, the ocarina has been crafted in many different materials, including metals and plastics, in many different parts of the world. The whistle has evolved, but maintains its greatest attribute as a real “morale booster!”

            Ocarinas have impressed and delighted music makers for thousands of years. At whatever level you find yourself---musician or sweet-noise maker---you can find an ocarina to please among our collection. Join the fun!



Click to view each ocarina collection