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Phil McNamara
Category: Gong Work

In Praise Of Italian Gongs

(And Help Save the Species!)

Many Sound Healers, myself included, use gongs made by the German firm of Paiste. These gongs are renowned for their acoustic properties and high quality forging that makes them the preferred (in some cases exclusively so!) gongs for many people. The sheet nickel silver brass used gives them a unique sound colour and tone unmatched by other gongs. The nickel content (known as ‘meteorite in ancient times and thought to be sent from Heaven) is key to the long sustain and crystal shimmer associated with these gongs. This quality, however, comes at a cost, and coupled with delivery times of up to 4 months, sometimes leads people to look at alternatives.

One alternate source is China. My book ‘Gongs and Tam-tams: A Guide for Percussionists, Drummers and Sound Healers’ describes at least 25 different types of Chinese gong and I’m sure I have missed many others. The commonest gongs used by sound healers are the Wind (Feng) Gong and the Chau Gong. Both are made from cast bronze. The Wind Gong, essentially flat with no turned over edge, produces a wide range of crashing overtones with reasonable sustain but with a ‘polite’ fundamental tone. Its advantage is being light and portable, especially in smaller diameters, unlike the Chau gong, which is heavy due to its thick cast metal. The roaring highs with this gong are short lived but the fundamental tone is more pronounced.

The main issue with Chinese gongs is that of quality. There are dozens of factories producing gongs in China. Many also produce other bronze and brass artefacts from kitchenware to agricultural tools, and many use recycled copper and tin. This may sound ‘green’ but it introduces other impurities into the alloy and makes these instruments variable in both their physical and acoustic properties. Buying ‘branded’ gongs from the likes of Zildjian, Sabian, Stagg and others ensures a degree of quality control. You can also buy from a reputable dealer such as Jonathan at Sound Travels, who will ensure that you receive a high quality gong, though I suggest trying several out in person if you can before you buy.

There is, however, another source of gongs that most people are unaware of. Italy.

Somewhat overshadowed by their European counterparts at Paiste, UFIP (Unione Fabricanti Italiani di Piatti musicali e tam-tams) are nevertheless part of the European gong-making tradition. Bronze working in the area around Pistoia in Italy can be traced back nearly 4,000 years to the Etruscans. Centuries later, during the 1700s, the Tronci family were using bronze in pipe organs. They had a long tradition of bell making dating back to the Renaissance and, by the 1800s, they had expanded into chimes, bells and cymbals with the demise of large pipe organs. The great Italian opera composers such as Puccini, Verdi and Mascagni commissioned large gongs and tam-tams for their operas (e.g. Puccini uses large tuned gongs in Turandot).

The current range of UFIP gongs and tam-tams (if you don’t know the difference between a gong and tam-tam, check out my book. I devote an entire chapter to the subject!) are made from either cast bronze (B20) or from rolled sheets of bronze (B8) or brass. Generally, instruments up to 28″/71cm in diameter are made from bronze and from 32″/81cm diameter from brass. There are 6 distinct models in the current range:

Cast Bronze tam-tams (tam-tams Bronzo Fuso)

Wind gong in shape, these are available in 20″/50cm, 24″/60cm, and 28″/70 cm diameters with a lovely warm crash sound. These really are superb instruments for the price and deserve more recognition outside of their native homeland of Italy. Sometimes described as part bell, part cymbal and part gong, they have a unique sonic presence. Not as loud as Paiste gongs but suitable for the modern home with small rooms, and very portable. They are visually appealing with their lathed concentric rings.

Sheet Bronze tam-tams (tam-tams B8 Laminato, Finitura Tradiz, Finitura Tiger)

A range of tam-tams made from sheet B8 bronze and of the same cross-section as the cast tam-tam, i.e. a slight convex shape with no turned over edge or central boss. The sound is not as strong or as sustained as the cast bronze tam-tam and the crash is short-lived, which reflects the different tonal qualities of B8 bronze compared to B20 bronze. They are available in two finishes – a plain yellowy bronze ‘traditional’ finish, and the visually striking ‘Tiger’ finish. With a ‘Tiger’ finish, an orange coloured lacquer is applied which is patterned using scrapers, emery paper and gas torches. The finish is a stripy, wavy pattern representing aspects of a tiger. There is a definite visual impact, but the surface is distressed and if you want a scratch-free gong, this finish is not for you. Available in available in 20″/50cm, 24″/60cm, and 28″/70 cm diameters.

Sheet Brass Tam-tams (Tam-tams Ottone Laminato)

Wind gong in shape with a heavily hammered face and made from brass sheet. If you thought brass for percussion instruments was reserved for cheap school instruments, think again. They have a wonderful low growl of a crash with good sustain and overlapping harmonics that sound like someone strumming their fingers over the lower strings of a grand piano. It has a certain weight to the sound which is more ‘oriental’ than other Western gongs and the roar is warm without sounding shrill. Available in 32″/80cm, 36″/90cm, 40″/100cm, 44″/110cm, 48″/120cm and 52″/130cm diameters. The 52" model is 4mm thick!

Gongs – Sheet Bronze with Border (Gongs B8 Bronzo Laminato)

These gongs share physical and acoustical similarities with the B8 bronze tam-tam but have a flat edge or ‘border’. Originally they had more of a distinct border, akin to that found in a ‘stuffed edge’ pizza! They are available in 20″/50cm, 24″/60cm and 28″/70cm sizes.

Gongs – Sheet Bronze with Bell and Border (Gongs B8 Bronzo Laminato con Campana)

Essentially a ‘tuned’ gong with hammered out centre. Available in 20″/50cm, 24″/60cm and 28″/70cm sizes. There is a strong element of tuning within the gong but it cannot be ordered tuned to a specific pitch. Gongs – Sheet Brass Symphonic with Border (Gongs Ottone Laminato) These gongs share physical and acoustic properties with the sheet brass tam-tam but have the flat edge or border. They are available in 32″/80cm, 36″/90cm and 40″/100cm sizes. The 36" model is particularly nice.

UFIP gongs can be obtained from Jonathan at Sound Travels.

So why aren’t more people using these gongs? Lack of knowledge? Certainly. Prejudice? Possibly. When we think of Italian cars, do we think of those 1970s cars that would turn to a pile of rust as soon as they got wet, or do we think of design icons from Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and the like? Whatever the reason, go and try them now. Unlike Paiste and Meinl who are taking on extra workers to cope with the demand for gongs from Sound Healers, UFIP haven’t realised this and are in danger of losing the skills and reducing the range. If more UFIP gongs were sold, these skills will be passed on. Perhaps there is also the chance of sound healers like us working with these Italian artisans and creating new and exciting gongs specifically for our needs. A set of gongs tuned to the seven major Chakras, perhaps? Their cymbals are also highly regarded too. Drummers who’ve tried UFIP cymbals never go back to those from other Companies, so there's a challenge for you! Would you give up your Paiste Symphonic gong for a UFIP Sheet Brass Symphonic gong?

I see UFIP gongs as complementing other gongs that we use for sound healing. Use them as additional colour for your clients' gong baths. Being more ‘polite’ than their Paiste counterparts, they certainly have an advantage in volume terms when used in the smaller rooms that modern homes have and the wee pokey treatment rooms that are sometimes offered to us in holistic centres.

They are also very good value, often 30% less than the price of an equivalent Paiste gong.

To me, the gongs reflect the Italian people – warm, quirky, a little loud at times, but always with style! Bellissimo!

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