October 22, 2021

Bones Festival makes music in Homer

Musician Bill Vits, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, gives an impromptu performance Saturday at the Homer Center for the Arts Bones Fest.

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Musician Bill Vits, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, gives an impromptu performance Saturday at the Homer Center for the Arts Bones Fest.

HOMER — It took only a few minutes to learn how to properly hold the two wooden pieces making up the instrument, and the hardest part was producing sound with a waving motion.

On Saturday, members of the Rhythm Bones Society met at the Center for the Arts to bring their passion for an ancient musical instrument to the area.

“We’ve been holding the festival for about 20 years now and this is the first time it’s been in Central New York,” said Gerry Hines, host of the festival and a member of the Rhythm Bones Society.
Bones is a two-piece musical instrument made from bone, wood and even plastic, said Steve Wixson, secretary and treasurer of the society. The instrument involves two separate pieces that are held between the index, middle and ring fingers, Wixson demonstrated.

The hand is then moved back and forth in a waving motion and the two pieces collided, causing sound.

The instrument was found in China around 5,500 years ago and also in ancient Egypt and Greece, Wixson said. The instrument then made its way to England, he said. “It (the instrument) was mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when the character Puck talks about it,” Wixson said.

In the 1800s, the instrument could be found in the United States, Wixson said. It was an easy to carry pocket instrument like the harmonica so it was carried by sailors and soldiers, Hines said.

Bones are a rhythm instrument used in several types of rhythm and percussion music, Wixson said.
Types of music include but are not limited to Irish traditional, bluegrass, folk, minstrel, ragtime and Dixieland.

Steve Brown, executive director of the society, grew up playing drums and percussion. “In the ’60s I was at a folk festival and bought a record which featured bones. After that I was hooked,” Brown said.

When Brown first started playing bones he came in contact with Percy Danforth.

Danforth, according to the members of the society, is one of the most recognized bones players of the 20th century. Brown mentioned once writing a letter to Danforth and the response he got in return was two pairs of Danforth’s own bones, some instructional material and a photo of Danforth, he said.

“About two months later, I got a call from Percy and I got to meet him in Boston,” Brown said. “After that I practically became Danforth’s disciple.”

During Saturday’s event, a demonstration of the instrument was given by Bill Vits, a member of the society. “It is all about being relaxed and tapping into that energy,” Vits said while keeping rhythm and dancing around.

The instrument is something you have to learn in person, Vits said.

“There is no one way to play,” Hines said. “We have a lot of fun doing it.”