Funky Harps: The Innovative Instruments of Walter Kitundu

A DJ’s turntables flip experimental music on its head

| January-February 2009

Watch and listen to Walter Kitundu play his phonoharps  .

In the mid-1990s, Walter Kitundu, a hip-hop DJ living in Minneapolis, was pushing the turntable’s limits. Rather than shying away from vibrations that the sensitive stylus, or needle, was capable of picking up, he embraced its ability to produce unique percussive sounds. His experimental tapping techniques were the beginning of a journey that would eventually tap the turntable’s true potential.

Over the next decade, Kitundu became a 21st-century experimental luthier, building instruments he calls phonoharps: hybrids that combine turntable technology and traditional strings. These aesthetically gorgeous and sonically innovative objects began attracting the attention of the avant-garde music intelligentsia, including the Kronos Quartet, which made him its “builder in residence.” In September, Kitundu snared a major arts coup—a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship—for his musical innovations.

The phonoharp can be traced to a eureka moment. Playing around with an empty peanut can one day, Kitundu held it against a turntable’s stylus and gave it a whack.

“When I hit the can,” he says, “I got a note, not the thud that I expected. I thought, Wow, that’s great. I want to see what else it can do.”

The accidental epiphany ignited his imagination, prompting a series of experiments to find what new sounds a turntable might emit and leading to the phono­harp. To envision how it works, first, think about a turntable—when the stylus touches the surface of the record, it’s reading vibrations, which in turn creates sound. As anyone who’s played a record knows, the stylus is capable of beautifully playing a favorite album, picking up a nearby thud, or creating a nightmarish record-scratching screech. Now, think of a harp—when you pluck it, the strings’ vibrations produce sound and melody. Finally, combine the elements—strum the harp, tap the instrument’s body, and play an Aretha Franklin track on the turntable. With one nifty invention, a single musician can be a little bit Afro-Cuban, a little bit soul, and a little bit Symphony Hall.