CHAPTER 5: Dulcimers in other countries since 1800 > Pacific Region

The Dulcimer in Australia

by Gillian Alcock

written for the 4th Cimbalom World Congress in Belo-Russia in 1997

White settlement in Australia dates from 1788 and its population today has links with many different countries and cultures around the world. This multicultural population means that Australians who are interested in music can choose from a very wide range of influences.

Settlers who came to Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries sometimes brought musical instruments with them, and very occasionally these instruments included the dulcimer or one of its cousins. So German immigrants to South Australia brought the hackbrett, English and Scots brought dulcimers, one or two Hungarians brought cimbaloms and there are examples of dulcimer family instruments in Australia today from Iran, India, Greece, South-East Asia, Azerbaijan and China.

These dulcimer family instruments were played by members of these communities for the entertainment of their own families and communities. Rarely were they played for the general public.

In the mid-1970's however, a new interest grew in the dulcimer. A few Australians became interested in dulcimer music as it was played in folk music, at first in the English and American traditions. This movement was made possible by a very few makers, who made instruments for musicians to follow their own interests. The maker who has continued to build dulcimers and promote the use of the dulcimer in Australia is Gillian Alcock. As well as building dulcimers for folk musicians, she has travelled widely around the world examining dulcimers in museums from several traditions. This made her interested in the dulcimer in all its forms, and she has since started building a wide variety of dulcimer family instruments, including the 18th century style salterio as it was used in Italy and Spain, the Persian santur, the cimbalom and the sandouri. So today in Australia, the dulcimer comes not in just one form. Musicians can pick and choose, so that the instrument they choose is most suitable for the type of music they wish to play. This is very different from the approach in Europe, where musicians play the one style of instrument which is traditional to their culture.

The dulcimer in Australia is still a fairly uncommon instrument. There are players who have recorded CD's, who play for dances and who play for concerts. The interest is growing as more musicians play in public to larger audiences. To learn how to play though, one goes to a local teacher, or one teaches oneself from books, tapes and CD's. It is not yet possible to learn dulcimer in a school or university.

There are some new exciting directions in which the dulcimer is being used in Australia. Composers are writing new music for the dulcimer, musicians are forming groups, so that a consort of four dulcimers may play together. Dulcimers of different sizes are being made, for example the bass dulcimer with very long strings is useful in a small orchestra of dulcimers. As more players become familiar with the way in which the dulcimer is used around the world, a wider variety of music and techniques is being used. The future for the dulcimer in Australia is bright indeed.


April 1997

Gillian Alcock's web-site on the dulcimer in Australia