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Tomás Lozano masters the esoteric hurdy-gurdy

Step one: Start with a good-quality, well-built hurdy-gurdy

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Bloomington based multi-instrumentalist Tomás Lozano plays one of the most fantastic and mysterious instruments on planet Earth – and for that, he's one of the greatest gems of the Indiana music scene. In addition to performing with a handful of the Hoosier state’s most unique music ensembles, Lozano is also a co-founder of the Indiana Hurdy-Gurdy Workshop.

And what is a hurdy-gurdy? It's a musical instrument operated by turning a crank, which spins an internal wheel that rubs across a set of strings like the bow of a violin. Much like the bagpipe, the hurdy-gurdy is a multi-voiced instrument that is capable of simultaneously producing both a steady drone and melody. The hurdy-gurdy first appeared in Europe roughly 1,000 years ago and after a period of decline in the 20th century, has experienced a modern renaissance thanks to adventurous musicians like Lozano.

The Indiana Hurdy-Gurdy Workshop will be held in Brown County from August 18 to the 22. It’s currently the only workshop on the continent of North America devoted to this rare and beguiling instrument. If you have an interest in this wondrous musical instrument, you can go to to register for classes.

NUVO: When did you been playing the hurdy-gurdy?

Tomás Lozano: I began playing the hurdy-gurdy back in 1999. But, I first saw a hurdy-gurdy in Spain when I was 16. I saw a hurdy-gurdy player and I was just mesmerized by the instrument. But it’s not the sort of instrument you can just go to the music store and buy. So it took me many, many years to get one.

When I first acquired my first hurdy-gurdy, I had no one to teach me. I had no one to show me the technical parts — and the hurdy-gurdy requires a lot of technical adjustments and tweaks. To set it up, you have to put cotton on the strings, you have to add just the right amount of rosin, and there are many other small details needed to make the instrument playable. Because I had to learn it all myself, I had a really hard time in the beginning. So I’m always open to helping new hurdy-gurdy players learn so they will not go nuts like I did. I went nuts for a long time just trying to make it playable. 

NUVO: You mentioned first seeing the instrument played in Spain. In Spain, the hurdy-gurdy is known as the zanfona, correct? Can you tell us about the instrument’s role in Spanish music?

Lozano: In Spain the zanfona was traditionally played in the Northwest region of the country, particularly in Galicia. It was played for different social events and dances. It was accompanied by bagpipes and drums sometimes, or just the instrument by itself with someone singing. It was also played by blind men and beggars. During different times in history, it had different roles. 

Then in Spain in the 1960s, the instrument almost disappeared. There was basically only one or two families that played the instrument. But in the 21st century the instrument has had a big revival. All over Europe the instrument is having a big revival. 

NUVO: I would guess that revival has been led by musicians like you who are rediscovering the hurdy-gurdy and bringing it back into circulation. 

Lozano: Yes, but in Spain there was no one making hurdy-gurdies for many years. Then one guy started to make them, and now there are several people making really good hurdy-gurdies in Spain. 

NUVO: For me the hurdy-gurdy was always a very mysterious instrument, particularly in regard to how it worked and how the sound was produced. You used the word “mesmerized” to describe your first response to the instrument. What was it about the hurdy-gurdy that mesmerized you? Was it the sound itself, or the mechanics of the instrument? 

Lozano: Everything. I was mesmerized by how it worked, the shape, the keys, the cranking of the wheel, and all the different sounds that could be made. I encounter that response many times now from other people when I play the instrument. 

The hurdy-gurdy is an instrument where you either love it, or you don’t. Sometimes there is no middle point with it. I know people who really hate it! [laughs] They hate the sound. But other people hear it and say, “Wow!”

NUVO: You’re part of a few different groups in Bloomington including Daily Bread & Butter and Kativar. I know you also perform with the Arabic music ensemble Salaam. What role does the hurdy-gurdy have in your work with these groups?

Lozano: In Daily Bread & Butter it has a big role because the instrumentation of the trio is Hungarian accordion, different bagpipes from Europe, and the hurdy-gurdy. We play traditional dance music from Europe. Many of the pieces we play were actually originally played with hurdy-gurdy in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. 

With Salaam I play some Middle Eastern tunes using lots of drones on the hurdy-gurdy. The hurdy-gurdy has a buzzing bridge that can work as percussion and I work with Salaam’s percussionist Tim Moore to create rhythms while at the same time I am playing drones. So the hurdy-gurdy brings all these different layers. 

In Kativar I play the hurdy-gurdy in a couple different ballads, playing the melody and the drones as well. As you said the hurdy-gurdy is a little bit mysterious, it adds different layers of deepness and musicality into the group. 

I also play with another band called M3RDE which features two hurdy-gurdies and a bagpipe. We play traditional French tunes. I play an alto hurdy-gurdy, Michael Opp plays a soprano hurdy-gurdy, and Clancy Clements plays bagpipes, musette and the Border pipes. We play dance tunes from Auvergne, Brittany and other regions of France. It’s a very unusual combination in the United States to see not only one hurdy-gurdy - but two hurdy-gurdies playing at the same time. 

NUVO: Is that pairing of bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy a traditional instrumental combination commonly found in Europe? 

Lozano: Yes, they were traditionally played together in many events. For example, in the central region of France they would have wedding parades led by bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy. Behind them would be the groom and bride and the guests. They would go around from the church to a place of celebration and the hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes would play for the dancers after the wedding. Later when the accordion appeared, hurdy-gurdy was also played with accordion. So I would say it’s common to find hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes and accordion playing together in Europe.

NUVO: As you mentioned the hurdy-gurdy often provokes curiosity, and you’ve worked to develop an amazing program for anyone who has an interest in learning more about the instrument. From  Thursday, August 18 to Monday, August 22 you will be part of Early Music in Motion’s fifth Indiana Hurdy-gurdy Workshop which is happening in Brown County. Am I correct that this is the only hurdy-gurdy workshop in North America?

Lozano: Yes, I think it’s currently the only hurdy-gurdy workshop here. There used to be a hurdy-gurdy workshop in Seattle years ago, but they stopped. So five years ago I started this hurdy-gurdy workshop with two other friends. We started it because there was nothing else in the happening in the States and having it in Indiana was a good central point. We have people coming from both coasts and all over the U.S. So this is a little more convenient for everyone rather than having it in the Northwest. 


NUVO: Is the workshop open to all levels of skill and interest?

Lozano: Yes, it’s open to everybody. We have Michael Opp teaching the beginner hurdy-gurdy class. Scott Gayman will be teaching the advanced and intermediate classes. And there’s a class from Robert Greene who teaches Baroque hurdy-gurdy.

Most of the people in the United States who play hurdy-gurdy are beginners, because it is an instrument that was introduced in this country not too many years ago. Every year there’s more people playing the instrument here - but still, it’s not like in Europe where there are lots of players at different levels.

NUVO: Finally, do you have any words of advice for our readers who may be interested in learning to play the hurdy-gurdy?

Lozano: The first thing I would say is buy a good hurdy-gurdy. Some hurdy-gurdies are not very good quality and that makes the learning curve much, much harder. There are things about the hurdy-gurdy and the adjustments you have to make to the instrument that can make your life very miserable. Start with a good quality, well-built instrument and that will make your life much easier. 

Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.