BRUNSWICK — Claude Bonang had just lugged a wooden box, the size of a small Army footlocker, up the stairs from his basement and was unloading its contents.
“This is a saw tie,” says Bonang, 86, affixing the metal, saw-shaped necktie to his collar. “I went out to Jo-Ann Fabric and bought eight thimbles, for my fingers, so I could I play it with both hands.”
He demonstrates, dragging his fingertips along the metal and playing something resembling a John Philip Sousa march, then takes out his musical saw and begins to play it over his knee with a bow. It sounds a little like the spacey Theremin, an early electronic instrument made famous in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”
Bonang brings out his rhythm bones, which he plays by holding two in each hand and clacking them together with an energy not often associated with 86-year-olds. Some of his rhythm bones are plastic, some are made of metal, and some came right from the cow.
“I bought some expensive bones online and I didn’t like the way they sounded. So I went to Bisson and Sons Meat Market in Topsham and got these, I boiled them and got them just the way I like them,” Bonang says, launching into a rendition of “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In,” bones a-rattling. He plays the harmonica, on a wire holder, at the same time.
Since retiring from his job as a biology teacher at Brunswick High School nearly 30 years ago, Bonang has developed a passion and a proficiency for a variety of odd-ball musical instruments, from spoons and rhythm bones to musical saws and the mouth harp. He’s teaching himself to play the pan flute, which looks like a mini wooden pipe organ you blow into, and the melodica, a little keyboard you blow into.
Bonang uses his arsenal of unusual instruments to entertain at nursing homes, senior housing, cookouts, Bowdoin College reunion shows and fundraising events. On March 31, he’ll perform “Happy Days Are Here Again” on the musical saw at Midcoast Maine’s Got Talent, a fundraiser organized by the Brunswick Rotary Club. Last year at the same event, he got a standing ovation after playing “William Tell Overture” on the wooden spoons, dressed as The Lone Ranger. The overture was the theme song of “The Lone Ranger” TV show in the 1950s, so the costume just made sense, Bonang said.
“He has great musical skill, a great sense of rhythm, but the thing about Claude is that he’s such a terrific entertainer,” said Scott Steinberg, admissions director at the University of New England and a piano player who has performed with Bonang at several Bowdoin College reunions. “He’s a joy to watch. His ‘William Tell Overture’ is incredible.”
When he competed at Midcoast Maine’s Got Talent last year, he didn’t win, but he got a special judge’s award for his performance. Really, it’s hard to imagine him competing against anyone. He’s in a category all his own.
“He’s having such a wonderful time, and he gets such a kick out of it himself that it’s infectious,” said Claudia Frost, chair of the Rotary committee that organizes the talent show. “He seems so full of gratitude that he’s able to do this.”
BIG FAMILY, BIG ENERGY
As Bonang demonstrated his instruments at his Brunswick home on a recent Friday afternoon, his wife of 54 years, Ann, sat a few feet away on a couch with a newspaper in her lap. She loves the fact that her husband is so enthusiastic about playing, about entertaining, and she’s happy he has the health and stamina to do it. But she’s not too sure where all this passion comes from.
“I didn’t hear a thing about all these instruments until he retired,” she said.
Bonang was born and raised in Brunswick, in a French-Canadian family of nine children. He remembers first seeing the rhythm bones played by his uncle, Pat Theriault, who taught him how to play at family gatherings. He didn’t really take up the instrument then, but the image of his uncle clicking the bones to popular songs of the day stuck with him for years.
He did take up the ukulele, and as a young man he worked summers at an Ogunquit restaurant and entertained customers by singing and strumming. But he didn’t play any other instruments, or do much with music at all, for the next 40 years or so.
Bonang’s father was a night watchman at Bowdoin, and lucky for him, at that time all employee’s children could attend for free, Bonang said. He majored in biology and after graduation taught biology at Lisbon High School, the Paris American High School in France, and Brunswick High School for more than 30 years. He and Ann raised two sons.
After retiring from Brunswick High, he taught a biology lab at the University of Southern Maine for several years. At one point he wrote the class a song, “This Class is Your Class” to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
A couple years after retiring from Brunswick High, the musical bug hit Bonang hard. He remembered his uncle’s rhythm bones and started playing himself, at elder hostels as he and Ann traveled. He bought a guitar, took a few lessons and then began teaching himself. In short order, he took up spoons, the harmonica, and the musical saw.
Bonang more specifically described his journey into musical miscellanea, in rhyming verse no less, in a 176-page self-published book about growing up in Brunswick, called “Memories in Verse and Prose.” It was another of his ways to keep busy after retirement, along with making whimsical scenes out of shells. He made one called “Fiddler on the Roof” in which the fiddler has mussel shells for legs, a quahog for a face and periwinkles for eyes.
But back to his verse about taking up so many instruments:
“At an elder hostel in Quebec wooden spoons I bought, upon returning home to learn to play them I self-taught; One Christmas from the Mayos a harmonica came my way, they felt another instrument I should learn to play; At a gig at the Highlands (retirement community) in July of 2002, another musical instrument I was introduced to; A resident joined us playing the musical saw, and his performance left me in absolute awe.”
The musical saw was, as so many of Bonang’s instruments are, a surprise to Ann. He bought one and started playing it in the basement. Ann, outside gardening, couldn’t understand why every dog in the neighborhood was howling.
Most of the odd instruments Bonang plays have humble beginnings, as utilitarian objects (spoons and saws) someone decided might have musical qualities, or as complete castoffs, like leftover bones from a rib roast. Or a wild animal.
Bones have been played as instruments for thousands of years. There’s some evidence the ancient Egyptians played bones, said Steve Brown of Winchendon, Massachusetts, executive director of the Rhythm Bones Society. Bonang is a society member.
Rhythm bones were reportedly brought to America by Irish immigrants settling in Appalachia in the 1700s, and they were also adopted by French-Canadian immigrants to the United States in the 1800s, Brown said.
The rhythm bones became popular as part of minstrel shows in the mid-1800s, with performers in black face using them to click out the beats of the songs they sung. The rhythm bones later made their way into blues and even jazz, and onto recordings. One of the best-known recordings of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the theme of the basketball comedy troupe the Harlem Globetrotters, was by Brother Bones and His Shadows in 1949. The bones are the featured instrument.
The musical saw also comes from Appalachia, where musicians used a fiddle bow to coach a haunting sound out of it. In the 1920s, a Vaudeville act called the Weaver Brothers started using the saw and audiences couldn’t believe what they were hearing, and seeing.
Bonang’s musical saw, which he bought from a musical saw company, has been customized with fabric and duct tape, so he doesn’t rip his pants while playing. When he performs he usually backs himself with a cassette recorder, since the saw needs some help keeping the beat.
In the last 25 years or more, Bonang has brought his musical menagerie to a couple dozen nursing homes and senior living centers around Brunswick, where some residents are younger than he is. He brings along a 67-page lyric book, which he printed and bound himself, called “Sing Along with Claude.” He passes it out to everyone in the crowd so they can, you guessed it, sing along.
He has played at farmers markets, cookouts, and Bowdoin College reunions. He’s played with professional and accomplished musicians, like the Royal River Philharmonic Jazz Band and one of Maine’s best-known fiddle players, Don Roy.
“I give him credit – playing the bones is not as easy as it looks,” said Roy, who has played with Bonang at a couple anniversary parties.
Bill Rayne, the trombone player in the Royal River Philharmonic Jazz Band, has played with Bonang at several Bowdoin reunions. He says that Bonang is not usually scheduled to play with the jazz band, but after performing with someone else he’ll be there in the crowd, and somebody in the jazz band will notice him. It’s hard not to notice someone clutching a few bones in his fist.
“Not many bands care if they have a bones player or not, but when we notice Claude in the crowd, we always invite him up,” Rayne said. “He’s just as sweet as he could be. And tonally, he’s right on the money.”
To Bonang, who also swims regularly, playing more instruments than your local garage band doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. He likes to play music, he’s curious, and he loves finding new ways to entertain.
“I don’t know, it just feels natural to me to play all these. I like the variety,” said Bonang.
And so does everyone who sees him saw, or snap a spoon, or click some bones.
Contact Ray Routhier at 791-6454 or at: