Conventional wisdom tells us that necessity is the mother of all invention. Yea, right. If that truly was the case, then we wouldn’t have many of the cool, fun gizmos that add colour to our modern, high-tech lives. And the Washa – a bizarre propane-powered musical instrument invented by James Clayton – wouldn’t exist.
To say that Clayton has a well-developed sense of humour would be an understatement. This ex-mining engineer, fixed income risk consultant and part-time artist really knows how to balance the stuffy world of banking and asset management where he derives his income, with the legitimate human need to have some serious fun.
Inspired by the master of flammable art, American Lucy Hoskins, Clayton decided to create his own flame-belching, propane-powered musical instrument for AfricaBurn – an annual festival held in the Karoo desert where radical self-expression, good vibes and respect for the environment rules.
Reckoning that his old broken washing machine would make an ideal base for it (hence its name: “Washa”), he first stripped it down, and then began working out how to safely configure all the gas pipes. Next, after much trial and error, he constructed its Bluetooth-triggered relay controller (that opens and closes the solenoid gas valves) via his laptop.
He uses GarageBand (software that allows users to create music) and synchronised MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) tracks on his Apple MacBook to transmit the electronic notation of the music wirelessly to the Washa. “Initially I wanted it to play the blues, but it didn’t do that too well,” recalls Clayton. “And, besides that, the organ pipes I had incorporated melted, so I had to give it a serious rethink.” So he ditched the organ pipes for air-horns, and decided to make it play our national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, instead.
Even so, getting it to work properly was, and still is a challenge. Although each air-horn has been calibrated for the required notes, as they are powered by propane they are extremely difficult to keep in tune. For starters, the pressure changes in the cylinder as the gas burns. As the ambient temperature varies during the day it in turn alters the gas pressure. And, depending on how hard you tighten the air-horn pipes on to their diaphragms, you can go up or down an octave. Clayton jokes “By the time the gas reaches the air-horns I never know what notes are actually going to come out!”
Apart from the Washa, a few of his other erm, works of art include a white suit made out of plastic milk bottles, an aluminium catapult that shoots paint-filled condoms up to distances of 100 metres on to a huge blank canvas, and an espresso machine that builds up pressure in a bronze sculpture of his own head. Clayton explains: “All I’m really doing is letting my creativity out. Turning my ideas into reality creates the headspace for me to work on the challenging financial aspects of my job. But as you can imagine, they are a bit difficult to sell.”
* If you would like to contact James Clayton, you can e-mail him at email@example.com
Watch a video of the Washa playing SA's national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica