The ocarina is an ancient instrument. The first known ocarina-like instrument appear about 12000 years ago. The ocarina’s origins can be traced back to many different cultures. In South and Central America, the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas all developed and performed on clay ocarinas which were often shaped like birds or animals. Ocarinas shaped like birds and animals could also be found in India as early as 5000 BC. China had its own form of ocarina called a Xun which was more rounded and egg-like in shape.
16th - 19th Centuries
The ocarina eventually made its way to Europe. In 1527, Cortes sent a group of Aztec dancers and musicians back to Emperor Charles V to perform at the royal court. The performance was well received and the Aztecs were sent to perform at various exhibitions throughout Europe. According to legend, a baker in Rome saw such a performance and was so impressed with the ocarina that he decided to make his own. (Bakers at that time often would make small pottery objects in their ovens to use up the leftover ashes.) It was nicknamed “ocarina” meaning “little goose.” It soon became a novelty item, but with its limited number of notes, it was little more than a toy. This all changed in the late 19th century when Guiseppe Donati, a young baker and musician, invented the submarine/sweet potato shaped ocarina which included accurate pitch and an extended range of notes. The ocarina could now be used for western art music. Various sizes were made which enabled ocarina players to form ensembles. One such ocarina ensemble is the famed Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese which is still actively performing today.
During the first and second World Wars, servicemen often were provided with a pocket-sized ocarina to boost moral. As a result, the ocarina gained popularity in America as well as in Europe. However, due to rising interest in the recorder, the ocarina soon became unknown to the general public. With the release of the popular video game “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” in the 1990s, the ocarina has reached a new level of popularity in America and Europe. The ocarina has also gained recognition in Asia, particularly in Japan, thanks to the efforts of ocarina master Sojiro. He has released several recordings and continues to perform internationally.