It’s not easy upstaging Bing Crosby’s classic croon. But the real star of this song is a curious little instrument called the ocarina.
Known as the sweet potato for its gourd-like shape, the ocarina is an ancient woodwind instrument. Its origin is cloudy; both Asian and Meso-Americans developed similar instruments over ten thousand years ago.
The ocarina would become the signature sound of The Foursome. Here they are backing Bing in “El Rancho Grande” recorded in nineteen thirty-nine.
Turns out staying in tune with that little gourd wasn’t easy. Ray Johnson, the Foursome’s vocal arranger put it best: “You’ll never hear that sound again — nobody would be fool enough to do it.”
Want to see an ocarina in action?*
And go ahead…play with your vegetables.