Town’s Mandolin Orchestra now features a mandobass

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Ben Larkey, a Caldwell resident and member of the Bloomfield Mandolin Orchestra, will care for the mandobass and often perform with it during concerts.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — A musical debut of sorts took place at Bloomfield Middle School on Sunday, May 6. In a scheduled concert by the Bloomfield Mandolin Orchestra, a member of the orchestra performed on a mandobass.

Easy to spot, the mandobass is the big, upright bass standing on an end pin in a field of handheld mandolins and mandolas. A hand rest crosses above the strings of the instrument. According to Annamaria Menconi, the principal mandolist and corresponding secretary/publicist for the orchestra, Bloomfield has the only mandolin orchestra in the state that owns and uses a mandobass.

The instrument was purchased in 2002. However Ben Larkey, a Caldwell resident who joined the orchestra about 10 years ago, said in a telephone interview earlier this week that he had never heard it played in a concert until he played it Sunday. Most of the time, he said it had been stored in a closet at Trumpets Jazz Club, in Montclair. The club is owned and operated by Enrico Granafei, the mandolin orchestra conductor.

“While I’ve played in the orchestra, it’s been sitting in the closet,” Larkey said.
Ordinarily a guitarist with the group, Larkey said the instrument needed repair work and a pick-up to be heard, and it was difficult to play. But it helped to round-out the sound of the orchestra.

“I thought it was unique to have so I’m leaning to sticking with it,” Larkey said.
He contacted a luthier in Caldwell who, although he did not make all the repairs needed, made enough so that it could be played.
“It cost a few hundred dollars to fix,” Larkey said. “It was broken on the bottom. It looked like it was dropped. The next repair is the back. It’s splitting. It’s tough to repair that old wood.”

He purchased an external pickup with an amplifier. It is attached near the bridge of the instrument with putty, but the lower frequencies are not well distinguished. Larkey said it was different when he held the pickup down with his finger.
“I got a decent sound out of it,” he said.

While the mandobass can be played in an upright position, it can also be played with the musician sitting down because a second retractable end pin can be installed.

“I already has a hole,” Larkey said. “But if I didn’t want the end pin, I could put in an internal pickup.”
Although Larkey said he will be playing his guitar and not the mandobass at the next Bloomfield Mandolin Orchestra concert in June, he will be taking care of it. Part of that care will be to insert a small humidifier, with distilled water, into the body of the instrument.
“It’s like an old house,” he said. “You have to keep up with it.”