Asian Tradition

The Middle East

Perhaps, some of the oldest known history of the plucked string may be found in the Middle Eastern civilizations which dates back to the thousands of years before Christ.  Evidence of the existence of instruments such as the long-necked lutes as the tanbūr, the sāz, and the buzuq, has been unearthed in Iraq dating back to 2350-2170 B.C.E.  The tanburs existed in Mesapotamia since the third millennium before Christ and by the tenth century, Al-Farabi, an eminent scholar, mentioned the presence of the tanbur in Persia, which eventually spread to other countries, to Central Asia, to Turkey, and to the Arabian peninsula. The Iranian tanbur has a narrow pear-shaped resonator body and has three metal strings, with the first course being doubled where the melody is played. The Afghan tanbur (or tambur) on the other hand, has a gourd-like rounder body, a wide hollow neck with some decoration, and 3 courses (either single or double) of metal strings.  The Tajik/Uzbek tanbur has four metal strings played with a wire plectrum on the index-finger. Just like the Afghan tanbur, its neck is usually decorated with inlay bone or white plastic. Turkey has also a tambur with a very long thin neck and a rounded body, with six (three pairs of) metal strings.  The word tanbur has also influenced the Indian tambura, even though the latter has a very different musical function, which is supplying the drone to a given performance.

The sāz on the other hand is found in Persia, Azerbaijan and Turkey.  In Azerbaijan, the sāz refers to a long-necked plucked lute having nine strings that are grouped in triple courses.  Sāz is the generic term for any instrument, especially stringed instruments, while in Turkey sāz refers to music in general and to long-necked lutes in particular.

As can be gathered from their descriptions, these instruments were made in different sizes and exhibited different shapes, having a variety in the number of frets from 12 to 17 and with two to three courses of strings. The buzuq has twenty-four frets and through the years, it has become a solo instrument and known for its improvisatory music called taqāsīm.  The popularity of these instruments was widespread among professional and amateur musicians alike and aside from solo playing, they accompanied solo vocal renditions as well as some ceremonial songs of some peculiar Islamic sects.  In more recent times, the long-necked tanbūr, the sāz, and the buzuq gained more acceptance among the folk communities, while the short necked lutes such as the ‘ud, the kwitra, and the tūnīsī became the instruments of the urban population in the Arab world.

Today, the ‘ud is the most widespread in the family of plucked string instruments in the Middle East, symbolizing high Arab culture, and representative of the highest form of entertainment and pleasure, as well as the scientific and intellectual reflections. According to legendary history, the oud or ‘ud came about during the early pharaonic era, and according to Farabi, it was an invention of Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam. Today’s ‘ud is an unfretted lute with five to six strings and through this instrument, solo improvisation was given prominence in its playing by instrumentalists of the Bahgdad school.  The ‘ud is also used to accompany the singing of the instrumentalist himself while he performs and composes.  In the Egyptian and Syrian schools, ‘ud  playing was based on vocal aesthetics.  Since the voice was considered the ultimate instrument in ancient times, melodic instruments just like the ‘ud and other string and wind instruments were merely second in the hierarchy of importance.  In the second half of the twentieth century, the ‘ud became the most prominent among the local lutes in the Arab world, where its performance covered different roles, such as solo performance together with improvisation, accompanying solo singing, as member of the takht sharqi  ensemble consisting of the ‘ud, qanun (a plucked zither), nay (flute), violin and piano, and as soloist to a modern orchestra.

The tar is a Persian plucked string instrument, tar being the word that means “string” in Persia, and is shared by countries like Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and other places that are near the Caucasus.  Other stringed instruments derive their names from the word tar, just like dutar, setar, sitar and guitar. The tar is considered the most significant musical instrument in Iran as well as the Cuacasus, and Persian classical music has depended its theoretical precepts on tar players, especially the most complete versions of the Persian radif or musical system.   The tar has a double-bowl body with a stretch of lamb-skin covering the top, with the fingerboard having twenty-five to twenty-eight adjustable frets and three double courses of strings.  The strings have their own tuning pegs.  The melodies performed on the tar have both soothing effects as well as an inducement to reflect philosophically on life.  Iranian musicians usually connect their musical knowledge or scientific outlook on such instruments as the tar and dutar.

In the 1960’s, the urban musicians of Iran would organize themselves into ensembles that include the tar, violin, ney (flute), santur (dulcimer), and zarb (goblet drum) to play for high-class weddings or two accompany a vocal soloist in performing the āvāz, the most prestigious rendering of classical poetry on a given gushe (or modal melodic motif).  As in the past, Iranian music is dominated by the sung poetry which brings about the spiritual and emotional energies of man, while the instruments give support or imitate the voices.

South Asia

While the sitar performance practice of India also derives its essence  from vocal sources, classical instrumental music especially from the North is an independent, autonomous practice altogether.  The two most prominent instruments in Hindustani or Northern traditional classical music are the sitar and the sarod.  The forerunner of the sitar is the Persian setar, a three-stringed plucked lute, which was brought to Delhi from Kashmir by Khusrau Khan in the early 18th century.  It has a half gourd body, a wooden surface and a long, hollow wooden neck.  It has six to seven main strings and thirteen sympathetic strings. The sarod on the other hand is a more recent acquisition, appearing in the early nineteenth century and considered a modified version of the Afghani rabab or rubab, which is also plucked with 12 sympathetic strings.  The metal strings and the metal plate of the modern sarod were made by Ghulan Bandagi Khan, an Afghani trader and a musician, in order to produce more sustained tones and the intricate ornamentations.  Almost all melody stringed instruments of North India are traceable to the bin, an instrument with two gourd resonators at each end of a hollow wooden or bamboo body, which appeared from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

The compositions made for these instruments are called gat which expresses the process of making music as it undergoes change and constant variation as its main feature.  The oldest form of gat is the masītkhānī gat, which was created by Masit Khan, the most prominent musician of the court of Delhi, who made very important contributions to the repertoire of the sitar, deriving its substance from the dhrupad, an old vocal genre of the elite court, and the more recent barā khyāl, a solo vocal form. Hindustani music flourished in the temples and aristocratic surroundings of  the Hindu and the Indo-Persian courts of the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries, after which the British provided new public venues like the concert halls, schools, as well as homes of the elite.  As other instruments played different roles, like providing the drone by the tāmpūrā to instrumental and vocal music, or supplying the melodic cycle for the dance and accompanying vocal music, the most revered performance practice is solo playing in concert form.

The Southern or Karnatic musical tradition is deeply ensconced in devotional practice of Hinduism, a way towards the path of enlightenment, and was usually performed in courts and temples as well as home altars.  Today, however, Karnatic music is also performed in public concerts.  While instrumental music is the most prominent practice in the North, Karnatic music is both instrumental and vocal in nature without distinction in style and context.

The most prominent instrument is the vīņā, a fretted plucked lute, evolving from prototypes about four hundred years ago.  Symbolizing the body of the goddess Sarasvati, the vīņā has a long hollow neck with a large resonator and a gourd attached to the neck for greater resonance.  The instrument has seven strings tuned to the range of  the male voice with three drone strings. Many vīņā players put wire plectra on the finger of the right hand, although some prefer the fingernails or the fleshy part of their fingertips.  The most recent acquisition of Karnatic music performance is the mandolin, which has been adapted by Mandolin U. Srinivas of Andhra Pradesh to feature four double courses of strings and the use of electricity.

East Asia

In East Asia, instruments were introduced in China from Central Asia and India through the trading route of the ancient silk road during the tang Dynasty (202 B.C.E. to  220 C.E.) and most especially at the height of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).  These instruments, which included the quxiang pipa, a bent-necked lute,  were adopted as objects to be used in rituals as well as considered as cultural artifacts.  In China, after the warring states, ancient instruments changed and developed due to the constant exchanges in cultural objects between China and the other countries.  For a while,  from the Han to the Tang dynasty, all plucked lutes of different shapes and sizes were called pipa (pi means to play forward and pa, backwards)  It was during the Tang dynasty when the ruangxian, now called ruan, evolved from its designation as a pipa, a lute with a long straight neck. The yueqin is similarly round, known as the moon guitar, a lute with a hollow wooden body which gives it the nickname moon guitar. It has a short fretted neck with two courses of two strings.  Another lute is the hexagonal-shaped qinqin with a slender fretted neck and three strings, which was especially popular in Guangdong, Honh Kong and Macau.

Another plucked string that originated in Persia through India is the quanxiang pipa, a lute “with a short curved neck and a pear-shaped  soundbox”. This became the modern pipa. (Wu Ben)  The modern pipa, a four-stringed lute with 23 bamboo frets, was introduced to China between the Han and Sui dynasties through the central Asian trading route.  The pipa was also used in Buddhism in the performance of narrative singing in order to express doctrinal messages to the non-literate people.  In the Tang court, however, the pipa was used in grand performances for instrumentalists, dancers and singers.  In pre-twentieth century music, pipa playing was used in at least three settings: 1) as an accompaniment to narrative songs, 2) for the regional chamber music like the Fujian Nankuan, 3) for solo playing which can be traced to the area of Shanghai, where the tuning of the pipa developed into the 12 chromatic tones, and the silk strings were replaced with steel and the players began to wear fingernail plectra.

The sanxian (three strings) is believed to have come from Persian and Arabic instruments like the plucked lutes setar, dutar, and tambur which were all brought in the area of Xinjiang province, becoming popular in the modern times as an ensemble instrument that accompanied narrative songs and opera productions.  The zheng on the other hand dates back to the warring states and had become a fixture in the imperial court of the Tang dynasty in playing for royal banquets and to accompany narrative songs, while the ancient qin remained the instrument of the artistocracy.

Later, almost all these instruments were exported from China to Korea and Japan before the end of the twelfth century, when the Koreans musicians learned to play the pipa after they had been sent to the Chinese Sui court.  And during the Unified Shilla dynasty, Tang musical instruments were brought to Korea, together with Buddhist chants.

In Japan likewise, the Buddhist chant syômyô and a good portion of the gagaku court music practice was brought from China and Korea during the 7th and to 9th centuries.  An eight century kayagum, Korea’s 12-string zither may be found in Nara, Japan together with other instruments from the Tang dynasty.  Important Japanese instruments like the syamisen (a 3-string lute), the biwa (4-stringed lute with pear-shaped body), and the koto (13-stringed zither), as well as wind and percussion instruments were brought to Japan from China and Korea by emissaries or visitors.

What is interesting is that all these instruments, no matter how they are all related to each other, later were indigenized according to the social needs, performance techniques as well as aesthetics of each country and people.

Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asian courts, the influence of India is very much in evidence.  In Thailand, the krajappi, a plucked lute which is now rarely seen, is one of the oldest instruments whose name is derived from the Pali-Sanskrit word for tortoise.  It has an oval flat body with its tapered neck that is 138 centimeters long and has eleven frets and 4 strings.  Similar to this is the chapey dang veng of Cambodia, also a lute with a long neck that curves backwards and has two courses of two strings each.  This is used in the ceremony in worshipping the spirits called arakk or played for weddings and epic singing.  In Laos, there is the kachappi, a fretted plucked lute with a rounded body.

The phin from Northeast Thailand is also a plucked lute and its name is derived from the Indian vīņā.  The resonator can vary in shape: round, oval, or guitar-like and it has two to four metal strings which are plucked with a small piece of carabao horn.  It can be played alone or with the khaen, a popular instrument in north-eastern Thailand.  In the North, the sűng is a lute with a fretted neck and is also plucked with an animal horn. It usually accompanies the saw, a sung repartee for a male and female singers. In the provinces of Phrae and Nan, three sizes of sung play to accompany the saw.

In both Thailand and Cambodia, the plucked zither called ja-khe in Thailand and krapeu or takhe and charakhe in Cambodia, are both shaped like a crocodile with frets on the neck and both have three strings. In fact, the Cambodian krapeu is believed to have come from Thailand.  This instrument may be played solo but is usually played with the mahori and khruang sai  ensembles.  While classical music in Thailand and Cambodia are performed for temple and court functions, they are also played for theatrical presentations especially for the khon, a masked drama entitled Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana.

Vietnam does not derive its musical instruments from India but rather from China.  The dàn tranh, a 16-string board zither is derived from the Chinese zheng and the Korean kayagum.  The dàn nguyêt or dàn kìm  is akin to the Chinese yueqin, woolkum of Korea and the gekkin from Japan in that it is also moon-shaped.  One of the most frequently played lutes in Vietnam, it has a long neck, which is different from the yueqin, and with two silk strings. Earlier, it had four strings and reduced to two in the twentieth century.  The tỳbà is a pear-shaped lute which resembles the Chinese pipa.  This lute was first seen in Vietnam in the early 600s, a few centuries after it appeared in China.  The dàn tam coming from the Yuan Chinese sanxian and also looks like the Japanese shamisen, is a fretless, long necked three-stringed lute with boa skin over its resonator.  The Chinese octagonal lute qinqin was introduced in Vietnam in the early twentieth century which became the dàn xén  that changed its tuning to the heptatonic scale and altered the strings to a soft, flexible material.  Of these instruments, the one plucked string instrument that has no counterpart in China is the đàn dáy, a long-necked trapezoidal shaped lute that has three strings and nine frets, with a backless body.  It is used to accompany the ca trù, a vocal form of entertainment for the royal court.  The other is the dàn bàu, a monochord with a resonator wooden box and a vertical stick made of carabao horn.  It used to be an instrument of blind beggars, although it was also favoured in the Tràn imperial court from 1225 to 1400.

From the Middle East, the Malaysian gambus traces its roots from Yemen and the entire Arabian peninsula.  This plucked lute has 12 nylon strings but without frets and is now played in Johor for the traditional dance zapin.  Nowadays, it is also an ensemble instrument that plays with the guitar, a tambourine, maracas, two tablas and a harmonium in the performance of the ghazal, a sung lyrical poetry that was also derived from the Middle East and India.

In Burma, a unique instrument is the harp called saùn, a much favoured object by the royal court for its refinement and sophistication.  A graceful arch tops the resonator which is covered by deerskin and has fourteen strings.  The harp is said to have reached Burma from south-eastern India around 500 AD.   The harp was used exclusively for the courts, but in more recent times, it is played to accompany a singer, following the vocal line as determined by the tune and mode of the composition.  The Karen people have a six-string harp called nadey and a mandolin-like instrument called metali, derived from the word “mandolin”.

Among the ordinary village folks in Southeast Asia, plucked string instruments are also popular like in Sumatra, where the Karo Batak people play the lute called kulcapi in an ensemble, while in the Opera Batak, a theatrical presentation, the musical accompaniment to the singing and dancing by the actors is done with 2 short necked lutes called hasapi, the flute and xylophone called garantung.

In Sunda, the zither is called kacapi, played  solo or in an ensemble both in villages as well as in aristocratic surroundings.  It is related to the krajappi of Thailand, even only in name and not in shape.  It is used to accompany pantun, an epic narrative, and tembang Sunda, a poetry sung with the eighteen-stringed kacapi and suling, a six-hole blown flute.  In Ranca Kalong in West Java, the kecapi is played with the rebab in a ritual called the tarawangsa for the Muslim Holy Week as well as for healing and other life cycle events.

In Kalimantan, the famous plucked lute is called sape or sapeh.  It has 3 to 4 strings with movable frets. The lower string with the frets play the melody with plenty of ornaments, while the other strings play the drone.  It is used to accompany dancing.  The sundatang on the other hand is a 2 to 3-stringed lute with a long, rectangular body and with a long neck.  It plays music which is made up of repeated melodies with an accompanying drone.

The Philippines has at least 23 different forms of plucked boat lutes with different related names such as the kutyapi of the Maranao and Maguindanao, piyapi of the Bukidnon, kuglung  of the Matigsalog and the Tagakaolo, kudlung of the Bagobo and Manobo, hagelong of the Tboli, fegerong of the Teduray, and faglong of the Blaan.  Although they have different shapes and features, although they are carved like crocodiles and lizards, almost all have two strings and plucked with a plectrum sometimes made of rattan or wire.  One of the strings plays the melody and the other the drone.  They are usually played for entertainment, for courtship, or for dancing, but not to accompany singing.

Another plucked string practice that flourished in the Philippines during the Spanish period is the guitar and the rondalla traditions.  With the instruments coming from Spain and modified in the Philippines, the rondalla ensemble in the old times played as tunas or student groups, and later performed folksongs and accompanied folkdances during the American period.  Rondalla groups also entertained passengers on cruise ships.  In the meantime, comparsa groups flourished in the countryside, with banjo-like instruments of different sizes. Today, the rondallas, consisting of bandurrias, octavinas, lauds, mandolas, guitars and bass have developed their repertoires to include classical music pieces, like overtures and suites, as well as contemporary compositions, and have become formidable concert ensembles.

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