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.

Next: Europe