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Musical Instruments for Traditional Storytelling

This page compiles the many instruments, often of ancient form, used in old traditions of storytelling, especially the bardic traditions. These have often never distinguished between storytelling and song, chant, music, or epic poetry, since the stories are always told accompanied by music - and usually chanted or sung.

You can discover more about these traditions on the companion to this page, the Traditional Storytelling page, and also see photos of some in the Gallery

Bardic storytellers the world over use one of two instruments to accompany themselves, depending on their culture. Despite the variety of names, shapes, number of strings etc, virtually all the instruments are based on two archetypal forms: the lute and the lyre. In Africa, the Kora even manages to be a combination of both.

The lutes used by bards are almost always long-necked, which hints at their cosmological significance. The lyre also has a similarly profound symbology.

For more information on the use of these instruments in storytelling traditions, and explanations of the various italicised storytelling terms, see the Traditional Storytelling page.

“...a profoundly important truth about musical instruments everywhere: they are intimately connected in folktale, myth, and legend to local symbols of rebirth. Thus, legend relates that Hermes made the first lyre from a turtle carapace; similarly, the first Arab lute was modeled after the body of a beloved male child; the Finnish culture hero Väinämöinen made the first zither, kantele, from the body of a giant pike; the Celts made their first legendary harp from whalebones. In each case, the symbolically significant creature is "reborn" as an ”instrument which "sings" as well as appears in a shape reminiscent of the creature modeled.”

Encyclopædia Britannica, 2000

I hope to gather or link to pictures and even audio clips of all these instruments - if you can offer either of these, please let me know. Some instruments mentioned below may well be used more widely, in countries and cultures not mentioned, and of course there are more storytelling instruments to add - all further information, especially details on exactly how storytellers or epic singers use the instruments, gratefully received!

Biram

Almost unknown until 2006, the Biram is used by the Boudouma tribe, fishing nomads by lake Tchad, Eastern Niger. It is a 5-stringed harp with the curved stem and sounding box resembling a pirogue, a wooden bark used on the lake. The last master of the Biram almost took his secrets to the grave, but 4 years before his death Malam Mamane Barka, a musician from another tribe, apprenticed with him to preserve and spread the instrument and its traditions.

The Biram can only be played only by initiated masters, of which there is now just one. It is a holy instrument, protected from the east by the spirit of the lake especially the ancestor of the Boudouma tribe Kargila, and also from the south, west and north by the spirits of the desert bordering Lake Tchad. This, and its boat-form, shows something of the deep and profound symbolism that such instruments often have - the significance of which is usually concealed and only handed down to initiates, along with the rituals and story-songs that go with it. Barka himself had to undergo many rituals of purification before he was allowed to even start learning to play the Biram.

The mystical songs of the Boudouma tell of the ancestors, spirits, animals, and warriors of their culture.

See Mamane Barka's site for more details on the instrument, and his CD of the music, including short audio clips.

Biwa

Japanese lute. See Pipa.

Chapay [also chapey]

A large, two-stringed, long-necked lute, played by Cambodian bards. The bottom string is used for rhythm and the top for melody. Follow these links to pictures: one to a lone chapay, and another to Kong Nay, a bard playing one.

Çifteli

A two-stringed lute related to the saz. One string carries the melody while the other is used mainly as a drone. Used in Macedonia.

Dombra

A two-stringed round-bodied lute used by the jyrau of Kazakhstan and others of central Asia and Russia to accompany themselves in their epic singing. It was the ancestor of the balalaika. See here and here for nice photos of Uzbek bakhshi and their dombras.

Dutar [also Dotar]

A long-necked two-stringed lute, used by bakhshi (epic singers) as they narrate and sing dastans (stories in Turkish). Such bakhshi exist in Turkmenistan, northern Khorasan in eastern Iran, and elsewhere. The tar is descended from the tanbur of Sasanian Iran and its many variants are often named after the number of strings. Hence the dutar is two-stringed, and the Indian sitar was originally three-stringed. body of the tar is hollowed out of a single piece of wood and is usually rounded, although the Georgian version is octagonal, and the waisted tar of Turkey is so named because of its exaggerated hourglass figure. The instrument, which is played with a small metal pick, has a membrane belly, spike, movable frets, and lateral pegs for the metal strings that are rib-fastened

Ghijak [also ghichak, gidzhak, gijak]

Four-stringed bowedinstrument of Kazakh poets.

Ghschak

Used with the dutar (see above) in Tashauz, Turkmenistan, in recitations of dastans.

Gimbri [also guinbri, gmbri, gnibra, gombri, gunbri, gunibri]

Played by griots in North Africa, this is a large plucked long-necked lute, up to four feet long, with one to three sheep gut strings tuned with leather bands. The rectangular sound box is covered with hide, and can also be used like a drum.

Resources

Echoes of Africa: Gimbri - picture and sound clip.

Gombi [also Wombi, Ombi, Gonfi, Ngonfi, Ngombi]

An arched harp or zither with 8 or 10 strings, and skin-covered rectangular wooden sound box. The handle may have a carved statue or ornamental rattle. The gombi is held between the legs of the seated player. Used for storytelling in Central Africa, and also poetry and healing ceremonies.

Resources

Echoes of Africa: Gombi - picture and sound clip.

Gusle [also Gusla]

One-stringed (rarely two-stringed) long-necked lute played vertically with a deeply curved bow, exclusively for epic singing by Balkan (Montenegrin and Serbian) guslars. The gusle is strung with horse hair, has a wooden back and skin front, is usually crowned with the important symbol of a carved horse's head, and is related to the medieval rebec and the Greek lira. See The Widow Jana for a five-minute audio clip of a Serbian guslar playing the gusle during an epic performance.

Hoddu

West African plucked lute. See Ngoni.

Kankles

Lithuanian version of the Kantele. See Kantele

Kannel

Estonian bowed version of the Kantele. See Kantele

Kantele

Similar to a zither, originally five-stringed (and still found in this very ancient form) but it has developed variants up to large chromatic kanteles used for classical music. The national instrument of Finland, but also occurs in variants along the Baltic coast. In Estonia it is the kannel, in Latvia the kokle, and in Lithuania the kankles. In the Finnish Kalevala epic, Väinämoinen, the master of magic song, overcomes his enemies by playing on his kantele, made from the jawbone of a giant fish strung with a maiden's hair.

Khalam

West African (Wolof) plucked lute. See Ngoni.

Kokle

Latvian version of the Kantele. See Kantele.

Konting

West African (Mankinka) plucked lute. See Ngoni.

Kora

A cross between a harp and a lute with 21 to 25 strings of leather. A large gourd forms the body, out of which comes a long neck to which the two rows of strings are attached. Unusually, because of the harp-like playing method, the strings face the player and not the audience. The music is highly intricate and melodic. The kora traditionally is only played by jalis, the hereditary caste of bardic praise singers / storytellers, of the Manding culture - which now is spread over the countries of Mali, Guinea, Senegal and Gambia.

Krar [also kissar, tambira, kisir, obukano, nyatiti]

A bowl lyre used by Ethiopian minstrels (azmari). It has five or six strings (gut or metal) attached to the bridge of a wooden soundbox covered by hide.

Resources

Echoes of Africa: Krar - picture and sound clip.

Lahuta

One-stringed fiddle used in Albania, similar to the gusle.

Masenqo [also masinko, masinqo, massaneqo]

A spike-fiddle with one string, tuned by a big peg and played with a deeply arched bow. The sound box is square or diamond-shaped, and covered with parchment or cowskin. Used by Ethiopian azmari (minstrels).

Echoes of Africa: Masenqo - picture and sound clip.

Ngoni [also Nkoni]

An oblong plucked lute with long rounded neck and three to five strings, a long rectangular resonator carved from a single piece of wood, and a skin sound table, played in Mali, Guinea, Senegal and Gambia. Ngoni is the name in Bamana and Maninka; in Mankinka it is konting. It is one of the oldest and most prestigious of the Manding instruments, formerly played to entertain kings. Also played by griots from the Wolof, who call it khalam (xalam), and the Fula and Tukulor who call it hoddu. Other names include molo, koni, diassare, bappe, ndere, tidinit. Similar to the North African gimbri. The instrument comes from ancient Egypt and is now found throughout the West African savannah. In the New World it evolved into the banjo. N.B. Ngoni is also the name of a whole people.

Resources

Cora Connection - sound clips.

Oud [also ud]

The oud is the Arabic lute, with six pairs of strings played with a plectrum, and looks quite similar to the European lute which derives from it. The oud goes back at least 4,000 years, and is still central to Middle Eastern music, both classical and popular. 'Oud' comes from the ancient Arabic word for wood. Used to accompany poetry, from Morocco to Iran, like European minstrels after them. The oud was introduced into Europe via Spain in the eighth century.

Resources

Echoes of Africa: Oud - picture and sound clip.

Turkish Classical Musical Instruments - a detailed review of the technical features and the history of the oud, and other instruments such as the tanbur.

Pantur

The earliest long-necked lute, from Sumeria, which gave rise to many later variants around the world. Similar to the Turkish tanbur. Many epic singers in many countries play some form of long-necked lute to accompany their tales and songs. I don't have any information about Sumerian storytellers or whether they used the pantur, but let me know if you do.

Pipa [also p'i-p'a]

Chinese four-stringed lute, with four silk strings, a pear-shaped body and a relatively short neck. Used by tanci storytellers in China. Originally from West Asia, it came to China by the second century AD; it was also adopted in Japan at around the 8th century, called the biwa and became associated with prophetic, blind, itinerant performers - traditional attributes of bardic storytellers and epic-singers. Pipa is still taught in the pingtan storytelling schools. Related instruments are also found in Vietnam and Korea.

Sanxian [also san-hsien, sanshin]

A banjo-like lute used in China, and still taught in pingtan storytelling schools. It is long-necked, fretless, three-stringed, with a square, snake-skinned body. The largest are around four feet long.

Saz

A long-necked lute, with three pairs of strings, said to represent the fundamental trinity of the Muslim faith: Allah, Mohammed and Ali. Used by Ashiks in Turkey, and Ashugs in Azerbaijan.

Resources

Photo of various sizes of Armenian saz.

The Saz - a useful brief history, and description of the various kinds and relatives of the saz.

Tambura [also Tamboura]

Single-stringed long-necked fretless lute, emblematically adorned with peacock feathers, wielded as both instrument and aid to expressive gestures by Central Indian Pandvani singers, who perform the ancient oral Mahabharata epic / scripture. The tambura also supplies a drone accompaniment in Indian music, but there usually has four strings. Derives from the Middle Eastern lute, the tanbur.

Tobšuur

Two-stringed lute used by tuul'c bards of Mongolia to accompany their epic and praise songs.

Resources

A Crash Course on Lutes etc. - Very useful site giving descriptions, photos and technical details of bouzouki, bozok, cümbüs, saz, ud, bass-pulur, plus bagpipes, Norwegian flute, tüngür, and throat singing. There are also many links to further resources for each instrument.

Afropop Glossary - a long list of terms, with explanations, used in Africa for various styles of music and musical instruments.

Echoes of Africa - excellent BBC site giving information on a wide variety of African instruments and music, including pictures and audio clips of how they sound. Also, many links to more resources.

Thesaurus of Musical Instruments - This bare database of musical instruments gives no descriptions but does list geographical areas and other categories applying to a great many instruments from around the world.

 

© Tim Sheppard 2003-4. Last updated 5/1/04.

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