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Link to this year's index by clicking here.

Musical Instrument Museum, Part 9

Continuing our musical tour of Asia, we now visit China. Beijing opera developed during the 19th and 20th centuries from local opera in nearby provinces. Each opera depicts a familiar historical, literary or mythical tale using stylized costumes and make-up, dance, acrobatic, song and instrumental accompaniment.

Typical instruments include the two-stringed erhu and jinghu fiddles, the plucked yueqin (pictured here) and pipa, the double-reed suona, the gu drum and the luo gong. As a former woodworker, I love the juxtaposition of ebony and softwood used in this yueqin. It is also interesting that it resembles a western banjo in both appearance and sound.

In ancient China, musical instruments were divided into "eight sounds" — based on the materials used in their construction: Metal (jin), stone (shi), silk (si), bamboo (zhu), gourd (pao), clay (tao), leather (ge) and wood (mu).

Today, instruments associated with this early classification system are reconstructed for use in ensembles that perform in museums and historical buildings. The set of 12 bronze metal bells (bianzhong — shown below), stone chimes (bianqing), leather-headed drum (jiangu) and wood scraper (yu) were once used in Confucian rituals.

The xun clay vessel flute, sheng gourd mouth organ and paixiao bamboo raft flute were in use at least 2,000 years ago. The qin, a zither with silk strings, is a solo instrument long identified with Chinese scholars.

Just off the coast of mainland China is Taiwan, populated by a Chinese majority and a shrinking population of indigenous peoples.

Chinese classical and popular forms are dominant, especially in the cities. The Chinese maintain traditional nanguan ensembles in music clubs and state-sponsored organizations, performing on plucked and bowed lutes, end-blown flutes and clappers.

Musical performances by the indigenous peoples of the plains and mountains help sustain their separate cultural identities. Many enjoy singing and use unique instruments to accompany dance and ceremonial performances such as tiny bamboo lamellaphones with up to seven brass "tongues". Other instruments include decorated double-nose flutes and colorful dance belts, the latter providing rhythmic accompaniment as the performers move.

Shown here are both double-end-blown and double-nose flutes. I am familiar with the nose flute because it is a traditional instrument in Hawai`i — but was not aware that the Chinese also developed a similar instrument.

To the north in Mongolia, Buddhist Tsam ceremonies were once held to drive out evil forces. Today, Tsam dances entertain the local population and tourists alike. Elaborate masks and costumes represent gods who act out conflicts between good and evil, set to music of wind and percussion instruments.

Siberian indigenous peoples and their musical traditions were repressed for years under Soviet rule. Today, some ethnic groups of Asian Russia are re-creating and reestablishing older cultural practices with newly constructed musical instruments.

The Tuvan ethnic group is known worldwide for their throat singing (xoomei), an extraordinary technique used by a soloist to produce two or three notes simultaneously. Their songs are often identified with the land they traditionally tended as herders.

Today, throat singing and instruments such as the bowed igil, plucked doshpuluur and a beating frame drum recall the bubbling brooks, rushing wind, popular birds and galloping horses of the land of soaring eagles, high mountains and grassy plains.

Pictured here is a chadagan, a plucked zither usually with 6 or 7 strings stretched
across movable bridges and tuned a fourth or fifth apart. The body is hollowed out from underneath like an upturned trough. The strings are plucked and the sound is very smooth.

Stretching back to the 14th-century Lee Dynasty, Korea's court orchestra included different kinds of instruments chosen to create varied sounds, an idea that originally came from Chinese court music.

Court orchestras are larger and more diverse than other ensembles, highlighting the distinctive character of each instrument.

Covering both Confucian ritual music and popular music adapted to the time-honored instruments, the court orchestra tradition continues at annual rituals that pay homage to the Korean royal ancestors. The rich repertoire of court music has been handed down through the ages.

The haegeum (pictured here) is a traditional Korean string instrument, resembling a fiddle. It has a rod-like neck, a hollow wooden sound box, and two silk strings, and is held vertically on the knee of the performer and played with a bow. The haegeum is related to similar Chinese instruments in the huqin family of instruments.

Unlike court music, folk music in Korea has many variations and is played throughout the country.

In pansori, an improvisational tradition, a soloist sings hours-long epics as the puk drummer follows along.

Snajo instrumental music, which features gradually accelerating rhythms, was also originally improvised. Now relying on a fixed repertoire of rhythmic patterns, sanjo features virtuoso soloists on the kayagum zither (pictured here) or the changgo hourglass drum.

Masked theater is also popular throughout Korea, with an array of tales set to the music of the changgo drum, flute or bowed fiddle while masked actors sing.

With over one million inhabitants, Almaty is not only Kazakhstan's commercial hub but also its cultural center.

Here, Hazakh musicians and instrument makers, along with schools and civic organizations, endeavor to maintain traditional songs, instruments and dance forms — signature elements of Kazakh ethnic identity — in the face of a dominant Russian culture.

The kyl kobyz (pictured here) is an ancient string instrument. It has two strings made of horsehair. The resonating cavity is usually covered with goat leather.

Traditionally kobyzes were sacred instruments, owned by shamans and bakses (traditional spiritual medics). According to legends, the kobyz and its music could banish evil spirits, sicknesses and death.

In the 1930s, when the first folk instrument orchestras were established in the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, a new kind of kobyz came into existence. It now had four metallic strings and thus became closer to a violin. Such a modernized kobyz can be used to play both Kazakh music and the most complicated works of violin literature.

Sindh, Pakistan's southermost province, is located in the heart of the Indus valley.

In the town of Bhitshah, professional singers and musicians live and work in and around a local Sufi Islamic shrine, performing for ritual and secular events. Their many instruments are drawn from Sindhi as well as nearby Baluchi traditions.

The surando (pictured here) is an ancient folk musical instrument played with the use of a bow. The body of the instrument is made of various types of wood, but to serve as an excellent sound chamber Lahirro wood is considered the best. A surando has six strings — five of steel and the sixth of copper and each string has a specific name like Agor, Tip, Jara, etc.

The yaktaro is traditionally a Sindhi 'single-stringed' instrument, although a more sophisticated form has emerged with two strings and is known by the same name. The yaktaro is fashioned from a spherical gourd, often a pumpkin, which is dried, cut, and emptied. A piece of prepared skin is fastened over the open part of the gourd, and a long wooden rod is inserted in the sound chamber. The strings are usually made of steel secured around wooden rods and pegs, and held by a semi-circular support of clay or metal which is positioned on the skin surface. Played as a string instrument, the pitch of the tone is adjusted with the end pegs.

During the last 50 years, the sounds of the Indian plucked sitar and sarod and the intricate rhythms of the tabla drums have become increasingly familiar to European and North American audiences. The first known use of the sitar in recorded pop music was by the Yardbirds who hired a sitar player to do the main riff for their single "Heart Full of Soul".

The version with the sitar player was not released at the time, therefore George Harrison was to be the person recognized as having introduced the instrument into pop music. During a break in the filming of The Beatles' second movie, Help, Harrison picked up a sitar which was on the set to be used as a prop, and he attempted to play it. His initial interest eventually led to his taking lessons from Pandit Ravi Shankar and Shambhu Das, and playing the instrument on the Beatles song Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) on the LP Rubber Soul in 1965, which became the first released Western pop song to feature the instrument.

To be continued...

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com