Central Asian Instruments

Central Asia is one of man’s great cross-roads. From Chinese traders on ‘The Silk Road’, to Ghengis Khan and his ‘Mongol hordes’, they have all passed through, bringing and taking musical instruments.


In ‘musicology speak’ the guitar has a resonating chamber and strings, plucked or bowed at one end and ‘stopped’ at the other.

Every ‘nationality’ here has their own ‘lute’ – some fretted (divisions along the neck), some fretless. The number of strings varies from two to ten. Most of the lutes are ‘banjo like’ – the amplifying resonance coming from a drumlike body – with a ‘skin’. Strictly speaking the lute is a ‘Synphone chordophone’ (with optional tone series); its source of sound is ‘a material that becomes elastic by artificial stretching’ (strings). For more info on instrumental classifications try looking up the ‘Sachs – Hornbostel system’.

The ‘plucked’ lutes include: The two stringed ‘Dutar’ (Turkmenistan ), dombura (Tajikistan), dombira, dombra – unfretted(Uzbekistan), dombra – fretted (Kazakstan). (N.B. sometimes the strings are arranged in ‘courses’ or pairs so ‘two’ can mean two pairs !) The three stringed ‘Tanbur’ (Uzbekistan), ‘Komuz’ (Kyrgyzstan), ‘Setar’ (Tajikistan) – which also has ‘sympathetic’ strings and is probably a relative of the Indian Sitar.

The ‘Tar’ also with sympathetic strings (associated with Azarbijan but no respector of border restrictions). Not forgetting of course the ‘bowed’ lutes (some lutes are played with a bow like a ‘western’ fiddle reminding us that all stringed instruments are distant relatives of the pre-historic hunters bow): The ‘sato’ (Uzbekistan) – really a tanbur bowed. The ‘ghidjak’ (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan), gijak (Turkmenistan) a ‘spike’ fiddle – it has a spike at the bottom like a western ‘cello. The ‘morinxuur’ (Mongolia) – the ‘horse head fiddle’ named for its distinctive horse head pegbox – associated with the legend of a winged horse. It flew as far as former Yugoslavia where its called ‘gusle’.

FLUTES Longitudinal flutes include the Sibizgi (Kyrgyzstan) the Choor (Kazakstan), the Tuyduk (Turkmenistan) and the Karnay (Uzbekistan). Jan himself a flautist will no doubt be able to experiment with some of these flutes along the way, as well as letting us hear some of the great indigenous performers.

CLARINETS The ‘nay’ (cane) is sometimes associated with transverse flutes (Tajikistan) and Uzbekistan) but I’m told that in this region it may also be a ‘whistle’ or ‘clarinet’ that has a vibrating reed held entirely within the player’s mouth. Other clarinets include the Dilla Tuyduk (Turkmenistan), Qoshnay (Tajikistan), Surnay (Uzbekistan) and the Balaban (Uzbekistan).

JAWS HARP The Jaws Harp or ‘Jews Harp’ is interesting – some experts think this humble piece of vibrating metal may be the origin of polyphony (multi-part music) – having the ability to produce two apparent “voices” simultaneously. Here the instrument is known as Temir Komuz or Changawuz.

FRAME DRUMS Here the humble ‘frame drum’ – think of a large tambourine – takes on the status of a solo instrument. The Daira* as it’s known even has it’s own ‘oral’ notation – we hope to bring you an audio sample. Frame drums are a vital link to Shamanism and the pre-Islamic culture and religion of the region. * Other names include chilmanda, childirma and dapp.

DULCIMERS The hammered dulcimer ‘Chang’ (a psaltery) is probably derived from the Persian santur – and has certainly found its way via the ‘Silk Road’ to China as the Yang K’in (which means ‘foreign zither’) it has a wonderfully haunting sound.

VOICE Central Asia has an extraordinary range of vocal music. In general, professional musicians for example have several ways to sing – from the nose, the throat and the stomach. Famous Munnajat Yulchieva sings everything from the stomach. Bakshi on the other hand, use special laryngeally tensed voices called “ichgi avaz” (inner voice) and “tashgari avaz” (outer voice).

A famous vocal technique from across the border towards China is the khoumi of Tuva and Mongolia – the distinctive eerie ‘throat singing’ which in performance seems almost disembodied from the singer. Other characteristic vocal sounds include the alkim ses (singing in a hoarse voice), jolotmak (low inhuman singing on a single syllable and khemlemek (singing with the mouth closed).

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