This large and complex area, incorporating
many different countries, cultures and traditions, is as musically
rich and diverse as its people. Whilst the violin is deeply rooted
in many of these traditions, it has to share living space with
many of its more exotic cousins, notably the rebab, kemanche and
Of these the rebab (or rebap, rabab, rababah or al-rababa depending
on your point of view) is probably the oldest, dating at least
as far back as the 8th Century, when it was found in Arabia and
Persia. It is almost certainly the direct ancestor of the European
violin. Islamic trading routes helped to spread it over much of
North Africa, the Middle and Far East from the 10th Century onwards.
Though many variations exist, the rebab consists
of a small, usually rounded body, the front of which is covered
in a membrane such as parchment or sheepskin. There is a long
thin neck with a pegbox at the end and there are one, two or three
strings. There is no fingerboard. The instrument is held upright,
either resting on the lap or on the floor. There is often a spike
at the bottom to rest on the ground; for this reason it is often
referred to as a spike fiddle. The bow is usually more curved
than that of the violin. The more sophisticated versions have
a wooden soundbox and the front may be half covered with beaten
copper, half with goatskin. An ornately carved Javanese version
forms part of the gamelan orchestra, whilst simpler models such
as the 2-string Egyptian "fiddle of the Nile" may have
a body made of half a coconutshell.
The rebab was adopted as a key instrument in the serious classical
music of the Arabs, along with such instruments as the oud (classic
arab lute), the ney (end-blown flute) and various percussion instruments.
Much arab music is based on the style developed in Andalucia during
the Muslim occupation of Spain around 1000 years ago, and includes
instrumental passages, usually with a strong element of improvisation,
alternating with sung poetry. Improvisations or taksim are based
on a complex system of modes and rhythms. The melodic modes or
maqamat have different combinations of 24 possible quarter notes,
and each has its own mood, often associated with particular feelings
or seasons. One hundred and eleven rhythmic patterns or iquala
can be used; the simplest of these is the rajaz, based on the
rhythm of a camel's hooves on the sand.. It is said that drum
beats were used to keep the camels mesmerised throughout a long
trip across the desert- at journey's end the drums would stop
and the camels would drop down dead.
The rebab became a favourite instrument of
the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, and could be heard everywhere from
the palace to the tea house.. The arab orchestra or group uses
many drones, unisons and parallel octaves, giving a stirring,
powerful sound, but it is mostly modal with little in the way
of chordal movement. The rebab, though valued for its voice-like
tone, has a very limited range (little over an octave), and was
gradually replaced throughout much of the arab world by the violin
The Kemenche (Kamancha or Kamantcha in Azrebaijan, Kemanche, Kemence or Kemancha in Armenia, Kabak Kemane in Turkey, Ghijak, Gijak or Gidzhak in central Asia,
Kemange, Kamanjeh, Kamancheh...take your pick!) is thought to
have developed in Iran; its name is derived from two Persian words
Keman (violin) and Ce (small). It can also be referred to as a Persian Spike Fiddle.
Like the rebab, it is held upright, has a body ranging from circular
to an elongate boat shape and has been adopted and widely disseminated
by the arabs, used in both classical and folk music.The spherical body is traditionally made from a coconut shell, with a face made from ox skin, or the skin of a fish (Siluris Glanis). The main difference from the rebab is that it has
a proper fingerboard like a violin, making accurate intonation
rather easier. It has three or four strings, giving it an extra
range and versatility.Tunings vary, but in Tehran it is tuned the same as a violin, GDAE. Strings were originally of gut or silk, but nowadays players often use modern violin strings. It is quiet compared to the violin, with
a taut, nasal sound. The close proximity of the strings allows
double stopping, and drones, trills and other embellishments are
widely used. It is often played in arab orchestras alongside either
the rebab or violin, or sometimes both.
Munis Sharifov, Kemanche professor at National Conservatory of Baku, Azerbaijan
John Vartan with Armenian Kemenche
In Ottoman classical music it is called the
Klassikkemenche, though confusingly the Greeks refer to the same
instrument as the Constantinople lyra or Politiki lyra. Originally
a folk instrument, this was introduced to the art music of the
Ottomans by the Greek gypsy musician and composer Vasilaki in
the 19th Century. With the expulsion of the Greek population from Constantinople in 1923, the Politili Lyra fell into disuse, and only Lampros Lionatridis was playing the instrument up until his death in the 1960's. Today Sokratis Sinopoulos is one of the leading players, working both on the original "laiki" repertoire from Asia Minor; tsiftelia (belly dance music), taximi and karsilama- and also with modern fusions such as with modern Greek composers, with Loreena McKennitt, and Charles Lloyd's jazz quartet.
The Politiki Lyra is a small instrument, and because it does
not have a nut, the middle string is longer than the other two
and the fingering starts in a different position
The kemenche has a particularly strong place
in Iran, where since the Islamic revolution in 1979 it is seen
as representing traditional values, as opposed to the more decedent
and westernised violin. This Persian Kamenche has a round body,
a long neck, and four strings; in shape, in fact, it looks far
more like a rebab.
The Kemenche is also important in the Pontic areas of the Black
Sea (settled by the ancient Greeks). Here a long 3-stringed version,
usually tuned in fourths; GDA or AEB, is called the Black Sea
Fiddle, Pontic Lyra, Pontic Kemenche, Kementche of Laz, or Karadeziz Kemencesi.
Black Sea Fiddle
The extensive use of
double -stopped parallel 4ths is an important feature of the playing
of this instrument, with lots of trills on the upper notes. The
strings are pressed straight down onto the fingerboard like a
violin, making this much easier to play than most of the other lyras and kemenches, despite
being held upside down on the knee.
The music tends to be fast and energetic, with tunes in 4/4, 5/4,
7/8 and 9/8.
Adib Rostami playing Kamenche at the London Fiddle Convention, 2011
In Iraq a version of the instrument is called a Jose or Josa. It is used as part of the unique Iraqui maquaam tradition; this is a vocal tradition, based on a repertoire of 56 songs- some old, some from the early 20thC. The Josa is often used for accompaniment of these songs. The santur (a type of dulcimer), and percussion, are sometimes also used. Most of the musicians playing these songs in Iraq were Jewish, up to the 20th C. Performances are mostly in coffee shops or in private homes, with concerts often lasting all night until morning.
On the Greek island of Crete, the lyra (pronounced lee-rah, and
nothing to do with a lyre!) has become something of a national
symbol. It has a small, pear-shaped body and a very short neck.
Constructed of mulberry wood, ivy or wild pear, it has two semicircular
sound holes or "eyes". It looks in fact very similar
to the Bulgarian gadulka, but does not usually have the sympathetic
Cretan Lyra by M. Stagakis, 1981
is played upright, usually supported on the knee, where it is
rotated as the player changes from one string to another. The
three strings are pressed from the side with the fingernails,
and are not pressed onto the fingerboard. This allows for a great
deal of slipping and sliding between notes, giving the lyra a
distinctive edge to what is otherwise a very fiddle-like sound.
It is usually tuned GDA, and traditionally most of the melody
was played on the first (top) string, the other two being used
for drones or parallel harmonies. The convex bow often has small
bells attached to it to provide rhythmic accompaniment to the
melody. The bow strokes are usually short , rhythmic and mostly
at the tip, by comparison with the longer, more fluid bowing of
the Turkish Kemanche.
Probably the most famous lyra player was the
late Kostas Moundakis; one of the best known players today
is one of his former students, the remarkable Ross Daly who, despite the obvious disadvantage of his Irish descent, has
settled in Greece and mastered not only the lyra but also the
kemence, rebab and a whole menagerie of other exotic Mediterranean
instruments. He brings together many of the traditions described
above in ambitious and absorbing compositions of what he calls
"contemporary modal music...musical voyages beyond multicultural
The Calabrian Lyra
Close relatives of the Cretan lyra exist in various parts of the Mediterranean, notably in Calabria, the "toe" of Italy. A few years back I met the musician, journalist and anthropologist Ettore Castagna, who among many other ethnic instruuments of the region is a fine proponent of the "lira calabrese". I was also contacted by Savior Gerace who sent me this video;
and here's a photo of his lyra, which he says some people call the "Violin of St.Hole" The length of the Calabrian lyra can vary, and with it the tuning.
Having read this far you are probably thoroughly confused about
what is a rebab, what is a Kemenche, and what is a lyra, and whether
or not you tell just by looking at them...You may even come across
the term spike fiddle which may include almost any of these. Happily
I can report that even the experts (and you can count me out here!)
seem equally confused. Suffice it to say that there seems to be
no consistency in the naming, classifying, or indeed spelling
of this family of instruments.
The European violin, finally, finds a place
alongside its more primitive cousins, having been brought to Egypt
during Napoleon's campaigns and to Constantinople by professional
Greek and gypsy musicians. It has been adapted to suit the modal
nature of arab music by an extensive range of retunings (in Iran,
for example, ADAD, GDGD, GDAD and EDAE are all common) Playing
is often highly ornamented with slides,
double stops, wide vibrato, open drones and so on, and whilst
the violin is sometimes played under the chin, it may also be
played upright, as in Morocco or sometimes Turkey.
There is an interesting and unusual tuning
widely used in Greek and Turkish violin music, called Çifte
Telli (or Tsifte Telli). It is a GgDd tuning, and involves
crossing the middle strings both above the nut and below the bridge.
To achieve this, the middle strings are first loosened, then without
removing either string from the pegs, they are swapped into each
other's notch in the nut, The same is done at the bridge end ,
again without removing the strings, so that the strings swap notches
in the bridge. This leaves two X's where the strings cross above
the nut and below the bridge.. The G string remains on G; the
next string is tuned to G an octave higher; the next string agin
becomes a D, and the top string A D an octave higher.
By double-stopping the 1st and 2nd or 3rd and
4th strings an octave can be played, giving a distinctly oriental
sound. Double-stopping the 2nd and 3rd strings gives an unusual
harmony of parallel 4ths- a very primordial sound on which Black
Sea fiddle music is based.
The name of this tuning Çifte Telli is Turkish for "double strings". It appears in Klezmer
as tsvei shtriens (two strings), and also features in gypsy
and Romanian fiddling.
One of the leading Greek fiddlers in Britain is Michalis Kouloumis. He drew my attention to this recording on his debut album "Soil", in which he uses a different Çifte Telli tuning from the one described above. G and D are as normal. The A string is tuned down to a lower octave E, and moved towards the normal E so they can be played simultaneously.
He has heard this tuning used on vinyl recordings of early Greek violinists such as Demetris Semsis, Giannis Ogdontakis, Demetris Manisalis, Giorgos Koros. It was introduced to Greece from Asia Minor.