To summon the spirit of Asia is to invite the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and traditions of a myriad of some of the oldest cultures in the world.
One might imagine the sweet scent of cherry blossom blessing the air in springtime Tokyo; the triumphant light of candles, lamps, and sparklers that vanquish darkness during Indian Diwali; or the simple, contemplative peace of a monastery in Shangri La.
Cultures that are steeped in thousands of years of civilization have given us some of the most interesting instruments and musical traditions imaginable, and you could truly spend a lifetime learning about them.
But let’s start with just a taste of some of the most noteworthy string instruments across Asia. Like the curious musical travelers that we are, let’s explore them by country…
Instantly recognizable as one of the largest countries in the world by population, mass, and economy, China features a vast array of bustling cities, bucolic steppes, winding rivers, and abysmal gorges.
Despite encompassing such diversity amongst its population and landscape, some Chinese string instruments are celebrated countrywide.
Arguably the most esteemed instrument in China, legend dates the qin back to the third millennium B.C. (Yes: B.C.) A member of the zither family, the qin was only played by society’s highest thinkers to achieve a deeper understanding of morality, character, indeed the essence of life.
Toward this end, it was played exclusively in solitude, often outside in the serenity of nature and during the quiet of night. To intrude upon a qin player in song was once considered a grave transgression. Today, the instrument is still widely revered but little played.
The qin has naturally evolved over thousands of years, but modern instruments are essentially hollow, tapered rectangle-shaped boxes with seven silk strings of equal length. Qins can measure up to 4 feet (1.2 m) in length and 6 inches (15 cm) at their widest.
It boasts no frets and no bridges. There are, however, 13 markers along the side noting where the player’s left hand can hold down the string to achieve a particular pitch while the right hand plucks.
A qin song features both open plucked strings that ring out while the player uses other strings to play a melody on top of the open notes.
Not surprisingly, the older and more worn the qin, the more beautiful it is considered to be.
The Chinese pipa is a pear-shaped bowl lute from the early centuries C.E. and its design is rife with symbolism.
For starters, it measures specifically 3 feet 5 inches in length. Three feet represent the realms of heaven, earth and man; 5 inches for the five elements metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Its four strings reflect the four seasons, and an ornate pegbox finial often portrays a bat, dragon or other decorative inlay.
Unlike the qin, the pipa was played across classes, from the literati and officials to common folk. Originally, it was played more horizontally like a guitar with a single triangular plectrum (a pick, essentially). Modern players stand it up in their laps more vertically and often use plectra on their fingers to pluck and strum.
Indeed, its name is directly derived from its manner of playing, with “pi” meaning “to play forward” and “pa” meaning “to play backward”. Players use each of the five fingers on their right hands to pluck forward and backward.
Often used to portray nature or battle scenes, modern pipas have up to 24 frets and feature a broad dynamic range with a bright tone. Pipa players may pluck individual strings or create chords with multiple strings, often employing heavy tremolo and vibrato for emphasis.
Sometimes referred to as the “Chinese violin”, the only real similarities that the erhu bears to the violin is that both are bowed and both are extremely versatile in terms of the tones, and accompanying emotions, they can evoke.
It is extremely likely that you have heard the erhu. It is probably one of the most iconic string sounds coming out of China, often presented in Western media in a solemn context with a wailing, mournful voice. (Seriously, think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.)
Despite its lyrical range, the erhu’s design is surprisingly simple. A long neck with two tuning pegs for its two strings leads to a small soundbox, the face of which is traditionally covered in snakeskin for a unique timbre.
It has no fingerboard, and the bow is lodged between the two strings. As it is played vertically on the lap, you push forward to catch one string and pull backward to catch the other.
The range of the erhu is due in large part to its lack of a fingerboard. While this makes precise pitches extremely challenging to find, it opens up a colorful range of tones which skilled erhu players excel at using.
It’s no surprise that a land of vibrant colors, exhilarating cuisine, and stunning architecture would yield some of the most ornate and textured string instruments. Enter, the sitar …
The origins of the sitar is, in fact, a hotly contested point. But, it’s safe to point to a few similar instruments floating around northern India in the centuries that the sitar seems to appear.
These include India’s oldest plucked instrument, a long-necked lute called the vina; a Middle Eastern lute called the tambur; and the 3-stringed Persian setar.
In its modern incarnation, the centuries-old sitar features up to 20 strings, of which only about seven are played. The definitive ethereal sound of the sitar can be attributed to the dozen or so sympathetic strings that are mounted below the playable seven.
Sitars are strikingly beautiful and intricate instruments with up to 20 moveable frets, 2 bridges, ornate carvings and inlays, and two resonating gourds. Equal in beauty is the traditional Hindustani music that it conveys.
The raga is the foundation of Hindustani music. In the West, a raga could be compared to a scale. However, there are hundreds of ragas, and sitarists are charged with improvising heavily within the structure of the raga they are playing.
The result is a deeply textured and artistic expression of Hindustani tradition, one that has become a classic and iconic sound of India.
Uncomplicated, unspoiled and magnificent: three words that could describe Vietnamese cuisine, its countryside, or its music. In this fashion, the tiny but mighty nation in the South China Sea offers its national instrument, the dan bau.
While Vietnamese texts point to the emergence of the dan bau around 1770, oral tradition tells quite a different tale, and many believe that the instrument is up to 1,000 years old. One lovely legend recalls a blind woman playing the soft, serene monochord (one string) in the market to make ends meet while her husband is away at war.
Regardless of its origins, the dan bau evokes the quintessence of Vietnamese culture. It is one of only two instruments believed to be exclusively Vietnamese.
Originally constructed of a simple bamboo tube, a flexible rod, half a coconut and one silk string, the dan bau has evolved slightly but remains true to its history of charming listeners with the sounds of love and longing.
In its modern incarnation, the dan bau is constructed of a slightly tapered wooden soundbox, a perpendicular flexible rod, a largely decorative gourd “resonator”, and a nylon or steel string.
Players use a long plectrum to pluck the string with the right hand while manipulating the pitch by bending the rod. (Think of a whammy bar on an electric guitar.)
Skilled players use the rod to create deep glissandos, heavy vibrato, gracenotes and even trills. The soft sound it produced lent itself well to accompanying traditional poetry readings, but thanks to amplification, the dan bau can now be found in larger ensembles.
Known to its neighboring countries as “the golden land” for the swarths of golden pagodas bejeweling its countryside, Myanmar’s national instrument is equally as extravagant in appearance.
An arched harp dating back as far as 500 A.D., the saung gauk may be the only surviving Asian harp. Revered as a prized instrument in the Burmese royal court, it was often used as accompaniment for a singer, played to only the most privileged audiences.
Its boat-shaped body is horizontally oriented (as opposed to the popular vertical harps of the West), and it culminates in a graceful arch that is traditionally carved out of the curved root of the acacia tree.
The resonator is ornately decorated with gilt, glass, and red and black lacquer, and the tip of the arch features a carved representation of a leaf of the bodhi tree, under which Buddha is said to have achieved Enlightenment.
Sixteen strings are affixed with bright red cord and tassel. Players elicit a bright, shimmering tone by plucking strings with the right index finger and thumb. The left hand can be used to dampen the sound or to bend notes.
Indeed, no exploration of Asian musical tradition is complete without the presence of these essential string string instruments. Ranging in type from zither to fiddle to harp, each one brilliantly evokes the essence of their countries of origin, much to the delight of audiences abroad.