The zithers of Southeast Asia
an overview written by Ingo Stoevesandt
Among the rich diversity of chordophones worldwide, we find the Asian zithers to be outstanding in the way in which they resound the cultural identity of what we may consider as „truly Asian“. Not far away from the plugged hunting bow leading to the first monochord instruments, the simple and pure idea of spanning several chords over a resonance box in order to plug them should be assumed to be one of the oldest ideas of mankind for creating melodies.
The word “Zither” derives from the Greek “Kithara”, which stands for an old multistringed instrument of five to twelve chords analogue to the ancient Lyra. In Europe, this can be understood as a link to the word “Guitar”, it first was used for the medieval lute Cister, which actually was a fiddle before, and if we now jump to the multitude of plucked, hammered and bowed dulcimers and the rich forms of harps all over Europe and Asia, we discover that the term “Zither” is covering many instrumental meanings.
According to the ethnic diversity of Asia with it’s huge amount of different instrument forms and shapes it is necessary to reduce this overview to the actually most important and most common instruments.
I will try to give a short description about appearance, sound and playing technique for each instrument. At the end of this article you will find a list of according websites with further information about the instruments themself, about famous artists and composers and about dealers and manufacturers of these instruments.
The Asian zither: A living history
The common Asian zither might be imagined as a wooden soundbox with a minimum of three chords spanned over it.
All one-stringed soundboxes are monochords, the two-stringed soundboxes are fiddles or lutes.
The wooden soundbox or resonator is actually mostly made of good resounding material like rosewood, the strings are either nylon or metal strings which nowadays come from industrial production, in contrast to the instruments themself which mostly are manufactured by masters who follow an old family tradition.
Of course companies like Dunhuang (see internet links below) also produce the most common instruments in serial, but if you want to buy quality which will last long, you will have to buy from a manufacturer, as most manufacturers in Asia are highly skilled players themself and know exactly how to turn the instruments into professional ones.
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