The Pipa and the Kamancheh

The pipa is a four-string, fretted chordophone that dates back to the Chinese Han dynasty, its origins straddling the two centuries separating the BCE and AD eras. A few hundred years after it was introduced, a similar musical instrument was introduced in Japan as the biwa. In the Western world, these evolved into the lute and guitar. The pipa, which is plucked, is also known as the Chinese vertical lute.

According to one of the pipa’s greatest contemporary players, Wu Man, the instrument’s origins even predate its introduction in China and can be traced to Iran. The contemporary pipa she plays features several dozen frets and in larger ensembles is electrified.

The kamancheh is also a four-string instrument but is fretless and played with a bow rather than plucked. Its resonating chamber is gourd shaped, covered by a skin membrane with a spike set to the floor. The great cellist Yo-Yo Ma considers the kamancheh part of the spiked viol/cello family. Also with origins in Iran, the kamancheh is widely found throughout the Silk Road “Stan" countries of Asia. One of its contemporary masters is the exiled Iranian Kurdish artist Kayhan Kalhor.

As we hunker down in this surreal international pandemic of COVID-19, forsaking travel and isolated from social contacts, there is a renewed awareness of our interdependence and shrunken borders — even in an era pervaded by xenophobia. The global journeys of the pipa and the kamancheh as they have evolved through many cultures serve as a timely reminder of the common bonds we humans share. This intimate, haunting music, so different to our Western ears, celebrates the diverse voices in the international language of music.

Like many of you, I have been watching lots of movies and documentaries at home. One is The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (2015), directed by Morgan Neville. It can be rented on Amazon Prime. (It's a free rental for Prime subscribers.) Here’s the trailer:

Ma created the Silk Road Ensemble in 1998 to promote the magic of “world music,” and he worked hard to include in their concerts many of the ensemble’s singular star musicians. Man (pipa) and Kalhor (kamancheh) are among the most charismatic of the troupe. It was by watching the documentary about their adventures with the ensemble that I began a journey of discovery about their native instruments. I found the sounds of their personal solos far from my own comfort zone but deeply moving; my Western ears became lost in them just as they do in Ma’s performances of Bach’s solo cello suites. I found myself mesmerized by these two artists’ dedication to their instruments. They have compelling life stories. Man, born and trained in China, now lives in San Diego, and Kalhor’s arduous life in exile is a moving memoir of an entire people, the Kurds, who live marginalized within a half-dozen Mideast countries, struggling always to establish their own homeland.

Both Man and Kalhor have performed for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts in solo performances. Now, with so many of us confined in solitary spaces, there is a special intimacy granted to us by such virtual close contact with a single musician, as if we are guests in a private recital.  

Here is Man playing three pieces. She shows us her personal use of finger picks, demanded by the instrument’s metal strings; originally, the strings were made of silk and gut, plucked by bare fingers with long nails.

In this visually engaging and more formal concert in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Astor Chinese Garden Court in 2016, Man performs an excerpt from a longer piece titled “Flute and Drum Music at Sunset.”

In his NPR Tiny Desk Concert, Kalhor performs a 12-minute piece for the Persian New Year. It is a haunting, deeply immersive improvisation made all the more powerful by the extended use of extreme close-ups, shots that seem to give human breath to the strings and bow. Kalhor offers no introduction and no comments, yet his plaintive musical voice speaks eloquently of his tragic family history: his mother, father and brother were all killed during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War.

Here, in a total change of scene and style, Kalhor performs with the Rembrandt Frerichs Trio a piece titled “Offering.” The trio’s improvisational jazz style meshes seamlessly with Kalhor’s.

At a time when strident, jingoistic voices emanate from the podiums in our country’s political power corridors, assigning blame to other cultures, it is crucial that we make an even greater effort to understand and engage the voices of other peoples. Music is the most powerful benign virus for transmitting human empathy that we have.


Nomenklatura of Signs: Alexey Titarenko


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