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GUEST,josepp Our debt to Central Asia (musical instruments) (16) Our debt to Central Asia 01 May 12

I was looking African musical instruments some time back and was struck by their shape.

In short, they are shaped like hunter's or warrior's bows. And all the archery connections started jumping out:

Violins are played with "bows."

Bass bows are stored in a pouch tied to the tailpiece called a "quiver."

I began searching the internet for more info and came across the work of a British music researcher named Eric Halfpenny that I'm sure some of you here are familiar with. He is of the opinion that stringed instruments--bowed instruments in particular--came from Central Asia. I think at this point that he has to be right.

One of Halfpenny's assertions is that whoever made the first bowed instruments had to have extensive access to horses. That they would, in fact, be hunter-warrior societies that engaged both in hunting and war on horseback. That they would, in fact, be tremendous horsemen.

I found other connections independent of Halfpenny--Kazakhs strung their bows with sheep intestines and the gut strings of double basses are made from sheep intestines (hence the name). Other connections are that the warriors used rosin on their bowstrings to preserve them and mixed it with beeswax which they worked into the bows themselves to protect them from the elements (indicating that they were also competent beekeepers).

Halfpenny mentions that many of the Eurasian words for "bridge" are etymologically related to "horse." And the bridges of the violin family somewhat resemble a horse--whether by design or coincidence, it matters little as the connection is still there regardless. Also the block or ferrule on the violin bow that holds the horse hair spread out in a flat ribbon arrangement looks very similar to the device used on warriors' bows to hold the bowstring taut.

The first true bowed instruments are believed to have come from Eurasia in the 10th century. I read on another website that the oldest bowed instrument currently still used is the kylkobyz of Kazakhstan. By about 1000 CE, bowed instruments could be found from North Africa through Eurasia and into China, Mongolia and even as far as the Korean peninsula.

Morin khuur of Mongolia

They certainly had a wide variety of horses to use, some of which we are only learning about such as the Riwoche horse of Tibet that science had assumed was extinct and only availabe as cave drawings only to realize with a shock in 1995 that they are alive and well deep in the heart of Tibet.

Some say the Islamic cultures invented the bowed instruments. Maybe. I don't know although there is little doubt that Muslims of that region are huge players of bowed instruments. They certainly influenced it if nothing else.

So kudos to these Central Asian nomads for giving us--albeit indirectly--the glorious violin family (it had to pass through the Italians to truly become the violin).

I'm not sure how much the bow-shaped instruments of Central Africa were influenced by horses. Certainly, zebras were hunted and prized but there were also horses of Arabs and Barbs in North Africa. Since those were domesticated, they would have been a better source than zebras. That's something I'll have to research further.

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