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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Nomads

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Silk Road Stories

Bowed Instruments

Turkic and Mongolian horsemen from Inner Asia were probably the world's earliest fiddlers. Their two-stringed upright fiddles are strung with horsehair strings, played with horsehair bows, and often feature a carved horse's head at the end of the neck. The horsehead fiddle's origin is a legend well known among musicians in Mongolia, Tuva, and other pastoral societies. According to the legend, a herder received the gift of a magical winged horse; he would mount it at night after a day herding sheep and fly to a distant place to meet his beloved. But a woman became jealous of the herder and had the horse's wings cut off, so that the horse fell from the air and died. From its bones the grieving herder made a fiddle on which he played beautiful and poignant songs about his horse.

Another explanation of the origin of bowed fiddles, closely linked to shamanism and spirit worship, is that they were created by shamans to represent the sound made by the friction of two hunting bows. For shamans, the sound of the fiddle's deep, vibrating, lower register personifies the murmuring and rumbling of the Lower World, while the upper register can express the dazzling, silvery radiance of the Upper World.

Shamanic instruments may also have inspired the round-bodied spike fiddles played in West Asia (kamanche, ghijak) and Indonesia (rebab), the carved fiddles of the Asian subcontinent (sorud, sarinda, sarangi), and the two-stringed fiddles of China called the huqin ("foreign qin") of which the best known is the erhu. By the 11th century, lutes, viols, oboes, zithers, and drums and other percussion instruments had already reached Europe from Central Asia and the Middle East. The violins, violas, and cellos we play today, and whose bows are still strung with horsehair, are a legacy of the nomads.

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