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The Afghan/Kashmiri Rebab

Jack Campin 08 Jan 10 - 08:41 AM
Mr Happy 08 Jan 10 - 09:01 AM
GUEST 08 Jan 10 - 11:06 AM
GUEST,Gibb Sahib 08 Jan 10 - 11:07 AM
Jack Campin 08 Jan 10 - 12:51 PM
Gibb Sahib 10 Jan 10 - 09:36 PM
Jack Campin 11 Jan 10 - 09:38 AM
Jack Campin 13 Jan 10 - 07:22 AM
Jack Campin 11 Feb 10 - 07:26 PM
GUEST,Daniel O'Donnell in Portland Oregon 07 Jan 13 - 08:43 PM
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Subject: The Afghan/Kashmiri Rubab
From: Jack Campin
Date: 08 Jan 10 - 08:41 AM

I've just bought a North Indian rabab (rebab, rubab) on EBay (it hasn't turned up yet). The idea is to use it to learn more about the music of northern India and maybe to use it as a social lever when visiting northwest Pakistan - my girlfriend's mother was born in Quetta and grew up with Afghan/Hindustani music, and we intend to visit Quetta sometime. I don't expect to ever get really good on it but it should be fun learning what it can do.

So I've been trying to find out more about it, and I'll use this as a sort of permathread to record how I'm getting on.

There are many variants of the rubab, and the word is applied to some entirely different stringed instruments - in the Arab world it means a bowed spike fiddle of some sort. The version I'm talking about was invented in eastern Afghanistan and is mainly used there to play music in the north Indian classical idiom, though it can also play Afghan and Persian (Dari) folk tunes. It was adopted in northwest India/Pakistan a few centuries ago, and was the favourite instrument of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. So it's still used a bit to accompany Sikh devotional music (the harmonium has largely displaced it). Further afield in India its form has been changed a bit - simplified or enlarged. One of its descendants is the sarod (larger, more strings, steel fingerboard instead of wood); fortunately there are local sarod players here in Edinburgh.

It's a long narrow instrument with a deep body and a goatskin head, strummed with a pick. The melody strings are tuned in fourths - C#, F#, B - so far, so familiar, that sort of arrangement I understand. The extras are a pair of drone strings and a bunch of sympathetic strings that will ring along with the diatonic notes in whatever scale you're playing in. This is going to make for a lot of effort tuning it (one clever suggestion I've seen on the net is to use an electronic tanpura, but I haven't got one).

One easily available recording is by Ustad Mohammed Omar, of a performance in the US (Smithsonian Folkways). But there aren't a lot available from what I can see. There are a few performances on YouTube. Nothing that has closeups of the right-hand technique, as far as I can see. That would be useful.

Interesting links:

Story on the rubab as played by a Pakistani migrant worker in the Gulf from The National, a newspaper in the UAE.

Description of a documentary film about an Afghan refugee musician in Pakistan - by John Baily. The bloke who sold me the rubab says I should check out Baily's playing.

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Subject: RE: The Afghan/Kashmiri Rebab
From: Mr Happy
Date: 08 Jan 10 - 09:01 AM

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Subject: RE: The Afghan/Kashmiri Rebab
Date: 08 Jan 10 - 11:06 AM

Hi Jack,

A possible correction to what you've heard: The rabab made reference to in the Sikh tradition is a different instrument. It is essentially an obsolete instrument, save for the fact that nowadays many musicians in Sikh sacred music are reviving it, perhaps. Here's a photo I found of what looks to be a replica of that old style:
Rabab of Mardana

The other thing to note is that the rabab is remembered as the instrument of "Mardana" who was Guru Nanak's minstrel. Mardana was a Muslim by birth that came from one of the hereditary ethnic communities of bards/musicians. Since Nanak devised all his poetry (later, the scripture) to be sung, as was the custom of the time, it was also customary that a tradition bard be the voice of that. Interestingly, most of the drawings/paintings depicting Mardana playing the rabab make it appear as if he was maybe only using it as a drone instrument! However, painters have been known to be ignorant of instrument playing postures, too :)


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Subject: RE: The Afghan/Kashmiri Rebab
From: GUEST,Gibb Sahib
Date: 08 Jan 10 - 11:07 AM

Sorry, that last was me. Have to find my cookie.

"Gibb Sahib"

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Subject: RE: The Afghan/Kashmiri Rebab
From: Jack Campin
Date: 08 Jan 10 - 12:51 PM

I couldn't get that link to open so went off an image search looking for what might have been it. I'm hardly about to argue with your knowledge of contemporary Sikhism, but the iconography you get by typing "rabab of mardana" into a Google Image search gives you very inconsistent results.

This guy is playing an Afghan rubab and the Wolverhampton gurdwara isn't complaining:

Whereas older pictures usually depict something much closer to a sarod, with this display blissfully ignoring the fact that it's got two different instruments there:

The overall shape of Mardana's instrument in the old pictures ranges from a short sarod to a tanpura, with playing positions all over the place.

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Subject: RE: The Afghan/Kashmiri Rebab
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 10 Jan 10 - 09:36 PM

Hi Jack!

Yeah, both those links are sorta b.s. :) The inconsistent iconography is explained by the fact that people are just assuming 'rabab' refers to the most common one these days. I have been to that museum in your second link and got a chance to tsk-tsk the display in-person! They have just stuck a generic depiction of Mardana there, with a modern Afghan style rabab under it! Also, on another occasion some Punjabi government-folks gifted a rabab to a certain officer from the Smithsonian whilst in India, who was there as part of that institution's project of preserving Sikh heritage. The gesture was as if to give him "Mardana's instrument," but again it was just a newly made Afghan rabab, of little interest to a curator.

I have handled these rababs. Kahn Singh Nabha's "Mahan Kosh" (Encyclopedia of Sikhism) of 1936 also has a photograph. (The photo also includes the old versions of sitar and tabla, that look so different than the modern versions.)

I don't know why my link didn't work. Here is another. Scroll down to the photo with a bunch of guys. The one on left has a rabab.
I have visited the compound of these guys (the Namdhari sect) several time. Because their gurus have been lovers of music, they have cultivated an erudite interest in it, and they are among the few nowadays that are really committed to performing Sikh sacred music on "original" style instruments.

This photo shows an antique rabab from the time of Guru Gobind Singh (late 17th century):

Through the years, the sizes and shapes surely changed, and I'm sure the rabab of the Sikh traditions of some times/places came closer to the Afghan rabab. But there are still some notable differences.

Unfortunately, Sikh music is only a tangential interest of mine, and I can't speak in specifics about the instrument really. I can say that the repertoire of the two instruments today is very different.


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Subject: RE: The Afghan/Kashmiri Rebab
From: Jack Campin
Date: 11 Jan 10 - 09:38 AM

Perhaps the spaces in that link confused something.

Music of Punjab

There's lots of very interesting stuff about Sikh music on the web, much more than I expected. I don't think I've even heard of the taus before (peacock-shaped bowed bass sitar).

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Subject: RE: The Afghan/Kashmiri Rebab
From: Jack Campin
Date: 13 Jan 10 - 07:22 AM

Well, my rebab/rabab/rubab/robab arrived, intact except that one of the sympathetic strings had been put on wrong and something is rattling around inside the soundbox (a broken-off peg? doesn't affect playing, anyway). Nice solid sound. My immediate impulse was to try playing bluegrass on it, as it does sound a bit like a fretless banjo.

It's rather agriculturally constructed compared to the ones I've seen pictured, and god is it heavy. The only heavier stringed instruments I've handled have been double basses and metal-body resonator guitars. Sakata in her book on Afghan music described one gentleman player from Herat who thought playing the rubab was a bit disreputable (this was before 1973, so long before the Taleban were an issue) and took it to gigs hidden under his coat. He must have had a very big coat and a very weird walk if nobody noticed.

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Subject: RE: The Afghan/Kashmiri Rebab
From: Jack Campin
Date: 11 Feb 10 - 07:26 PM

I've since been in touch with John Baily, who is probably the leading expert on this instrument in the ethnomusicological world. I asked him what to use for strings: the melody strings are nylon, 1.27mm, 0.71mm and 0.56mm, and the drones and sympathetic strings are fine steel wire. He said to get the wire from a shop like Bina in Southall (I haven't been to Southall since 1976 but I imagine I can google that) and to use fishing line for the melody strings. I'd already got some 1.3mm strimmer cord from Homebase, that left the two lighter ones. I got the lightest from a game fishing shop (Gamefish, Howe Street, Edinburgh - very friendly people) and the middle one from a sea fishing specialist (Mike's Tackle Shop, Portobello High Street, Edinburgh - not very friendly at all).

I rather like the idea that what I've got to replace the middle string of this Afghan/Pakistani instrument is labelled as "Extreme Fighting Power".

Prof. Baily had an idea about the rattle inside. It seems that for obscure acoustic reasons, the makers of rubabs glue eggshells inside the soundbox. (Or possibly for symbolic reasons - Afghan culture venerates birds). His photo showed a nest of three stuck in the bottom of an instrument under construction, emptied out as if the maker had had them hardboiled for breakfast. So maybe one has come loose.

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Subject: RE: The Afghan/Kashmiri Rebab [ and eggs ]
From: GUEST,Daniel O'Donnell in Portland Oregon
Date: 07 Jan 13 - 08:43 PM

Among speakers of Persianate languages in Afghanistan (for examples, Farsi and Tajik dialects), the mystical poetry of Muhammad Shams ad-Din Hafiz and Maulana Jalal ad-Din of Balkh called Rumi is esteemed above all others. Maulana Rumi was fond of rabab music. His son Sultan Walad was also a highly-regarded poet, and one of his major works is titled the Rabab-nama, or book of the rabab, much in the same way his father's major work, the Mathnawi'i-Manawi used the reed flute as its opening motif. Sultan Walad wrote:
"A human must be born not once, but twice:
Once from his mother's body,
and again from his own body and existence.
The body in which we are born is like an egg:
The essence of the human grows within it,
through the warmth of love.
We must go beyond this body,
like a bird that breaks free of its shell,
to fly in the unlimited world of the soul."
These sentiments account for why makers of rababs often glue birdshells inside their instruments: true music is for the awakening and liberation of the soul. (The birdshells are open at one end, rinsed clean, and glued to the bottom of the lower sound chamber with the open end facing toward the skin.) The bird motif is often repeated in the pegbox, the shape of the string-holders, and in the inlay. Best wishes, - Daniel

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