Eskimo violin recording

I got hold of a recording of Tautirut (“eskimo violin”) playing. Not the recording from the 1950s I was after, but a 50 second track recorded in the early 1970s in Ungava Bay in the far north of Quebec. The player is an Inuit musician, Sarah Airo, and she also plays a bit on Jew’s harp, a fragment of a tune that reminds me very much of a Norwegian hardanger fiddle tune I have heard.

But it was the bowed strings I was really wanting to hear. Sarah’s instrument has a startlingly hoarse low-pitched sound. It sounds to me like she has three strings tuned c#, a, c#’. She is play a very formulaic melody, mostly alternating rythmically between c#’
and f#’. She is using some fast finger ornaments and some fast bowing ornaments to lift the repetitive two-note melodic figure. In the second section she also seems to be playing a passing note (c natural or I suppose b#’ it should be. I fancy she might be fingering this note on the second string but it is hard to say.

Sarah does not really bow the strings together as a continuous drone, but she is definitely using the lower strings as strong steady drone notes. I have a feeling that some of the Karelian jouhikko players use this alternation between the fragments of melody and the drone, as an alternative to the more common technique of playing the melody continuously with the drone(s) also sounding continuously. Sarah’s drones are interesting being a sixth apart; my ear is hearing the high melodic f# as a kind of modal centre, giving the melody a minor sonority.

The recording is track 21b on the 1986 LP, Inuit Games and Songs, UNESCO Collection / GREM LP G1036

Now I am even more interested to get the 1950s recording for comparison!

Eskimo violin

For my concert last month in the Wighton Centre, Dundee, I tried to find tunes from as many different countries as I could. I was particularly keen to get an Inuit tune, because of the bowed zither traditions from Baffin Island and Northern Labrador.

I read up as much as I could about the various different traditions, and I have updated my Jouhikko web pages to include information on these different traditions. I also made a map to try and show how the different regional traditions of “bowed-harp” playing relate to each other:

The different numbered groups are my attempt to divide the different traditions. Group 1 is the bowed zithers of Canada and Iceland. Group 2 is the narrow-handhole bowed lyres from Northern Scandinavia. Group 3 is the wide-handhole bowed lyres from Southern Scandinavia, and group 4 is the fingerboard bowed lyres from Britain (though there are Continental examples of this type as well)

In the middle I have put Shetland, because no-one really knows what the form of the Shetland gue was. I like to think of it as being part of group 2, but some scholars have argued quite strongly that it should be in group 1.

I managed to get hold of the article by E. Y. Arima and M. Einarsson, Whence and Where the Eskimo Fiddle? published in the journal “Folk”, vol 18 1976. This has some very useful information about the Inuit bowed zithers including photos of a number of museum examples and alsoa  photo of a soapstone carving of one being played. However it is not really clear to me exactly how these instruments were played and fingered.

The article also refers to an archive recording from the 1950s, after the tradition had died out and come to an end, when an Inuit person from Northern Labrador made a couple of instruments and played them. I am currently in negotiations to try and get hold of a copy of this recording to listen to it.

Bowed lyre concert

Yesterday’s lunchtime concert with the bowed lyre went really well. The audience was about mid-sized for these events. Everyone shuffled nervously when they saw the instrument lying out beforehand!

I really enjoyed presenting this programme of “national music” from each of the northern countries. I started with the Russian tunes from Petrozavodsk, and then explained a bit about the Finnish collectors and informants before playing some tunes from Finnish Karelia, and so continuing ever Westward, through Sweden, Norway, Shetland, Iceland…

I think the most difficult tune was the Inuit shamanic chant, since it was most alien to my understanding of the ancient European traditions. It was interesting that all of the other music clearly “fitted together” well with similar structures and sonorities, while this one stood out as really foreign. However I think everyone enjoyed the participative and experimental aspects of this one tune!

Towards the end I realised that I had prepared too much material so I missed out a couple of the tunes I had planned to play – and still overran. And then was asked by the host, Sheena Wellington, to play an encore. So I count that as a great success and now I feel I would have no problem putting together a 45 minute or one-hour show based on this idea, a tour of the bowed-harp or bowed-lyre traditions of the old North of Europe.

Irish lyre

I have recently finished setting up an Irish lyre for a customer. This is my own speculative setup. The design is based on a generic Northern European early medieval lyre like the surviving historical instruments from Sutton Hoo in England or Trossingen in Germany, but I have strung and set it up using stringing principles from the historical and mythical Gaelic sources from Scotland and Ireland. The aim is to produce the type of instrument that you can see on the Clonmacnoise high cross, or the type of thing that might be described as cruit or tiompán in early medieval Irish texts.

Following medieval Irish and Scottish Gaelic practice, the strings are made from metal – in this case silver, latten (copper alloy) and soft iron. The instrument is tuned to a hexachord (g-a-b-c-d-e) and has a bright, open voice. The body of this instrument is an inexpensive import, but it is nonetheless a competent piece of work with a hollowed-out maple soundbox and a solid maple soundboard.

For this particular instrument, my customer asked for a reconstruction copy of the Skye lyre bridge fragment, discovered a few years ago in Uamh an Ard Achaidh (High Pasture Cave) on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. This broken lyre bridge dates from the iron age – one thousand years earlier than the surviving English and Continental lyres, but clearly showing the continuity of the lyre tradition in Northern Europe. I carved this bridge entirely by hand from some lovely local figured maple.

If you are interested in commissioning an early Irish lyre, whether an affordable imported student model like this or a full-specification professional model by a British instrument maker, or if you are interested in having a copy of the Uamh an Ard Achaidh lyre bridge, please get in touch with me and we can discuss the options!


I’m just back from Kilkenny where I have been running Scoil na gCláirseach and its associated concert series – sold out in Galway!

For me the best moment was the visit, organised at the last minute, of Senegalese griots Solo Cissokho and Seckou Keita to the School of Music to demonstrate their traditions. It was fascinating to see Solo’s response to Ann Heymann’s question about the nitty gritty of the old tradition – he asked for the video camera to be switched off before saying anything more.

Here is Brenda’s wonderfully atmospheric photo of Solo:

Gothic harp vs Gaelic harp

At the salon des luthiers in Dinan, I met up with an interesting harpmaker, specialising in medieval European harps, Yves d’Arcizas. His craftsmanship and artistry is very high quality, with a selection of wood and a handling of the tools and finish that look similar to Davy Patton‘s. He had on his modest display a copy of the Wartburg harp – one of the best and earliest of the surviving Continental instruments.

I was fascinated to try playing this instrument, and also to compare it with my replica of the roughly contemporary Queen Mary harp. Though the gothic harp and the Gaelic harp are rather different beasts, there were a lot of subtle and conceptual similarities between these two instruments.

Bronze age horn

The prehistoric theme continues and so too does the instrument making theme. After discussing didgeridoo playing at the Dundee harp class the Saturday before last, I read up again on the prehistoric Irish horns and trumpets. While a bronze casting is a bit beyond me at present, either technically to make one or financially to purchase, I thought I could manage to make one out of horn. The result is rather fine-looking. I followed the visual cues of the bronze side-blown horns and made the “knop” at the small end. There is subtle incised decoration on the knop; I had considered lines and zigzags round the mouth but I am not sure yet.

Now I only have to learn the circular breathing style of playing, necessary to get the most out of it…

These horns seem characteristic of the bronze age in Ireland. I think it is just plausible to think of a late bronze age horn and an early iron age lyre going together.


Yesterday I was in Edinburgh for lessons. I also managed tea at the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, and a look round the newly refurbished Royal Museum.

In the new museum there is a small gallery of musical instruments, and I was delighted to see a tonkori on display. I have never seen one before, but some years ago a friend in Japan sent me a copy of Oki, Tonkori. This very interesting string music, on an instrument with only 5 or so notes, has to my ear many parallels with the indigenous European string arts such as lyre, jouhikko, kantele, and harp. I think the musical patterns are suprisingly reminiscent of the music in Robert ap Huw’s manuscript.

Installation of new bells in St Andrews

Here is a curious little film produced by the University. It starts with footage of the bells being lifted into the tower in the autumn of 2010, and an interview with the main donor who paid for them. Then there is footage of the religious ceremony which marked their installation. Finally, from 7:00 is footage of the bells being rung.