SHLOMO PESTCOE שלמה פּסטקאָ
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From Oud to Uke: A Lute by Any Other Name
Guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, oud, saz, tar, bouzouki, lauto, cuatro, charango, sitar, setar, sanxian, shamisen, gimbri, xalam, akonting, violin, rebab, erhu....
The list goes on and on....
All these disparate musical instruments share one thing in common: They're all members of the lute family of string instruments. And of all the myriad different types of string instruments found the world over, those of the lute family are, perhaps, the most widespread and popular.
The English word lute and the various other cognate European terms (e.g. luth [French], laute [German], lauto [Italian], laúd [Spanish]) are all derivations of al-'ud, the Arabic name for the oud, the quintessential plucked string instrument of the Near and Middle East. The oud was introduced into Western Europe from North Africa in the 8th century when the Moors invaded both Spain and Sicily. It served as archetype for the classic Western European lute, which first emerged in the Middle Ages and developed further in the Renaissance (14th - 17th centuries).
According to the Hornbostel-Sachs (H-S) system of classifying musical instruments (the universal standard of modern organology since its first publication in 1914), a lute must be a composite chordophone -- that is, a string instrument on which "a string bearer [neck] and a resonator are organically united and cannot be separated without destroying the instrument." What makes a composite chordophone a lute is the fact that "the plane of the string runs parallel with the soundtable."
When Erich von Hornbostel (1877-1935) and Curt Sachs (1881-1959) first published their Systematik der Musikinstrumente (Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1914), they specified several different categories of lutes. In addition to the guitar-like plucked string instruments we mostly associate with the term lute, they also included:
Over the years, scholars and researchers have expanded on the parsing of the term lute as expounded in Hornbostel-Sachs. As a result, two main headings have emerged under which most of the lutes (both historical and contemporary) found throughout the world are now filed: plucked lutes and bowed lutes (fiddles).
Aside from the fundamental requirements specified above, plucked lutes and bowed lutes share distinguishing physiological characteristics that make them distinct from the other aforementioned genera of lutes specified in the Hornbostel-Sachs system:
Examples of plucked lutes include guitar, banjo, mandolin, and ukulele, as well as their kin: pipa (China), tanbur (Near East), shamisen (Japan), sitar (India), ekonting (Senegambia), xalam (Senegambia), to name but a few of the myriad kinds .
-- Shlomo Pestcoe
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Last modified: 02/01/09