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Please note: This is not a commercial site. I do not sell or appraise musical instruments. Please do not contact me to request that I identify and provide background information on a specific instrument in your possession and/or evaluate its worth. That's a job for an accredited professional appraiser, which I'm not. That said, I'll be glad to answer questions and discuss any subject I present here, so long as that one proviso is respected.  

 

 

From Ancient Egypt to West Africa: The Lute Connection

The lute first appeared in the archaeological record of Pharonic Egypt at the dawn of the New Kingdom with the emergence of the 18th Dynasty (1540-1307 BCE). It is generally believed that the lute was introduced sometime in the late Second Intermediate Period (1640-1540 BCE) when the Heka-Khaswt, "Rulers from Foreign Lands," dominated Egypt. Known to history by the Greek reference Hyksos, the exact origins of these foreign invaders are a mystery. The current wisdom is that the Hyksos were not one people, but rather various nomadic Semitic tribes from Ancient Canaan and Syria who began to settle Egypt's eastern Delta region in great numbers in the latter half of the 13th Dynasty (1783-1643 BCE).

Artifacts found in the archeological record of Ancient Canaan and Syria show depictions of musicians playing lutes. In recent times, Syria was even considered to be the birthplace of the lute. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, "The long necked lute is now thought to have originated among the West Semites of Syria. [Harvey] Turnbull [in the Galpin Society Journal #25, July 1972] has argued convincingly for its earliest appearance being that on two [Mesopotamian] cylinder seals of the Akkadian period (2370–2110 BCE)."

However, in the late 1990s, the British Museum acquired yet another Mesopotamian cylinder seal showing a plucked lute, BM WA 1996-10-2-1, from Ancient Sumer's Uruk Period (c.4500-3100 BCE), predating the Akkadian seals referred to by Turnbull by at least 800 years. The Sumerians (3000-1800 BCE) were a non-Semitic people who were thought to have originated in the region of the Caspian Sea, perhaps in northern central modern-day Iran or even further north east in Central Asia. This new evidence may point to a Central Asian origin for the lute family.

Be that as it may, artifacts depicting the lute appear in the archeological record of the various subsequent Ancient Mesopotamian and Near Eastern civilizations, especially that of the Akkadians (2370–2110 BCE), the Babylonians (1900-514 BCE), and the Hittites (1600-717 BCE). Linguistic evidence indicates that the instrument made its way from the Near East to Ancient Greece and, subsequently, Rome: the Sumerian term for lute was pantur -- in Ancient Greek, it was pandoura and in Latin, pandura. Likewise, tanbur-- the generic Near Eastern term for a long-neck lute, found in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and related languages-- is also clearly derived from the Sumerian word pantur.


The Ancient Egyptian Lutes

Classed as long necked lutes, the ancient Egyptian instruments generally had 2 - 3 strings, a semi-spike stick neck, and a drum-like body with an animal skin head. As seen in the period depiction above, the lutes' sound boxes came in two basic types:

  • A wooden, elongated-oval, boat-shaped body.

  • A semi-round body made from the whole shell of a tortoise.

The stick neck was round and generally depicted both with frets and without. The handful of extant examples reveal that the frets on the fretted variants might have been thin leather strips that were tied on to the neck or a single piece of leather or rope wrapped around the length of the neck with its protrusions serving as frets. In any case, they were not permanently fixed to the neck as integral components.

The jury is still out on the issue of what these lutes were actually called. For sometime, it was thought that the Egyptian term for lute was nefer (literally, "beauty") because the hieroglyph for that word looks like the instrument. New findings have proved this interpretation wrong. Danish Egyptologist Dr. Lise Manniche in her book, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (British Museum Press, 1991), states, "Its Egyptian name is not established beyond doubt, although there are two possible candidates. The word gngnti is suggested by its similarity with the name of a modern African instrument, but also appears only at a late date in Egyptian history. The word nth might also be considered; it occurs in a New Kingdom text describing frivolous music-making, a context in which the lute would fit perfectly."

Interesting to note that the Amazigh (Berbers) in Morocco have a large wood-bodied lute (teardrop-shaped), which is called a guimbri (also gimbri) and a smaller lute with a tortoise shell body that's also referred to as gimbri. Similar to the ancient Egyptian lutes, both have skin heads and round stick necks.


The Moorish Tidinit & The Kel Tamashek Teharden

In the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, various Amazigh tribes first started migrating southwards to what's now Mauritania. They probably brought along their versions of the ancient Egyptian lutes which would eventually evolve into the 4-string Moorish tidinit. The Moors, the dominant ethnic group in present-day Mauritania, are a mix of the descendants of the original Amazigh groups, other Amazigh tribes that followed in the 6th and 7th centuries fleeing Arab incursions into North Africa, and Yemeni Arabs, the Bani Hassan tribe in particular, who eventually achieved total hegemony over Mauritania in 1674.

(The Sahrawi of neighboring Western Sahara trace their roots to the 14th century when Arab tribes migrated to the region from Yemen. Like the Moors, the Sahrawi have a mixed heritage of Yemeni Arab and Amazigh cultures. They also play the tidinit, though, in Sahrawi culture, the instrument is not exclusive to a specific caste as it is in traditional Moorish society. Among the Moors the tidinit is only played by iggawin, that is, male members of the poet/musician/entertainer's caste.)

No one knows for sure when the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg), a nomadic Amazigh people of the Sahara thought to have originated in Libya, began to settle in the sahel regions of present-day Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. We do know that the Kel Tamashek founded the fabled Malian city of Timbuktu around 1100 as a seasonal camp and trading post on their Trans-Sahara caravan route. Be that as it may, their 3-string lute, the teharden, is akin to the Moorish tidinit, both in terms of morphology and social/cultural context: the instrument is exclusive to the iherden, male poet/praise-singer/musicians who are considered to artisans of the enad (blacksmith) caste.

Like the tidinit, the teharden is clearly descended from the ancient Egyptian lutes. When compared to the wood-bodied lutes of Pharonic Egypt, the similarities are striking:

  • All are classed as long-neck, semi-spike lutes.

  • They all share comparable elongated-oval, boat-shaped bodies made of hollowed-out wood with skin heads.

  • They all have round wooden stick necks with the strings held in place by means of tuning rings made of leather strips or noted cord.

Unlike the teharden and the tidinit, which are fretless, some ancient Egyptian lutes were depicted as having non-fixed frets made of leather strips. That said, my thinking is that when the Amazigh picked up the Egyptian lute, they probably dropped the frets straight off. Another major physiological difference between the ancient Egyptian lutes and those of the Kel Tamashek and the Moors is the bridge assembly. The ancient Egyptian lutes apparently had a raised tail piece which served the function of a bridge, whereas the Kel Tamashek teharden and the Moorish tidinit both have fan-shaped bridges akin to those of the griot lutes.

Other important differences to consider:

  • In ancient Egyptian depictions of lute-playing, the lutenists are mostly young women. (Men are also seen playing the lute but only in a relatively few depictions.) By sharp contrast, the tidinit and teharden are played exclusively by men.

  • The ancient Egyptian lutes are generally depicted as having 2 or 3 strings. The tidinit typically has 4 strings, while the teharden has 3.

  • Generally, Egyptian lutenists are shown using a plectrum, which was tied with a length of cord to the lute. Kel Tamashek and Moorish players use a finger-picking style similar to that of the griots. However, iconographic evidence indicates that Egyptian lutes were also plucked and strummed with the fingers on occasion, as demonstrated by the lutenist on the left in the above illustration (top right). Here we can clearly see her white pick dangling at the end of its tether from her lute. The lutenist's right hand is raised in playing position with her splayed fingers pointing downwards, indicating the completion of a strumming action reminiscent of the rasgueado technique used in Spanish flamenco guitar. This can also be viewed as being similar to the "pluck and strum" action of the Kel Tamashek and Moorish lutenists.

As I had pointed out earlier, the various Amazigh peoples clearly made adaptations to the physiology and playing techniques of the ancient Egyptian lutes after incorporating them into their musical culture. The striking thing here are not the relatively few differences but, rather, the incredible number of similar characteristics between the lutes of ancient Egypt and those of the Moors and the Kel Tamashek.

-- Shlomo Pestcoe

 

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Next: Griot Lutes

 

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* Banjo Roots: West Africa *

* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

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Last modified: 02/01/09