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South East Asia has a rich musical tradition. Music is an important part of its culture. Many Western composers, including Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, and Britten, have found inspiration in South East Asia's ancient musical traditions (Taylor n.pag.). A wide variety of musical instruments are presented here. Stringed instruments hold an important place in most of the South East Asian countries. A stringed instrument produces sound with vibrating strings. It can be played with or without a bow. These instruments produce musical notes when plucked, strummed or struck.
The strings of the string instruments are plucked with the fingers; the most popular instruments include the guitar, lute, harp and mandolin. The instruments plucked with a key board are harpsichord and spinet. Those played with the bow are basically from the viol and violin family. Stringed instruments that are played with a bow are called bowed stringed instruments. The players of bowed stringed instruments move a bow across the strings thereby producing a musical sound. A wide variety of bowed stringed instruments are used in South East Asian countries like Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Bamboo is an important material in South East Asia as there are many musical instruments made from it. Bamboo violin is a traditional Filipino bowed stringed instrument. It is almost completely made of bamboo: its body, pegs, bridge, tail piece button and bow. In the bamboo violin, one section of the bamboo is closed off with nodes at both ends, and there are three strings made of steel or pineapple fiber. This instrument is played with a bow made from bamboo and abaca fiber. The dayuday is a Filipino two stringed spike fiddle. The body is made from one half of a coconut and the open end is covered with snake skin or pig’s bladder. The bow is made of a bamboo strip and the string is made from Abaca hemp. It is mainly an instrument for women and played mostly by all minority groups in Mindanao.
Rebab is the most important bowed lute used in Malaysian folk music. It has an almost heart shaped body with two or three strings, which run over a bridge. The strings of the rebab are usually made of copper. The body is covered with a thin layer of buffalo’s skin from the intestine or bladder. The player holds the Rebab upright on a short spike and plays it with a wooden bow with nylon strings.
The saw u is a two stringed Thai bowed instrument, which can produce 8 notes. It has a low pitch and is the lowest sounding instrument of the saw family. Its name originated from the typical sound produced by the instrument. The sound box made from coconut shell is covered by cow skin. The saw u is traditionally played on the lap, sitting down. The saw u is held vertically, the bow is between the strings and the player tilts the bow to play each string.
Tro is antique bowed string instruments, which was used in Cambodia. Some of the instruments belonging to this family are the two-stringed tro sau thom, tro che, tro u, tro sau thom, tro sau toch, and, and the three-stringed tro Khmer spike fiddle. Tro u is used in classical music and has a coconut shell body with its face covered with calf skin or snake skin. Tro sau toch and tro sau thom are both two stringed vertical fiddles with hard wood body; they are also used in classical music. Tro che is a high pitched two string fiddle covered with snake skin. Tro Khmer has three silk strings. The body is made from a special kind of coconut covered on one end with animal skins.
Ho fiddle or dan gao is a two stringed bowed instrument of Vietnam. It is made from sindora wood or rose wood. It has a coconut shell body and a wooden sound board, bow and a soft bag. It is very much similar to the thai saw u. The bow is made from bamboo or wood. The bow’s thread is inserted between the two threads and the sound is produced when the bow’s threads rub the strings. The two strings were earlier made of silk, but nowadays metal strings are used.
The Lao violin saw is a two stringed bowed lute quite similar to the Chinese erhu and gaohu. This instrument called Laos violin is not unique to Laos and is commonly played in many parts of Asia. The Lao traditional music comprises of several types of musical instruments and the saw is only one part of the orchestra. The bow is played between the two strings. It is a simple instrument with 10 fingering positions, but it is capable of evoking a wide range of emotions.
This review on bowed stringed instruments of South East Asian countries brings before us a lot of interesting facts. We can see that bowed instruments occupy an important place in traditional folk music in these countries. Bamboo musical instruments, used in practically all parts of Southeast Asia, point to the antiquity of music they play. Chinese typical two and three stringed fiddles (saw u, dan gao, Lao violin saw) are used in Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Islamic musical instruments such as two-stringed fiddles (rebab) are used in Malaysian folk music. A common aspect that can be noticed in all these instruments is that they are all made with the locally available natural materials, like coconut shell, rose wood, bamboo, animal skin etc. The use of man made artificial substance is less and limited. These musical instruments reflect the traditional musical culture of the South East Asian countries.