Kemençe has been a prominent instrument of Turkish folk and art music. It has a long and interesting history. When we mention kemençe, we actually refer to two different instruments namely Karadeniz kemençe (Kemence of the Black Sea), which is the folk music instrument and classical kemençe which is used in Turkish art music. They are both string instruments, each being a three-stringed fiddle and their name is the same but the shape and the sounds of these two instruments differ from each other.
Karadeniz Kemençe- Kemence of the Black Sea
The Karadeniz kemençe is a small box fiddle, its body has a rectangular shape. Pontic Greek who lived in the area where the city Trabzon is located and Laz people living again in the Black sea region used to play kemençe. It was also the instrument of Turkish sailors, fishermen, and farmers who lived in modern-day Turkey and Georgia and on the islands of Black Sea. The Karadeniz kemençe was then mostly limited to an area consisting of coastal region of Black Sea. The fiddle culture of the Black Sea coast associates with the fiddle culture of Caucasian and Central Asian peoples. As per some historical researches, Karadeniz kemençe was carried to some Greek islands by migrants from the Black Sea coast in 1922 and it was spread there. We understand that the kemençe and the mixture of people in Black Sea coast had a long-standing connection which included Laz, Byzantine and Turkish elements. Until the twentieth century, kemençe was only associated with the city of Trabzon where the main means of economic income was fishing. After the World War II, with tea and hazelnut cultivation and harvesting, the songs evolved so as they started to take such activities as a subject. Moreover, the use of this instrument expanded to other coastal cities in east Black Sea region and it accompanies horon dance which has an incredible speed.
The name Kemençe derives from the Persian (kamancheh) and means small bow. The name lyra derives from the name of the ancient Greek lyre. It is played in the downright position, either by resting it on the knee when sitting, or held in front of the player when standing. The kemenche bow is called the yay. The kemençe is similar to a kit violin, as it allows for the violinist to dance while playing. The strings are depressed onto the neck of the instrument by the player’s finger pads in the way violin strings are pressed. The musicians usually play two or all three strings at the same time, utilizing the open string(s) as a drone. Sometimes they play the melody on two strings, giving a harmony in parallel fourths. They tend to play with many trills and embellishments and with unusual harmonies.
On the other hand, the word kemençe signifies the classical kemençe. The difference of the classical kemençe (or klasik kemençe) is first noticed by its shape which is similar to a pear, that is why classical kemençe is also called “armudî -pear shaped- kemençe”. Classical kemence has also a connection with Greeks and Greek music. This fiddle determined how music may have sounded in Istanbul and Smyrna (modern-day İzmir) in 1700s and 1800s. In those years, its name was politiki lyra which means in Greek “city fiddle”. Until the early 1900s it was actually a Greek folk music instrument from the Aegean Region and was associated to a lower social class and nightclubs (known as “gazino”). This situation changed when and this instrument turned into a “classical” instrument after Tanburî Cemil Bey (a prominent Turkish composer and tanbur player in the Ottoman era) played and recorded kemençe solos. Besides Tanburî Cemil Bey’s playing style and interpretation, the sound of the instrument itself stroke the attention of the audience, probably because it was compatible with the audience’s changing urban music tastes and emotional and sad style Turkish music adopted. Since then, the classical kemençe is a highly regarded Turkish Art Music instrument.
The classical kemençe is approximately 40-41 centimeters in length and 14-15 centimeters wide. All its strings are of gut; only the yegâh string is silver-wound. Today some musicians use synthetic racquet strings, aluminum-wound gut or artificial silk strings, or chrome-wound steel violin strings. The sound post, which transmits the strings' vibration to the back of the instrument, is fixed between the bridge and back of the instrument under the neva string. A small hole, 3-4 mm in diameter, is drilled in the back of the instrument directly under the bridge. When playing classical kemence, one have to hold it upright by resting it on the knees with the pegs leaning perpendicularly against the chest. Alternatively, it can be hold in front of the body while standing. The strings are 7-10mm above the bridge. Unlike other stringed instruments, one simply need to slide her fingernail gently down the strings. Kemence has a distinct sound, almost primitive.
For further information please see our Kemence Collection