Name: Turkmen dutar
Alternate Name(s): tamdra
Geographic Region: Central Asia
Country of origin: Turkmenistan
Climatic type: Desert
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History and context
The dutar is a teardrop-shaped long-necked lute with two strings. Most modern Turkmen dutars are unadorned and more simply constructed than are many other Central Asian instruments. But they are built for a complex tone and virtuoso handling.
The majority of Turkmen dutars are constructed from only four pieces of wood. The kädi [resonator, literally “squash”] is typically fashioned from mulberry, though occasionally other woods, especially walnut, may be used. The kädi is carved out of a solid block of wood, not pieced together from strips, as is common practice for many long-necked lutes. The gapak [soundboard, literally “lid”] is virtually always made of mulberry. The dutar craftsman punches a set of tiny sound holes once the gapak has been glued to the resonator and shaved to the optimum thickness. The sound holes are arranged in a pattern specific to the craftsman, as a kind of trademark. The sap [neck] is made from apricot wood. A small floating bridge called an eşek [literally “donkey”] is likewise constructed from apricot. The diminutive size of the bridge means that string height is extremely low.
The wrap-around frets are in fact welded steel rings arranged in half steps, creating a series akin to one octave of a chromatic scale. The thirteenth fret stands a whole step above the octave. Tuning pegs and strings, like the frets, are steel. The switch to extremely fine steel strings from the previous norm of braided silk occurred in the 1930s.
History and context
The Turkmen dutar is played by Turkmens living in Turkmenistan and parts of Iran and Afghanistan. The dutar’s primary use is to accompany singers called bagşy, but dutar players also perform instrumental music. The song and instrumental repertories overlap in a dynamic way, as singers borrow portions of instrumentals to compose songs, and instrumentalists often expand on bagşy melodies to develop formally complex compositions.
The bagşy has long provided the musical backdrop for a number of key social events in a Turkmen’s life, reciting dessan [epics] and singing songs at weddings, birthdays, circumcision celebrations, and other festive occasions (with the notable exception of funerals and other death-related occurrences). The art of the bagşy has a long history that predates the written record. Some of the earliest accounts of bagşy performances came from Western travelers like Arminius Vambery, who encountered what he dubbed “troubadours” among the Yomut Turkmens near the Caspian Sea (1970:322). Contemporary instrumentalists in the south-central Ahal region of Turkmenistan trace their lineages to virtuoso dutarists of the early- to mid-19th century, although these may have in turn learned from forgotten masters of an even earlier past.
The two strings of the dutar are most often tuned to a perfect fourth, although in some regions they may be occasionally tuned to a fifth or even a unison. One of the hallmarks of Turkmen musical performance is the practice of tuning the dutar’s strings to higher and higher pitches as a concert progresses. The explanation that Turkmen musicians typically offer for this habit is that the voice and hands need to warm up gradually by beginning with slack strings and a low pitch. As the voice and hands “open” after a few tunes, the instrumentalist will tighten the strings. By the time the performer arrives at his or her finale, the dutar’s strings are taut and high-pitched, with a sparkling tone. If backing up a bagşy, the high pitch means that the bagşywill be belting out the climactic final song at the top of his or her lungs. This practice has been well-documented by Polish ethnomusicologist Slawomira Zernaska-Kominek (1998:271-3).
The four fingers of the playing hand stop most of the main melody line of a composition on the higher-pitched of the two strings. The thumb wraps around the instrument’s thin neck to stop a shifting accompaniment line on the lower-pitched string. The central principle for playing hand technique involves aligning the thumb and middle finger over the same fret as an anchor around which the other fingers work. This anchor can slide up and down the neck as the melody requires. Turkmen music tends to be highly ornamented, involving a plethora of quick hammerings and trills that demand dexterity from the fingers.
Dutarists do not use a plectrum, drawing instead on a stock of rapid strokes doled out mostly by the thumb and index finger of the strumming hand (middle and index fingers help produce occasional lush, full strums for emphasis). Because of the low height of the strings, the music features some timbrally rich incidental noise as the fingers swipe across the grain of the soundboard. A good dutarplayer can maximize or minimize this percussive sound according to taste.
Turkmen music was traditionally orally transmitted. Since about the 1970s, Turkmens have been adapting Western staff notation to transcribe their music, and they often use sheet music as a pedagogical aid. Transcriptions tend to be extremely detailed.
Vambery, Arminius. 1970. Travels in Central Asia. New York: Praeger.
Zeranska-Kominek, Slawomira. 1998. “The Concept of Journey (Ұol) in Turkmen Music Tradition.” Ethnomusicology 42(2):265-82.
Beliaev, Viktor. 1975. Central Asian Music: Essays in the History of the Music of the Peoples of the U.S.S.R. Ed. Mark Slobin. Trans. Slobin, Mark and Greta. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.
--, and Viktor Aleksandrovich Uspenskiĭ. 2003. Turkmenskaia Muzyka [Turkmen music]. Ed. Shahym Gullyev. Almaty: Soros-Kazakhstan.
Fossum, David C. 2010. “The Ahal School: Turkmen dutarand the individual.” MA Thesis, Wesleyan University.
Gullyev, Shahym. 1985. Iskusstvo Turkmenskih Bahshi [Art of the Turkmen Bagshy]. Ashgabat: Ylym.
--. 2003. Turkmenskaia Muzyka: Nasledie [Turkmen music: Heritage]. Almaty: Fond Soros-Kazakhstan.
Zeranksa-Kominek, Slawomira. 2002. Music of Turkmenistan. In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, ed. Virginia Danielson, Scott Marcus, and Dwight Reynolds, The Middle East:965-77. New York: Routledge.
--, and Arnold Lebeuf. 1997. The Tale of Crazy Harman: The Musician and the Concept of Music in the Türkmen Epic Tale, Harman Däli. Literatury orientalne. Warsaw: Academic Publications DIALOG.
Last Modified: 04-Oct-2012