Barbat the Persian lute

Barbat the Persian Lute

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. The "barbat بربت" (also spelled in Persian as بربط) is one of the most ancient musical instruments of Persia. Its antiquity goes back many centuries ago, at least to the time that "Barbad باربد" (late 6th – early 7th century CE), a Persian poet-musician and barbat player, who performed in the darbar دربار (palace) of the King Khosrow II (c. 570-628).

The etymology of the barbat. While some believe that the name barbat originated in the name of the poet-musician Barbad, many scholars, including "Abu Abdollah Kharazmi ابو‌عبدالله خوارزمی" (Persian scholar) believe that the name barbat is a combination of the two Persian names "bar بر" and "bat بت", meaning "chest" and "duck", respectively. The second theory is also acceptable, since the shape of the lute, in fact, its soundbox together with its neck, is truly similar to the chest of a duck. Note that Kharazmi (not to be confused with Khwarizmi, Persian mathematician and the father of classical algebra) explains his theory about the etymology of the name barbat in his encyclopedia titled "Mafatih-al-Olum مَفاتیحُ العلوم".

Today's barbat which is a recreation of its ancient version has a smaller soundbox and longer neck compared to the standard oud, and because of that, it has a distinctive sound. The frequency of the application of the name "barbat" and "oud عود" in the works of Persian poets, and the manuscripts of Persian music theorists shows the importance and essential presence of the lutes in Persian culture. Also, the barbat and the oud are present in many Persian stone cuttings and paintings (miniatures).

Musically, as far as I know, after Islam, the barbat was forgotten, and in Persia and many other Islamic countries, the standard oud was popular for many centuries. Also, since the sound of the oud was not loud, it was never used in Persian music orchestras during the Ghajar era.

Perhaps the first instrumentalist that started to play the oud and give a new life to this instrument in contemporary Persian music was the late Ostad Mansour Nariman (1935-2015) who was first a setar player. This is why he is considered the father of oud in Iran. Other musicians, like Abdolvahab Shahidi (1922-2021), best known as a singer, played the oud to promote the instrument in Iran.

Ostad Ebrahim Qanbari-Mehr (1928-2022) was a prominent and innovative musical instrument maker who contributed to the recreation of the ancient barbat. Hossein Behroozinia (1962-) is a dynamo force behind the promotion of the barbat in Iran and abroad.

The Arabic lute is called in Arabic "al-oud العود" and some believe that this instrument is called "al-oud" because the name of a special black wood used for the surface of the soundbox of this instrument is called "al-oud". It is famous that the English name "lute" has been derived from the Arabic name "al-oud". However, there is also another theory for the etymology of the name "oud". Some etymologists believe that the name "oud" is a dialect of the Persian name "roud رود" which originated in the name "roudeh روده" meaning gut. This theory is also acceptable since the gut was used for making musical instruments' strings. Note that there are other similar names for musical instruments including the name "roud" such as the "roud" itself as a general name for stringed instruments in the works of many poets such as Rudaki, Nizami Ganjavi, and Ferdowsi, and the expressions "shahroud شهرود" and "zanganeh roud زنگانه‌رود", which mean "the king of stringed instruments" and "the roud of Zengid people", respectively, seen in the works of the Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi. The Nizami's verse including both "shahroud شهرود" and "zanganeh roud زنگانه‌رود" is as follows:

چو زنگی درآمد به زنگانه‌رود     ز شهرود رومی برآمد سرود

Finally, note that the name "roudjameh رودجامه" stands for "oud" and "barbat بربط", according to the Dehkhoda dictionary. Some believe that the inclusion of "rud رود" in the name of the Indian stringed instrument "rudraveena رودراوینا" is not accidental.

It is believed that "pipa", the Chinese lute, originated in barbat and the Japanese lute, called "biwa", is borrowed from China.

Appendix. Arthur Emanuel Christensen (1875-1945), who was a Danish orientalist and scholar of Iranian philology and folklore, used the Persian dictation باربد for the name of the pre-Islamic Persian musician Barbad in his work. This version was generally accepted in Iran. Note that before Islam, the Perso-Arabic alphabet was not in use in Iran. However, Theodor Nöldeke (1836-1930), a German orientalist and scholar, believes that "Pahrbod پهربد" or "Pahlbod پهلبد" should be the name of Barbad based on Arabic texts in which they used the names "Fahrbod فهربد" or "Fahlbod فهلبد" and these are the Arabicized of the names mentioned above.

Acknowledgments. The picture, at the top of this page, is courtesy of Shahram Saremi (Iranian kamancheh player). In this picture, from left to right, you see Ostad Nasrollah Nasehpour (master of Persian vocal radif repertoire), Ostad Mansour Nariman (master of Persian oud), and Ostad Hooshang Zarif (master of Persian tar).


[Pi] Laurence Picken, The Origin of the Short Lute, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 8, 32-42 (1955).

[Po] Mehran Poormandan, The Encyclopedia of Iranian Old Music, Tehran, (2000).

[Se] Mehdi Setayeshgar, Vazhe-Name-ye-Musighi-ye-Iran Zamin, Tehran, Vol. I (1995) & Vol. II (1996).

Keywords. barbat, lute, laut, lavta, oud, ud.

Qanbari-Mehr and Behroozinia with the first barbat

Remark. In the above pictures, Hossein Behroozinia is beside Ebrahim Qanbari-Mehr. The barbat in the picture on right is the first barbat Ostad Qanbari-Mehr constructed. Later, Behroozinia dedicated this barbat to the "Horniman Museum and Gardens" in London, England.