Kamancheh the Persian Spike Fiddle

Maestro Ali Asghar Bahari on the Persian Kamancheh

Maestro Ali Asghar Bahari on the Persian Kamancheh

Kamancheh the Persian spike fiddle

by Peyman Nasehpour

Abstract. The kamancheh is the chief Persian bowed and fretless instrument, which is played both in Persian art and folk music. Different versions of the kamancheh are also popular in neighboring countries. In this article, the kamancheh and the unique role of Ostad Ali Asghar Bahari (1905-1995) will be discussed.

Introduction. The "kamancheh کمانچه" is the Persian spike fiddle and the chief Persian bowed instrument dating back to antiquity. It has a small, hollowed hardwood body with a thin stretched skin membrane. Its neck is cylindrical, and it has four strings. It is played vertically in the manner of the European viol. The kamancheh had three strings since at least the Safavid era, and the fourth string was apparently added in the early twentieth century as a result of the introduction of the "violin" to Iran.

The kamancheh before the Ghajar era. The kamancheh is an ancient instrument. According to different books that I have investigated, "Ebn-e-Faghih ابن فقیه" is the first scholar who mentioned the name kamancheh as a bowed instrument in his book written in the 10th Century. Also, many Persian poets have used the name "kamancheh" in their poems. For example, "Masoud-e Sa'd-e Salman مسعود سعد سلمان" says:

به رسم رفته چو رامشگران خوش دستان یکی بساخت کمانچه یکی نواخت رباب

Also, "Sanayi سنایی" says:

گاه چون نای بُدم از غم تو با ناله گاه بودم چو کمانچه ز فراغت به خروش

"Allameh-Ghotb-al-Din Mohammad Shirazi علامه قطب‌الدین محمد شیرازی", in his famous encyclopedia, "Dorrat-al-Taj درةالتاج", discusses this instrument, but with the name "komajeh کماجه", which is a dialect of the kamancheh. The very famous Persian musician/theorist/poet, "Abdolqadir Maraghi عبدالقادر مراغی", describes this instrument in his famous book, "Jame'-al-Alhan جامع الالحان" and believes that the sound of the kamancheh is more beautiful than "ghezhak غژک", which is another Persian bowed instrument. Note that today, the ghezhak, also known as "gheychak قیچک" and with the local Baluchi name "soruz سُروز", is played in "Sistan and Baluchistan سیستان و بلوچستان" of Iran and is related to the Indian bowed instrument "sarangi سارنگی".

The book "Kanz-al-Tohaf کنزالتحف" by "Hassan Kashani حسن کاشانی" is perhaps the only historical book that discusses extensively how to make Persian musical instruments. In the text of this book, it has been written about the kamancheh of his time and describes how to make the kamancheh and its accessories. It is quite interesting to note that Hassan Kashani discusses the same Persian spike fiddle under the name "gheshak غشک", which is definitely another dialect of the name "ghezhak". Note that Kashani includes a painted picture of the kamancheh in his book, which is quite similar to the kamancheh painted in Persian miniatures and the paintings of "Chehl-Sotun چهل ستون" Palace in Isfahan. Also, note that Kashani explains that the name of the bow of the "gheshak" is the "kamancheh". Furthermore, he applies the name "mezrab مضراب" for the bow. The Arabic word "mezrab مضراب" coming from the verb "zarb ضرب" (to beat) is a general name for any tool for beating. However, in music, the mezrab is the name of any tool that one may use to play an instrument. For example, the expression "mezrab-e-tar مضراب تار" stands for any kind of plectrum, which is used to play the tar (Persian long-necked lute). Note that the "kaman کمان" means bow in Persian and "kamancheh کمانچه" with the suffix "cheh چه" is a diminutive form of "kaman". Therefore, etymologically, one can deduce that the name "kamancheh" is more suitable to indicate the bow of any bowed instrument than the instrument itself. It follows that to apply the word "kamancheh" to indicate the Persian spike fiddle is an error allowed by usage, but however, it seems there is no better choice because the ancient name gheychak is used today to indicate another bowed instrument popular in the music of Sistan-Baluchistan province, though with the local Baluchi name "soruz سُروز". Also, note that different versions of the gheychak (like alto gheychak and soprano gheychak) are sometimes performed in Persian music ensembles, though it is not as popular as the kamancheh. Finally, let me add that the instrument kamancheh is mentioned in another book with the title "Behjat-al-Ruh بهجت الروح" explaining that it is a perfect instrument.

The name "kamanje کَمَنجِه" is an Arabicized of the "kamancheh". The name "kamicheh کمیچه" has been also used in the literature. For example, the poet Suzani Samarghandi uses the word "kamichi کمیچی" as a kamancheh player in his poems:

یکی کرباس چرخی داده کآن را نپوشد هیچ چنگی و کمیچی

In the following, before moving to the next section, we gather the names of some famous kamancheh players before the Ghajar's era: Mirza Mohammad Kamancheh'i, Ostad Ma'sum Kamancheh'i, Molana Ahmad Kamancheh'i, entitled "Amir Ghazi", Ostad Zeytun, and Ostad Malek Mahmud.

The kamancheh during and after the Ghajar era.

According to the picture drawn in the book Kanz-al-Tohaf, by Hassan Kashani, the kamancheh had only two strings. I do not know if, in his time, there existed a version of the kamancheh with more than two strings. Note that even now, one-stringed bowed instruments are popular, like the instrument "imzad امزاد" performed by the Tuareg people of Africa. Though we do not know when the three-stringed kamancheh became popular, we do know that the three-stringed kamancheh existed in the Safavid era, and in the Ghajar era, the kamancheh with three strings was quite popular. As Mehdi Setayeshgar reports in his encyclopedia, the fourth string was added to the kamancheh by "Musa Kashi موسی کاشی", which was a Jewish kamancheh player of the Ghajar era. Some believe that after the introduction of the western violin to Iran, Musa Kashi and the other kamancheh players decided to add the fourth string to the kamancheh. However, one of the most famous kamancheh players of the Ghajar era, "Agha Jan آقا جان", who was the father of Mirza Habib Sama' Hozur (very famous santoor and tonbak player), had invented a kind of kamancheh having unusual strings and keys, and it had a long fretless handle in order to help to play his kamancheh while standing up during his performances. In historical books related to Persian music, it is reported that he had named his special kamancheh, "Majles-Ara مجلس آرا"!

The names of some famous kamancheh players during and after the Ghajar era are Khoshnavaz Khan, Agha Motalleb, Esmail Khan, Hossein Khan Esmail-zadeh, Gholi Khan, Musa Kashi, Mirza Rahim, Javad Khan Ghazvini, Bagher Khan Rameshgar, Alireza Changi, Mirza Gholamhossein, Safdar Khan, Hossein entitled to Karim-Kur, and his daughter, Vajiheh, Farmanfarma the Uncle of Naser-al-Din Shah, Jamileh (the female student of Esmail Khan), Ali Khan, Reza Khan Nikfar, Hossein Yahaghghi and his sister Keshvar Khnum entitled to Farah-Lagha, Haig (he was Armenian) and at last, Ali Asghar Bahari.

The kamancheh was going to be completely forgotten. The introduction of the western violin was not positive from some perspectives. After the introduction of the violin to Iran, unfortunately, everything changed! Many instrumentalists put the kamancheh down and started playing the violin! Even most of the students of Hossein Khan Esmail-zadeh like Reza Mahjubi, Rokneddin Mokhtari, Abolhassan Saba, and Ebrahim Mansouri played the violin (but not the kamancheh as far as I know). Note that Ostad Hossein Khan Esmail-zadeh was an iconic kamancheh player. Let us quote what Ruh-al-Allah Khaleghi, the famous historian/composer/theorist says about the kamancheh in his famous historical book, "Sargozasht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran سرگذشت موسیقی ایران":

"The sound of kamancheh is nasal, while the sound of the violin is closer to nature! When the violin was introduced to Iran since it had four strings, another string was added to the kamancheh for imitating the violin and since it was very similar to the kamancheh (?), many kamancheh players became violin instructors. Since the violin was able to play a similar role that the kamancheh played, portable, and its shape was more beautiful (?), gradually the kamancheh was replaced by the violin and today nobody plays the kamancheh. It is always natural that imperfect instruments will always be replaced by complete ones. Similarly, ney (Persian reed) was replaced by flute and sorna (Persian oboe) by the oboe."

Once Hassan Mashhoun, a researcher of Persian music, asked the reason why one of the most famous kamancheh players of his time put the kamancheh down! Mashhoun added that there existed many violin players, but the kamancheh players, one after another, were getting old and disabled! That master replied: "There is no student for the kamancheh. The people have become modern and play the violin!"

However, there were some compassionate musicians and composers such as Aref Ghazvini who were not happy with what was happening to Persian art music. He had warned of the danger of abolishing Persian art music and its important instruments like the kamancheh, the santoor (Persian hackbrett), and the tar (Persian long-necked lute). Perhaps, though implicitly, he had this opinion that the modernization of an oriental culture is not always the same as the Westernization of that culture because he was himself a modern and revolutionary poet, musician, and composer.

The unique role of Ostad Ali Asghar Bahari who gave a new life to the kamancheh. Ostad Ali Asghar Bahari (1905-1995) gave a new life to the kamancheh by playing this instrument in many concerts, gatherings, and Radio and TV channels.

It is fortunate that today we have many active kamancheh players in Iran and abroad and nobody is anxious for the kamancheh to be abolished. In fact, thanks to the great efforts of the world-class kamancheh player, i.e., Ostad Kayhan Kalhor, the kamancheh has become famous at international levels.

The use of kamancheh in folk music. The kamancheh is performed in Iranian folk music also. The name of kamancheh in different regions of Iran is as follows:

  • The tal. The folk kamancheh in Lorestan is called the "tal تال". The most important characteristic of the tal is that its soundbox is open in its rare section. The tal is perhaps the most popular instrument in the folk music of Lorestan.

  • The mukash. The "mukash موکَش" is a kind of kamancheh that was popular in Kermanshah. Its soundbox was smaller, and it had two or three strings. It was used to accompany the tanbour of Kermanshah. As it is reported, the performing tradition of the mukash has been forgotten.

  • The ghichagh. The "ghichagh قیچاق" is the name of Turkmen kamancheh in some references. Its size is much smaller than ordinary kamancheh in Persian music. It has three strings and is performed to accompany a traditional ensemble of Turkmen music. Note that a traditional ensemble of Turkmen music consists of a bakhshi who is a vocalist and the dotar player, and a kamancheh player who has usually a second role in the ensemble.

  • The kamancha. The "kamancha کامانچا" is the Azerbaijani spike fiddle. Similar to its Persian version, it has four strings. A traditional ensemble for Azerbaijani music consists of a vocalist (known as khananda, a dialect of the Persian word "khanandeh خواننده" which means singer) who is often the ghaval player also, a tar (Azerbaijani long-necked lute) player, and a kamancha player. Note that the instrumentalist of the traditional ensemble of Azerbaijani music is usually called the "sazanda" which is a dialect of the Persian word "sazandeh سازنده".

Appendix. The kamancheh is present in other countries. For example, there is a bowed instrument in Turkey and its name is the "kemenche" (in Turkish, kemençe), though it is not similar to the Persian kamancheh. In fact, the Turkish kemenche is similar to the Byzantine Lyra. In India, there is a bowed instrument called the "kamaicha", which is somehow similar to the Persian kamancheh.


[KA]: Hassan Kashani, Kanz-al-Tohaf, by the effort of M.T. Binesh, Tehran, 1992.

[KH]: Ruhollah Khaleghi, Sargozasht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1974.

[M]: Hassan Mashhoun, Tarikh-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1994.

[P]: 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).

Picture Reference. The picture of the late maestro Ali Asghar Bahari in this article, appeared in Jean During's book, The Art of Persian Music, on page 114.

Keywords. kamanche, kamancha, kamancheh, Persian, Iranian.

A three-stringed spike fiddle (kamancheh) and a six-stringed lute (sheshtar) are depicted in the above painting in Chehel Sotoun, Isfahan, Persia. The cropped picture is taken from Wikipedia.

A three-stringed spike fiddle (kamancheh) and a six-stringed lute (sheshtar) are depicted in the above painting in Chehel Sotoun, Isfahan, Persia. The cropped picture is taken from Wikipedia.

Persian kamancheh dated c. 1880

Persian kamancheh dated c. 1880

Persian kamancheh dated c. 1869

Persian kamancheh dated c. 1869