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The Tembor: Unraveling the Strings of Xinjiang’s Musical Past

Last Updated on 2023/11/25

The Tembor’s Evolution: From Royal Courts to Contemporary Concerts.

The Dutar, also known as Tembor (تەمبۈر) and in Chinese as 弹布尔 (Tán bù’ěr), is an ancient plucked string musical instrument. It’s a cultural emblem, particularly among the Uighur and Uzbek ethnic groups, predominantly found in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. The instrument’s name has historically been translated in various forms, including Tánbō’ěr, Dānbù’ěr, and Dān bù’ěr, and it enjoys widespread popularity across Xinjiang. A type of plucked string instrument, the Dutar features a long fretboard with sixteen frets and two groups of copper strings tuned to ggd1gg or d1d1gd1d1, spanning a broad range of three octaves. The outer strings serve as the primary playing strings, while the inner strings are used for accompaniment, suitable for solo performances, accompaniment, and ensemble playing.

By the 14th and 15th centuries, famous folk artists were already known for their Dutar performances. The Qing dynasty, recognizing its cultural significance, included it in the court music of the Hui nationality. Descriptions from the Qing period, such as those in the “Qin Ding Da Qing Hui Dian” (钦定大清会典) and “Xinjiang Tuzhi” (新疆图志), provide valuable insights into the instrument’s evolution, differing slightly from the modern version. The earliest formal record of the Dutar appears in the 1854 work “Musicians’ History” (《乐师史》) by Mullah Aismutulamuji.

The Dutar’s design resembles a gourd with a long handle, consisting of a resonance box, headstock, neck, tuning pegs, bridge, and strings. It is typically made from mulberry or walnut wood, with a resonance box covered by a thin plate of paulownia or white pine. The instrument has two main variants: the Southern Xinjiang Dutar and the Northern Xinjiang Dutar, each with distinct characteristics and tuning.

  1. Southern Xinjiang Dutar: This variant is believed to be the original form of the Dutar, maintaining its ancient design. It is a high-pitched instrument, about 130 cm in length, with a resonance box made from a single piece of mulberry wood. The soundboard, made of paulownia wood, has two teardrop-shaped sound holes. The neck is also made of mulberry wood and is attached to the resonance box. It typically has five metal strings and is played using a horn plectrum. This variant is popular in the Kashgar, Hotan, and Kucha regions, often used for solo, ensemble, or dance accompaniment.
  2. Northern Xinjiang Dutar: In the late 18th century, famous folk artists like Mohammed Mullah brought the Southern Dutar to Northern Xinjiang, including Ili, where it underwent modifications. The Northern Dutar is characterized by a fuller, more robust sound and is considered a mid-range instrument. Made from walnut or mulberry wood, it is about 147 cm long, with a larger resonance box and more ornate designs using shell or camel bone inlays. The Northern Dutar has five metal strings and is commonly used in “Twelve Mukam” performances, a famous Uighur musical form.
  3. Mid-Range Dutar: In the 1960s, the Yitiebake Musical Instrument Factory in Urumqi developed a mid-range version of the Dutar, shortening its length to 110 cm. This variant features a resonance box made from beautifully patterned walnut wood panels. It has five (or sometimes six) strings and a wider range of musical notes, extending to three octaves. This mid-range Dutar has been widely adopted by professional music groups for solo and ensemble performances.

In performance, the Dutar is generally played while seated, with the instrument held diagonally across the body. The right hand employs various techniques like plucking and strumming, while the left hand manipulates the strings along the fretboard. The Dutar excels in playing vibrant and rhythmic folk music, with a diverse repertoire including pieces like “Uzale,” “Oshak,” and “Muxa Ureg.” Prominent Dutar players include Yusenjiang Kami, Heyasiding Balati, and Kurbanjiang Umar.

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