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The Di-Hu: Traditional Bass Instrument Reinventing Orchestra Sounds

Last Updated on 2023/11/26

The Di-Hu: An Exploration of a Traditional Chinese Instrument

The Di-Hu (低胡), often referred to as the bass Erhu, holds a significant place in the family of Chinese string instruments. It is a crucial bass instrument in Chinese folk orchestras, filling a gap that existed for a long time in the low-frequency range of Chinese traditional music. Historically, the role of bass was fulfilled by the Qin Hu, a similar instrument to today’s Qin Qin, especially in Guangdong music. It was not until the period of the Anti-Japanese War and the formation of the Liberated Areas that the creation of the Di-Hu began, marking an essential development in the enhancement of Chinese traditional music ensembles.

Design and Construction

The Di-Hu shares its design and construction elements with the Erhu but is larger in size and produces lower tones. It comes in three sizes – large, medium, and small, each suited for orchestras of different scales. The smaller version, also known as the “Da Hu,” is used in smaller ensembles, while the larger variant is preferred in full-scale traditional orchestras.

In the 1960s, a significant advancement was made with the successful development of a four-stringed large Di-Hu. This variant featured a circular sound box covered with python skin, a fingerboard on the neck instead of the traditional qianjin (string fastener), and a screw string axle. It uses a double-haired bow, with strings tuned to C, G, d, a, offering a distinctive and rich tonal quality that harmoniously blends with other traditional string instruments like the Gao Hu, Erhu, and Zhong Hu. Later in the 1970s, further innovation led to the creation of the membrane-and-wood combined structure for the Di-Hu, along with other bass instruments like the Hu-lu Qin and pulled string instruments.

The Di-Hu’s sound range typically extends two octaves, usually tuned to A·e, an octave lower than the Zhong Hu. Its long neck and wide spacing of finger positions make it less suitable for fast or complex melodies. Instead, it excels in playing strong beats, prolonged notes, or simplified tunes in complex compositions.

Role in Music Ensembles

In traditional Chinese music ensembles, the Di-Hu plays a pivotal role in enhancing the richness and depth of the sound. It forms the foundation of the orchestra’s sonic profile. Beyond traditional orchestras, the Di-Hu is also widely used in various regional music forms such as Beifang Chui Ge (Northern Blow Song), Jiangnan Sizhu (Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo), and Cantonese music.

A Unique Piece of History

A particularly noteworthy Di-Hu can be found in the Harbin Music Museum, known for its unique construction from a “Mobil Oil” drum. This instrument, a symbol of ingenuity and the pursuit of musical excellence under constrained conditions, played a significant part in the performance of the stirring melodies of “The Yellow River Cantata.” During a time of scarcity in 1946, this Di-Hu was conceptualized by the musicians of Yan’an University’s Lu Yi (鲁艺) as they journeyed to Harbin, illustrating the relentless spirit of Chinese musicians in the face of adversity.

Professor Gu Weiquan, the director of the Harbin Music Academy Library and Music Museum, fondly reflects on this Di-Hu as embodying a spirit that seeks musical excellence even in times of material scarcity.

Source: Baike Baidu

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