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  • Origin of the Erhu and Other Chinese String Instruments

    The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an experience of the senses, an invitation to see, taste, and smell. But for me, more than anything else, the Festival is an auditory experience, with its unparalleled variety of singers, musicians, presenters, and storytellers.

    Working at the Festival for the first time this summer, I was awestruck by the incredible talents of participants who traveled great distances to share their love of music with visitors. In particular, the traditional melodies and instruments of China were enchanting to me, and I learned much through live concerts and daily narrative sessions.

    As someone familiar with the Arabic musical tradition, I was especially captivated one afternoon after hearing the erhu, a Chinese spike fiddle which bears close resemblance to the bowed rababa of the Middle East and North Africa. While the erhu’s construction is relatively simple, I find its sound dynamic and entrancing. The instrument has a distinct timbre, resulting partly from the unique resonator–a python skin–stretched over the front part of its body. In certain songs it can sound grave and lamenting. but in others, it is lighthearted and joyous.

    After attending a narrative session on traditional Chinese stringed instruments, I learned that the erhu has long occupied an important place in Chinese music, and continues to do so today. For this reason I decided to film a short video piece on the instrument in hopes of exposing a wider audience to its place in Chinese music both traditional and modern.

    This video piece was also inspired by one of the presenters, Dr. Charlotte D’Evelyn, whose love for the erhu was apparent to anyone who heard her play during the Festival or speak about the instrument.

    While living in Egypt I met many of my closest friends through music, primarily the mutual sharing of our own played melodies, comical concert anecdotes, and intimate feelings associated with music. The Folklife Festival’s emphasis on similar cross-cultural sharing was an element I found exemplified in D’Evelyn’s passion for Chinese music and the erhu in particular. I am indebted to her for sharing her own musical experiences with me and hope that everyone, even the musically uninitiated, will take away something new from this piece.

    Nicholas Mangialardi is a video production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a doctoral student in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University.

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