by Aris Tsilfidis
The Pontic lyra is a 3 stringed musical instrument played primarily by those whose origins lay in the Pontus region of north eastern Turkey, those who reside in the northern parts of Greece, and also people from many other parts of the world. It is also known as the Pontian lyra, Pontic fiddle or kemenche. It is without doubt the musical instrument which defines Pontic Greek culture, and has a very distinct melody unlike any other instrument.
The Pontic lyra comprises a narrow box shaped body which includes a neck and a pegbox, and a soundboard which covers the body. The body is either made by hollowing out a single piece of wood, or by gluing pieces together. The best lyra are said to be made of extremely dense woods such as plum, mulberry and walnut. Cedar is sometimes also used. The soundboard is made of pine or spruce.
The sides of the body are generally 2-3mm in thickness, as is the soundboard. The pegs are made of hardwood (usually the same wood as the body) and are inserted from the front. The chords are made of wire although sheep's gut can be used for the lower two. When using wire chords, two Violin A (La) chords are used, whilst the high pitched chord is a guitar 13 or 14 (Si) chord.
Traditionally, the bow (doksar) was made from an olive branch, however nowadays they are made from any light piece of wood. Hair from a male horse's tail is ideally used, however synthetic hair can suffice. While playing, the tension of the bow hair is controlled by the second and third finger whilst it is held palm upwards.
Common tunings for the Pontic lyra are GDA and AEB, AAD and EAD and many others. The instrument is tuned in fourths. It can be played while standing up or sitting down and is held vertically. When seated, the bottom of the lyra is rested between the thighs of the player. The chords are touched with the flesh of the fingers, not the nails. There is no vibrato. A particular characteristic of the Pontic lyra is its polyphony in which drone effects and parallel fourths dominate. Wrist movement is also used especially in faster paced tunes.
The Pontic lyra is most commonly played seated whilst cradled between the thighs
The origins of the Pontic lyra are very difficult to define due to a lack of recorded historical references. The word kemenche is believed to be derived from the Persian words keman (bow) and che (little). The kamancheh or kamāncha is a Persian bowed string instrument related to the bowed rebab (the historical ancestor of the kamancheh), and also to the bowed Byzantine lira which is an ancestor of the European violin family. The answer could very well be that the Pontic lyra is related to both the kamanche and the Byzantine lyra. Other variations of the kemenche also exist, such as the Kemona and the Kemane.
Earliest known depiction of lyra in a Byzantine ivory casket (900 - 1100 AD). (Museo Nazionale, Florence)
Geographically the Pontic lyra was played only in the areas which were once the Byzantine Empire of Trebizond (from Samsun to just east of Trabzon, and also inland). Today, in this region situated in north-eastern Turkey, the kemenche is still played extensively and is referred to as Karadeniz kemence. The instrument is generally not played in other parts of Turkey.
The Pontic Greeks who lived in this region for nearly 3000 years, and who were expelled in 1923 as part of the Exchange of Populations between Greece and Turkey, sometimes simply call the instrument a ‘lyra'.
Laurence Picken writes, "We shall never know what an illiterate fiddler of the early Middle Ages played on his lira; but the polyphonic fiddling of those who live on the Black Sea coast, in the belt of hazel-nut cultivation between Giresun and Hopa, may without exaggeration be described as quasi-mediaeval."
Woman playing the kamancheh in a painting from the Hasht Behesht Palace in Isfahan Persia, 1669
Byzantine lyra found in excavations at Novgorod dated to 1190 AD
Instrumental Polyphonic Folk Music in Asia Minor. Laurence Picken. Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association. 80th session (1953-1954). pp 73-76
Polyphony in Touloum Playing by the Pontic Greeks. Christian Ahrens. Yearbook of the Inrenational Folk Music Council. Vol 5. (1973), pp 122-131
A traditional Pontic Greek tune played with the Pontic lyra