The Krar

Legendary Background : " The Devil's Instrument."

I.    The first version of the story bases itself on the origin of the Krar and the type of musical function it played in contrast to that of the begena. According to a few azmaris who still remember and tell the story, the make of the begena, its measurements and construction with the techniques of playing it, was miraculously re­vealed to Dawit mainly to serve in the musical praise of God, in the adoration of His name as well as in the encouragement it rendered in poetical (Kinai) religious meditations and prayers.   The Krar, on the contrary, was an inferior instrument, both in sound and resemblance to that of the begena, which man made inspired by seytan. Thus, the Azmaries say, the Krar's function in music also   remained   inferior-only   for   the   adoration   of feminine beauty, arousal of the sexual impulse, or praise of carnal love.
II.   According to the second version of the story told, the Krar was the instrument of wenbedais, shiftas, and sometimes wanderers.    A member of these wenbedais used to play for a wealthy nobleman, a wolf in sheep's clothing, appearing and getting admission as a poor talented azmari, in order to attract the attention of the noble lord and his household members until his fellow wenbedais stole the cattle out of the beret and the grains from the gottera. Wanderers used the Krar for begging food.   Shiftas played or accompanied fanno on the Krar. The kind of music the shiftas played enabled them to arouse their evil passions, stimulated their hearts so that their actions could be guided,  or  almost forced by seytan, into unreasonable destructiveness or unregrettingly merciless plunder.   At last, when the evil spirits were completely aroused, the shifta destroys his own Krar first.

This is the second version according to the story tellers.

  The Krar, originally the instrument of the amaras, is one of the most popular of Ethiopian stringed instruments today. It is found, both in the countries as well as in the cities, among wandering azmaris, in musical institutions, and in the homes of many amateur players. One of the reasons for its popularity is because it has a sound in high popular Ethiopian favour. It is an instru­ment used solely to play or accompany secular music.
  The Krar consists of six strings, stretched vertically between a lower soundbox and an upper Kenber (cross-
bar). This Kenber is supported by two misesos (side-posts) which are inserted at their bases into the soundbox. The strings (jimat) are tied to a piece of wire, or a strong piece of leather, attached to the soundbox at their lower ends. The mekagnas (tuning pegs), six in number, are tightly wound around and tied to the Kenber with the strings' upper ends. A birkuma (bridge) is used to raise the strings from their lower end placed on the flat stretched leather of the soundbox.

The Soundbox
  The soundbox of the Krar, like all other stringed musical instruments, is the most important part. It is comprised of a hollow hemispherical body made of wood, clay, or metal (most usually now any ordinary bowl) and a membrane from a cow's, goat's, or sheep's skin.

  A gebetay covered with membrane has served to make the soundbox of the Krar. Even Taba has been used in the old Krars. Presently, however, godguada sahin (metal bowl) is highly preferred and used for practical reasons. After covering the bowl with a membrane, a total of six holes are pierced on it. Two of this slanting holes near the edge serve to hold the misesos (side-posts) while the remaining four round holes serve as yedimts Kedadas (sound holes). Then the Koda (membrane) is tightly stretched over the bowl and sewn around its edge with gut or wire. When later the strings are plucked, they vibrate and also set this stretched membrane to vibrate on a different plain creating harmonies on the funda­mental tone. The bowl being hollow, vaulted, and air filled, maximum vibration is centralized and, conse­quently, free resonance is created.   It is this area of free vibration which effects on the quality of the tone. Thus there exists a remarkable difference of tone quality between Krars. These differences of tone and volume are, of course, attributed to differences in make, material, size, and in the consequent resonating qualities of the soundboxes. In general, the bigger the soundbox the lower the sound; krars with gebetay sound boxes pro­duce a bigger volume than those made of Taba; sahine soundboxes are considered best and produce the biggest volume.

The Side-posts

   The side-posts (misesoch) of the krar are always made of wood and their important function is to join and support the yoke (Kenber) enabling it to stretch the strings by means of the mekagnas (pegs). However, wood being an elastic material and the side-posts being inserted in the soundbox from the yoke, they help, directly or indirectly, to amplify, though very little, the sound of the krar.

The Strings
  All the strings (kiroch) of the krar used to be made of animal gut and used to be identical in length and weight. Variations in pitch were made possible by varying the tension of each string by means of each peg. Al­though this is still practiced in most parts of Ethiopia, the accessibility of western goods, especially in the cities, had   made   krar-makers   and   krar-players  use   nylon and wire strings of different weights along with some gut strings.   Commonly, the two lower pitched strings are of gut (jimmat) while the remaining three are of nylon and the highest pitched of wire. (Gut strings are usually thicker than nylon; nylon strings are thicker than wire strings. Thus the frequency of vibration being varied, they could be tuned to different pitches without the necessity of too great a difference in their tensions).

  The birkuma (bridge) is made of wood. It has two short flat legs that stand on the stretched membrane of the soundbox. Six frets are chaffed on it with about equal distances from one another. Each string is placed, or is made to pass, in each fret and it is thus kept in position with less chances of sliding when the string is tensed in tuning or after. The most important function of the birkuma, as stated before, is to raise the strings from their lower end where, otherwise, they would lie right against the stretched membrane making string vibrations impossible.

The Name
  There is no source of information where or how the krar got its name. Presently, the author is quite convinced that the word " krar " must have been derived from the amharic verb " makrer." Let us briefly see how this conclusion was arrived at.
  Makrer -to twine into a fine stretched cord.
  yekerere-something twined and stretched.
  kir-a fine cord or string.
  " krar "-stringed.   In this case a stringed instrument.

  There are two main kinds of krars. These are (1) the Shoa krars, and (2) the Gemu-Gofa krars. The main difference is on the soundboxes. The Gemu-Gofa krars use much bigger soundboxes than the Shoa krars. Sometimes the Konso and Gemu-Gofa soundboxes are almost as big as a small kebero. It is made of one-piece hollowed  wood  usually the bottom  of a tree  trunk, completely covered by a large stretched animal skin- cow's or sheep's. Different makes in size (small, medium, large) do exist and, as a result, sound differences.
  Traditional music institutions like the Ethiopian Patriotic Association have attempted, with some success, to improve on the make of all Ethiopian instruments. On the same line, a krar from Sidamo province shows a wide Kenber on which six holes are pierced to take in six mekagnas (pegs) with strings wound around  them.

  There is not a standard size for the krar. All being hand-made according to the likes of the maker or his customer, size variations are unlimited from province to province or even from make to make within a pro­vince. Good krars, with practical tested proportions and make, do exist and are mostly found in the Ethiopian Patriotic Association, Haile Sellassie I Theatre's Tradi­tional Group, and in the Creative Arts Centre of the H.S.I. University. Even then, the measurements of the krars in these departments show a lot of variations in body length, lengths of the sounding strings, and com­parable differences in sound. However, aware of this size-sound similarities and differences, some of the above mentioned departments have taken a musical advantage of small and big krars by employing them to play melo­dies doubled an octave apart.
  In order to give some idea to the reader, an approxi­mate average is given below for the principal measure­ments of krars.

Big Shoa Krar
Diameter  of the  sound-box-22  cm.   (on  the stretched membrane).
Length of each sidepost-75 cm.
Length of yoke-65 cm.
Length of sounding string-55 cm. (up to the birkuma).

Small Shoa Krar
Diameter of the sound-box-15 cm.
Length of each sidepost-60 cm.
Length of yoke--50 cm.
Length of sounding string-40 cm.

Big Konso Krar (Gomu-Gofa)
Sound-box-44 cm. x 29 cm. x 10 cm.
Length of each sidepost-64 cm.
Length of yoke-54 cm.
Length of sounding string-48 cm.

Gomu-Gofa (Konso)
Small Krar Sound-box-28 cm. x 15 cm. x 6 cm.
Length of each sidepost-52 cm.
Length of yoke-43 cm.
Length of sounding string-32 cm.
  The krar is tuned to a selected Kignit (melodic-mode or melodic-key). Although basically it is tuned to con­sist a five note " scale," the strings are, however, tuned in such a way to form a Kignit of a melody. And that particular Kignit is known, or named, by the name of that melody. It is important to recognize that tuning, or forming a Kignit, is traditionally impossible without a thorough previous knowledge of the melody to which the strings are tuned.
  Only four different types of Kignits are presently known. Each one of these Kignits takes the melody (or song) name and remains within the compass of the sound ranges in which the melody mainly lies.

These four Kignits are :-
I.     Tizita Kignit (according to the tizita melody)
II.    Balei Kignit (according to the Balei melody)
III.   Ambasel Kignit (according to the anbasel melody)
IV.    Anchihoy Kignit (according to the anchihoy melody)

I. The Tizita Kignit
As can be seen from the above example, the first string is tuned D, the second Eb, the third G, the fourth Ab, the fifth and the sixth to C an octave apart in the Tizita Kignit.
Notice that intervals of a semitone occur between D-Eb and G-Ab. Notice also that the bass clef has been used to indicate the pitches of the strings as closely and as accurately as possible.
II. The Balei (Bati) Kignit
Although the order of sounds is quite different, the Balei Kignit (also known as Bati) is made up of major seconds, minor thirds and octave intervals.
III.  The Ambasel Kignit
In the Ambasel Kignit, there is a semitone interval between C-sharp and D, and G-sharp and A. Although it has the intervalic sound relationship almost like the other Kignits, it sounds, however, different in its own tonal arrangement and follow-up.
IV. The Anchihoy Kignit is probably the most complicated melodic-mode to hear, write, or play. It consists of intervals made up of microtones (three-quarters of a note or one-quarter of a tone) which cannot be indicated even with the western notation system. As it is also difficult to exactly hear and know the pitches, the reader is warned to leave some room of doubt as to the accuracy of the above Anchihoy melodic-mode.    However, the interval with less than a semitone is indicated by a minus sign above it. Thus the Anchihoy Kignit consists of microtone, semitone, minor third (?), major third (?), and octave intervals.

Playing Positing
  The Krar is played both in a sitting or standing position.
Seated, the sound box is held, under the left armpit, the joint of the elbow pressing it against the body, and the miseso resting along the top of the left thigh. The back of the instrument is away of the player and the krar should be held in such a position so as to permit the right hand play freely (with plectrum or fingers) just above the Birkuma. The left arm curves at the elbow, more or less, from the back side of the sound box and the hand rests about an inch and a half below the Kanbar.    Then the five fingers are arranged in a practical position, to damp or pluck, the six strings. The thumb is used for the 1st and 2nd strings, the second finger plays the 3rd string, the third finger the 4th string, the fourth finger the fifth string, and the small finger the sixth string.
  Standing, about the same position as sitting is kept. However, instead of the lower miseso resting on the left thigh, the Krar is a bit tilted outward so that the edge of the sound-box is pressed against the left hip. Most of the time, a cloth or a piece of leather, as a cord, is tied from one miseso to another from the back side. This cord helps the left arm to support the Krar in a standing position especially if the player moves or dances, as they sometimes do, while playing.

Ways of Playing
  There are two ways of playing the krar. These ways are : (1) String Damping, and (2) String Plucking, or Double Technique.

(1)  String Damping.   In this way of playing the right hand uses a plectrum to thrum the strings about an inch and a half away from the birkuma. The action of each of the left hand fingers firmly placed against each string (as explained in positions) is to damp or silence its vibration as completely as possible.   (It is not to shorten the length of the string, and hence get another pitch on the same string like the western violin, etc.).
  Hence, sound is produced by thrumming the strings with the right hand and the left hand is used to silence some strings and open others to sound according to the melody desired.

(2)   Siring Plucking.    The fingers  of the left  hand remaining always in the same position are each used here to pluck and vibrate strings consecutively according to the melody without damping.    This way of playing enables one to embroider music melodically and rhyth­mically.    However, it requires a lot of musicality and skill on the part of the player.
  The right hand uses the index finger of the thumb, and sometimes the middle finger, to keep up the main, or down, beat. Occasionally it strikes two note chords made up of octaves, fourths and fifths simultaneously with the melody played by the left hand. In string plucking, the fundamental note melash, is added almost continuously on the main beat by the right hand.

 (a) In damping the positions discussed so far are used. The right hand uses usually a plectrum and there is a vertical wrist movement (up and dawn) as the plectrum sweeps across the strings in opposite directions regularly in time.
(b) In plucking, the Krar is held quite tilted the miseso on the arm and the edge of the sound-box against the stomach. The right-hand fingers usually hold the instrument where the miseso and sound-box meet. The thumb in this case is kept free to pluck the fundamental note.   That is why it is called Double Playing or Double Plucking.

  The krar is played as a solo instrument, to accompany a singer or another instrument, and as part of an instrumental group. When playing solo, the tuning is at the discretion of the player. When used to accompany a singer or another instrument, the strings are tuned to suit the voice of the singer or the other instrument. In group play, the krar is almost always tuned to the washint. Plucking is usually used in solo playing because it enables the player to embroider a melody melodically and rhythmically according to his sensibility and skill. In group play, the krar is usually played by damping. Sometimes the sound box alone is used to bring about a a percussive effect. Although rare, few players also use the plectrum on the string by way of emphasis and the increase the sonority (not harmony in the western sense) in a melody.
  The krar is a difficult instrument to play. Because of its gut strings, the tone is loud, but colorful. If it is badly played, the krar sounds very dry and quite prickly. Thus technique becomes very important for good tone production as well as to remain in tune.

Ambasel-name of a district in the province of Wollo.
Anchihoy-" Dear," referring to a lady love.
azmari-singer or musician.
Balei-name of a province.
Batti-name of a district in the province of Wollo.
beret-fenced place where cattle are kept for the night.
birkuma--Krar bridge.
Dawit-King David or the songs of David.
fanno-song of bandits.
gebetay-bowl made of wood.
jimat-gat string.
mekagna-tuning peg.
melash-tone centre.
Sahin-bowl made of metal.
Taba-bowl made of clay.
Wonbedai-robber, murderer.
Yaf taric-story passed by word of mouth.
Yedimts Kedada-sound hole.
Yeseytan Mesaria-the devil's instrument.