The krar is a bowl-lyre chordophone of the Amhara, Oromo, and Tigrinya, Afro-Asiatic-speaking peoples of northern and central Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the past it was associated with male, wandering, semi-professional village minstrels called azmari, but today the krar is also heard played by professional urban musicians, including females (listen to audio #1 and #2), and is taught in educational institutions. It is constructed in a variety of sizes with a range of neck-and-yoke designs that incorporate different types of tuning mechanisms. It can be played solo, in which case its performer is often also a singer, and is also heard in combination with groups of singers and other traditional and modern instruments. When incorporated into contemporary urban popular music ensembles, it can be amplified. The krar is considered a secular instrument and is often contrasted with the other main traditional Ethiopian lyre, the much larger, box-resonated begena (or beganna), which is viewed as a semi-sacred instrument because it is used to accompany verse and poetry praising God. Legend has it that, while the begena was given by God to the Biblical King David, the krar was a distorted imitation of it created by the scheming devil and given to mankind to play as they enjoyed worldly pleasures. The krar, therefore, is referred to of as “yesey Tan mesaria,” the “devil’s instrument.” (Kebede 1977, p. 381)
The krar pictured in gallery #1 is a small-sized model the wooden string carrier of which is made in two sections: a flat-bottomed, membrane-covered bowl resonator (gebetay), and a V-shaped neck constructed of two non-parallel arms (miseso) joined at their distal ends by a yoke (kenber)(detail #1). The bottom ends of the two arms come together beneath the resonator sound-table, where they are somehow connected to one another and anchored to the inside of the bowl. The arms, which pass through holes cut in the membrane sound-table, rest on the rim of the bowl and are held tight against it by the downward pressure of the tensioned sound-table (detail #2). The membrane is attached to and tensioned against the bowl resonator by a gut lace that runs through numerous holes around its circumference before being tightly drawn and knotted against the outside wall of the bowl (detail #3). The nylon strings (jimmat) are attached, at one end, to a tailpiece in the form of a rawhide loop that is anchored to the side of the resonator bowl (detail #4). While there are six playing strings on this instrument, only three lengths of string are used; each of the three strings is knotted at its midpoint around the tailpiece, producing two independent stings. The free ends of these six strings are wrapped around the neck’s yoke before being tied around individual cylindrical tuning levers (mekagnas) (detail #5). The complicated looping and knotting of the string ends to the levers (detail #6) holds them tightly against the neck’s yoke. The amount of tension on a string is controlled by rotating its lever around the yoke. All six strings pass over a pressure bridge (birkuma) located in the middle of the sound-table (detail #4). Each string has approximately the same vibrational length of 15.3 inches, as measured from its contact point with the bridge to where it comes in contact with the yoke.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The krar may be held a number of ways depending on if the musician is seated or standing and on which of two basic sounding techniques--plucking (dərdər, audio #1) or strumming (gərf,audio #2)--he or she is using. We will describe two ways of holding and sounding the krarby a seated player, one for each of these two sounding techniques. If employing the dərdər technique, the seated player rests the right arm (as seen from the perspective of gallery #1) of the krar just above the resonator almost horizontally on his or her left thigh. The player’s bent left arm supports the other arm of the krar in an almost vertical position, the sound-table facing back and the bottom of the resonator forward. The player’s right hand steadies the instrument by holding on to the yoke near where it is joined to the right arm of the neck. All five fingers of the left hand are used to pluck the strings from the backside of the instrument, not far below the yoke. For the gərf technique the instrument is held in a similar fashion except the the right side of the seconator rests on the player’s left thigh and the right hand is used, with or without a plectrum to strum the strings just above the bridge. For this technique the player mutes all the strings with his or her left hand (the thumb damps the top two strings, then one finger each for the other four strings) except for the string that he or she wants to sound undamped. (Teffera, pp. 276-278). A player accompanying him- or herself will tune the instrument to one of a few pentatonic scales called kignit, realizing the scale at a pitch level that is comfortable for their voice. Only monophonic melodies are played on the krar. Audio #3 presents an example of the krar being played in a small ensemble with other traditional Ethiopian instruments (masenqo, a bowed lute, and kebero, a drum) and call-and-response singing.
Origins/History/EvolutionLyres, as a type of instrument, are ancient, dating back to 3rd millennium BCE Mesopotamia. Surprisingly little is known precisely as to how this instrument concept came to be distributed and localized throughout the ancient world over the millennia, but it is known that lyres are today found in great variety throughout Northeast and East Africa. Ancient Egypt and the Nile River as a conduit for the spread of ideas and material culture throughout Northeast Africa seem to have played significant roles in the introduction of the lyre to the northern Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum (c100-350 CE)( Wegner and Weisser, p. 346). But exactly how and when the krar developed from the lyres in use at Aksum and when it came to be called by its present-day name cannot be known with certainty.
Kebede, A. 1977. “The Bowl-Lyre of Northeast Africa. Krar, the Devil’s Instrument,” Ethnomusicology 21(3): 379-395.
Lah, Ronald, and Stéphanie Weisser. 2014. “Krar.” GDMI v.3: 214-215.
Powne, Michael. 1966. Ethiopian Music—An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press.
Teffera, Timkehet. 2011 “The Six-Stringed Bowl Lyre Krar of Ethiopia and its Function as a Melody Instrument,” Studia Instrumentorum Musicae Popularis II (New Series): 269-286.
Wegner, Ulrich, and Stéphanie Weisser. 2014. “Lyre, §3: Modern Africa.” GDMI v. 3: 345-347.