KAMĀNČA (کمانچه, lit. “small bow”), the most common term throughout much of the Iranian world for a spike fiddle with a small, often spherical, resonating chamber (Plate I).


Bows used in playing fiddles of various types, including those that do not have a metal spike (Pers. siḵ, siḵča; cf. Ar. rejl “foot”) attached to the sound cavity, may also be called kamānča, kamāna, or kamān, though the French loanword ārša has become more common.  Among the other names for spike fiddles in greater Iran and adjacent regions are Persian ḡečak, Turkish ıklığ, Arabic rabāb, and Iraqi Arabic joza. Cognates of kamānča, ḡečak, and ıklığ are used in a number of languages for fiddles with or without spikes, and cognates of rabāb refer to plucked lutes as well as to fiddles. As a 20th-century loanword in Egyptian Arabic, kamānja has served both as a name for the European violin and as a replacement for certain meanings of rabāb (Elsner, 1985); the European violin is likewise called kamānja in the Maghreb. Turkish kemençe and Armenian k’aman are also loanwords from Persian, applied in recent centuries to fiddles that do not have spikes, though the Ottoman kemençe was identical to the Persian kamānča. In modern Turkish, kemençe denotes two types of short-necked fiddle, associated respectively with the eastern Black Sea (karadeniz kemençesi) and the eastern Aegean (kemençe rumi). The former has three strings tuned in fourths and is well suited to a polyphonic style of playing (Picken, 1953-54; Ahrens). The latter resembles the Greek lyra and was once used in the suites called fasıl before being largely replaced by the European violin, which in Turkish is called keman


The kamānča of Persian classical music has a spherical sound cavity of mulberry or walnut wood, covered with sheepskin. Most instruments have four steel strings of ca. 33 cm length and are played with a horsehair bow. As the name of the Iraqi joza (lit. “nut”) suggests, its sound cavity is made of coconut, covered either with sheepskin or with a fish skin from the Caspian Sea; the joza also has four strings of varying thickness.


The kamānča is indispensable in performances of the Azerbaijani muğam and the Iraqi maqām, both of which require an ensemble of three musicians. The Azerbaijani trio is made up of kamānča, tār (a waisted, long-necked lute), and a singer who also plays frame drum (daf), whereas Iraqi singers are accompanied by a santur (hammered box zither), together with a joza, and two or three drums as well.  Instrumentation is more flexible in Persian classical music, where the ensemble that accompanies a singer may include kamānča, tār or setār (a smaller long-necked lute), santur, ney (end-blown reed flute), and dombak (goblet-shaped drum). Players of whichever melodic instruments are present on a given occasion take turns in providing responses (javāb-e āvāz) to each of the singer’s phrases. As these examples of instrumentation suggest, the sustained sounds of the kamānča contrast effectively with the plucked sounds of long-necked lutes. Another spike fiddle, the Turkmen qijāk, is commonly played in ensembles with the dutār, a long-necked lute with two strings. Both instruments accompany certain narratives of the Turkmen bards known as bagşy (Zerańska-Kominek, p. 94).


By the twelfth century, the kamānča is mentioned by Persian poets active in Ḡazni  and in the Caucasus. In a verse by Masʿud Saʿd Salmān (1046-ca. 1121), two minstrels (rāmešgarān) play kamānča, presumably a spike fiddle, and rabāb, in this case a plucked lute (p. 39). Another of Masʿud Saʿd’s verses (p. 295) lists four instruments of pleasure (nozhat, ṭarab): kamānča, čang (harp), barbaṭ (short-necked lute), and ney. The sustained sounds of bowed instruments can resemble those of a human voice, and in Neẓāmi’s Ḵosrow o Širin (completed 1181), a kamānča played at a banquet is said to produce a lament reminiscent of Moses (p. 98 and n. 1: “kamānča āh-e Musā-vār mizad”). Any instrument played with a bow can be compared to an archer when a poet wishes to emphasize its capacity to penetrate the heart. The ḡijak boasts of its powers in a dialogue (monāẓera) by the 15th-century Chaghatay poet Aḥmadi: “I am a smart mischief-maker. / Among string instruments I am an intoxicated archer: // The arrows of my amorous glances are lances that pierce the soul. / My plaintive voice burns people’s livers” (Ḵurdak-i ʿayyār men. / Sāz ičidä rind-i kamāndār men: / Ḡamzam oqï nāvak-i cāndōz erür. / Nālalarïm harča cigarsōz erür; text and tr. cited after Bodroglieti, pp. 72-73, 82).


A small bow called kamānča (see above), strung with horsehair, was used in playing the ḡešak, a spike fiddle with two silk strings. The instrument is depicted in most musical manuscripts containing the Kanz al-toḥaf (Figure 1), a treatise composed around 1350 and now attributed to Ḥasan Kāšāni (for this attribution, see Music ii; for known manuscripts, see Masʿudiya, 1996, pp. 280-82, s.v. no. 144). Similar instruments are still known by some form of the word ḡijak in much of Central Asia. A spike fiddle whose two strings were normally, but not invariably, tuned a fourth apart is itself called kamānča in the treatises of ʿAbd-al-Qāder b. Ḡaybi al-Marāḡi (d. 1435). Marāḡi (p. 203) found its tone “more delicate” (alṭaf) and “more delightful” (aladd) than that of the instrument he called ḡežak, which had a larger sound cavity and eight resonating strings as well as two strings that were bowed with a kamān.


Players specializing in the kamānča or ḡijak are occasionally mentioned in accounts of music at the courts of Iran and Central Asia, and depictions of the instrument are common in Persian art from the 1420s (Plate II) through the period of the Qājār dynasty (1779-1925). The kamānča player Ostād Ṣafar Šāh is listed among the musicians (ahl-e ṭarab) and instrumentalists (arbāb-e sāz) active at the Timurid court of Eskandar Solṭān (r. 1412-14) at Isfahan (Richard, p. 70). A record of musicians’ salaries at the Ottoman court in 1525 lists more players of kemençe than of any other instrument, though their salaries were lower than those for players of the ʿud and qopuz (Feldman, p. 110). One of these kemençe players, Šāh Qoli, may be the musician whom Bābor (1483-1530) names as a ğečak player active in 1506 at the Timurid court of Ḥosayn Bāyqarā (1438-1506) in Herat (Feldman, p. 111). European travelers to Iran, accustomed to the bowed string instruments of Europe, were favorably disposed toward the kamānča. Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), who reached Isfahan in 1684, ranked it above all other Persian instruments for “the quiet sweetness of its sound,” and he admired the elegant inlay of gold threads and mother-of-pearl (Harrison, p. 150).


The kamānča has not been confined to courtly circles. Ebn Tulun (d. 1546), in his Kitāb al-loʾloʾ al-manẓum, regards the kamānja and the rabāb as characteristic instruments of Kurds and Arabs, respectively (Shiloah, p. 224); the same observation is made by al-Qāderi in the Rāḥ al-jām fi šajarat al-anḡām (Shiloah, p. 240). Percy M. Sykes (1867- 1945), the British consul at Mashad from 1905 to 1913, listed the kamānča among the musical instruments “used mainly by gypsies for playing at entertainments” (p. 161). In his encyclopedia of the regional musical instruments of Iran, M. R. Darviši describes 13 varieties of kamānča under various names, with three, four, or five strings.

Three kamānča players active at the courts of the Qājār shahs were recorded in the early 20th century: Bāqer Ḵān Rāmešgar (b. 1875), Hoseyn-Ḵān Esmāʿilzāda, and Safdar Ḵān (for reissues see discography below). Some of Esmāʿilzāda’s students abandoned the kamānča for the violin, among them Rokn-al-Din Ḵān Moḵtāri (1887-1971) and Hosayn Yāhaqqi (1903-1968). The outstanding kamānča master of the mid-20th century, ʿAli Aṣḡar Bahāri (1905-1995), likewise turned for a time to the violin before becoming active at Radio Iran in 1953 and taking charge of kamānča instruction at the National Conservatory in 1957. Despite Bahāri’s prominence on the radio, the violin largely displaced the kamānča in music composed or arranged for radio in the 1960s and 1970s. Interest in the instrument revived in the 1990s, and the kamānča once again became a fixture of the ensembles accompanying singers of classical music. Among the prominent kamānča players of the early twenty-first century are Darviš-Reżā Moneẓẓami (b. 1943), Ardešir Kāmkār (b. 1962), and Kayhan Kalhor (b. 1963). Festivals of regional music have drawn attention to the many varieties of kamānča found in the western and northern regions of Iran.


For a music sample, see Hosayn Khān - Segāh.




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Asie centrale: Les maîtres du dotâr, recorded and annotated by Jean During, Archives Internationales de Musique Populaire AIMP 26, Disques VDE-Gallo VDE CD-735, 1993, compact disc, tracks 13 and 16. 

Asie centrale: Traditions classiques, recorded and annotated by Jean During and Ted Levin, OCORA C 560035-36, 1993, compact disc 2, tracks 1, 4, and 11. 

Azerbaïdjan: Le kamantcha d’Elshan Mansurov, recorded and annotated by Jean During, Archives Internationales de Musique Populaire AIMP 83, Disques VDE-Gallo VDE CD-1240, 2008, compact disc. 

Beh yād-e Ostād-e Bahāri – Badāha-navāzi-ye kamānča: Darviš Reżā

Monaẓẓami, Barbad Music 71, 2006, audiocassette. 

Ganj-e suḵta: Pažuheši dar musiqi-ye ʿahd-e Qājār, compiled by Farhang Rejāʾi, Entešārāt-e Aḥyā, 1994, 5 audiocassettes with booklet. 

Kamānča-ye dawra-ye Qājār: Bāqer Ḵān, Ḥosayn Ḵān Esmāʿilzāda, Māhur M.CD-63, 2001, compact disc. 

Scattering Stars Like Dust: Kayhan Kalhor, Traditional Crossroads CD 4288, 1998, compact disc.

(Stephen Blum)

Originally Published: December 15, 2010

Last Updated: April 20, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XV, Fasc. 4, pp. 434-437