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
reÃ‚Âvealed 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 instruÃ‚Âment 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
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 fundaÃ‚Âmental tone. The bowl being hollow, vaulted, and
air filled, maximum vibration is centralized and, conseÃ‚Âquently, 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 proÃ‚Âduce a bigger volume than those made
of Taba; sahine soundboxes are considered best and produce the biggest
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.
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. AlÃ‚Âthough 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
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
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 proÃ‚Âvince. Good krars, with practical tested proportions and
make, do exist and are mostly found in the Ethiopian Patriotic
Association, Haile Sellassie I Theatre's TradiÃ‚Âtional 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 comÃ‚Âparable
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
meloÃ‚Âdies doubled an octave apart.
In order to give some idea to the reader, an approxiÃ‚Âmate
average is given below for the principal measureÃ‚Âments 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.
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 conÃ‚Âsist 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
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.
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
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 rhythÃ‚Âmically.
However, it requires a lot of musicality and skill on the part of the
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
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
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.
Dawit-King David or the songs of David.
fanno-song of bandits.
gebetay-bowl made of wood.
Sahin-bowl made of metal.
Taba-bowl made of clay.
Yaf taric-story passed by word of mouth.
Yedimts Kedada-sound hole.
Yeseytan Mesaria-the devil's instrument.