A few days ago, I had the opportunity to own a very special instrument called the tỳ bà (琵琶) so I grabbed it with both hands. It is a stringed instrument that looks like a cross between the guitar and the harp but sounds like a very Asian lute.
This instrument originated somewhere in ancient Central Asian or Greater Iranian or Persian and was called a barbat ( بربط). It was an important instrument of the Ghassanids in pre-Islamic times and of the Syrians in early Islamic times. Somehow, it found its way to the far east coast starting at 37 AD, and thereafter, began to proliferate all around the area, eventually evolving into its own unique instrument.
The Han Chinese have their own version called the pipa, the Koreans have the Bipa, and the Japanese have the Biwa. It’s pretty much the same instrument, and to an untrained ear like mine, honestly, they sound very similar to me.
If the same song was played on each of these instruments from China, Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, I don’t think I would be able to tell the difference. However, if you listen to the barbat being played today in comparison with the tỳ bà, you would be able to hear the huge difference between it and the East Asian instruments.
The only real difference between these East Asian instruments is the visuals.
You see how much smaller the tỳ bà is, compared to the pipa? The neck is more slender, and the size of the instrument is smaller too. The modern Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà is a relic. It alone retains the looks of the ancient instrument, much more so than the Chinese, Japanese, or Korean versions. This is most likely because we were one of the first East Asian people to actually play them, after they were brought over from the ancient Persian area.
We know the Đàn tỳ bà hasn’t changed much, if at all, from its earliest incarnation because there was a stone relief carving of this instrument at an ancient temple called Phật Tích, located in north Vietnam in the district of Bắc Ninh.
Phật Tích Temple was erected in the year 1057, by our well-known king Lý Thánh Tông. Remember him? He was the king who took on the concubine Ỷ Lan, who not only gave him his only two sons, but also buried alive, his main queen after he died, along with her entourage of virgins.
In any case, this is what the tỳ bà sounds like.
So now I am all excited about learning how to play this instrument. I wanna get a pretty outfit like that too. That is totally a musician’s outfit, don’t you think?