Musical Bow

  January 04, 2022   Read time 4 min
Musical Bow
THE MUSICAL BOW. The hunter’s bow is a familiar object; the two ends of a flexible and curved rod are connected by a string.

Since the musical bow is identical in shape, many anthropologists believed it was derived from the hunter’s bow; hunters, they said, perceived the humming of the snapped string and began to use their bows as musical instruments. This is plausible but wrong, like many plausible explanations. Those forms of the musical bow which we have good reason to believe are the oldest have nothing to do with a hunter’s bow. They are ten feet long and therefore useless for shooting. Some of them are idiochordic; that is, the string is formed from a strip split from the same piece of cane of which the instrument is made, but still attached to it at either end. This natural string must be raised off the bow by bridges, and therefore cannot be used for shooting. Furthermore, all of these bows require a resonator; without a sound-amplifying contrivance the instrument is scarcely audible.

Finally, musical bows were not associated with hunters’ beliefs and ceremonies. With the Cora in Mexico, the calabash bowl on which the bow rests is a sacred emblem of the goddess of the earth and moon; among many tribes only the women play it; in Rhodesia it is the instrument played at girls’ initiations; and the Washambala in eastern Africa believe that a man cannot get a wife if a string of the musical bow breaks while he is making it. In a tale of the East African Wahehe, a man goes on a journey with a girl, has her drink from a brook and breaks her neck when she is bent over the water. At once she is transformed into a musical bow; the back bone becomes the wood, her head the resonator, and her limbs the strings. Similar stories are found in northern mythology.

The musical bow is one of the first instruments used for intimacy and to induce meditation; the Akamba in eastern Africa, as well as the Maidu in middle California, consider it the most effective instrument for getting in contact with spirits. The weak, muffled sound of the musical bow, suited to such a task, is mirrored in the dark vowels and nasal consonants of its native names, such as nkungu in Angolese, vuhudendung on Pentecost Island in Melanesia, wurubumba in Kibunda.

There are three main types of musical bows: bows with a separate resonator, bows with attached resonators, or gourd bows, and bows that depend upon the player’s mouth for resonance or mouth bows. The bow with a separate resonator is supported on a detached vessel. This may be a calabash bowl, a basket, a pot or a metal vase. The strangest of these bows is the gigantic instrument of some tribes of southern India: a bow, sometimes ten feet long, with jingles suspended from the wood, rests on a large clay pot and is rapidly beaten with two sticks, while a second man strikes the pot with his hands.

Similar instruments, laid on gourds, occur with Mexican Indians. Most anthropologists have tried to attribute them to Negro importation. But this is not likely. No African bow has so large a size, and none is struck in so archaic a way with two sticks. In the gourd bow the bow is attached to a gourd which acts as a resonator. The top of the gourd is cut off and the opening is pressed against the chest or abdomen of the player, increasing its resonance. The gourd can resonate only the open string of the bow to which it has been cut, and when any other tone is played the gourd must be lifted away from the player’s body so that its resonance will not interfere with the tone. This shifting of the position of the gourd is not a means of altering the tone, as some observers have claimed.

There are other means of altering the fundamental tone. With all kinds of musical bows the vibrating length of the string can be changed, either by bracing, or by stopping, or by both ways. In the braced bow the string is divided into two sections by a loop of thread tied round the bow and the string. The two sections produce two different fundamentals with their relative partials. Also, the player can touch the string, as do fiddlers, in order to shorten the vibrating length and raise the pitch. (fig. 27) In the mouth bow the player’s mouth serves as a resonator; either the wood is held against the teeth with the string outside, or else the string is allowed to vibrate in the oral cavity with the wood outside. Its musical rendering depends on the reinforcing of partials in the same way as in the jaws’ harp.