Pontic Lyra (Kemence)

The Pontic lyra is a 3 stringed musical instrument played primarily by those whose origins lay in the Pontus region of north eastern Turkey, those who reside in the northern parts of Greece, and also people from many other parts of the world. It is also known as the Pontian lyra, Pontic fiddle or kemenche. It is without doubt the musical instrument which defines Pontic Greek culture, and has a very distinct 

melody unlike any other instrument.

The Pontic lyra comprises a narrow box shaped body which includes a neck and a pegbox, and a soundboard which covers the body. The body is either made by hollowing out a single piece of wood, or by gluing pieces together. The best lyra are said to be made of extremely dense woods such as plum, mulberry and walnut. Cedar is sometimes also used. The soundboard is made of pine or spruce.

The sides of the body are generally 2-3mm in thickness, as is the soundboard. The pegs are made of hardwood (usually the same wood as the body) and are inserted 
from the front. The chords are made of wire although sheep's gut can be used for 
the lower two. When using wire chords, two Violin A (La) chords are used, whilst the 
high pitched chord is a guitar 13 or 14 (Si) chord.

Traditionally, the bow (doksar) was made from an olive branch, however nowadays 
they are made from any light piece of wood. Hair from a male horse's tail is ideally 
used, however synthetic hair can suffice. While playing, the tension of the bow hair 
is controlled by the second and third finger whilst it is held palm upwards. 

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The instrument is tuned in fourths. It can be played while standing up or sitting down 
and is held vertically. When seated, the bottom of the lyra is rested between the 
thighs of the player. The chords are touched with the flesh of the fingers, not the 
nails. There is no vibrato. A particular characteristic of the Pontic lyra is its 
polyphony in which drone effects and parallel fourths dominate. Wrist movement is
also used especially in faster paced tunes.

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The origins of the Pontic lyra are very difficult to define due to a lack of recorded 
historical references. The word kemenche is believed to be derived from the Persian 
words keman (bow) and che (little). The kamancheh or kamāncha is a Persian 
bowed string instrument related to the bowed rebab (the historical ancestor of the 
kamancheh), and also to the bowed Byzantine lira which is an ancestor of the 
European violin family. The answer could very well be that the Pontic lyra is related 
to both the kamanche and the Byzantine lyra. Other variations of the kemenche 
also exist, such as the Kemona and the Kemane.

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Earliest known depiction of lyra in a Byzantine ivory casket (900 - 1100 AD). (Museo Nazionale, Florence) 

Geographically the Pontic lyra was played only in the areas which were once the 
Byzantine Empire of Trebizond (from Samsun to just east of Trabzon, and also 
inland). Today, in this region situated in north-eastern Turkey, the kemenche is still
played extensively and is referred to as Karadeniz kemence. The instrument is 
generally not played in other parts of Turkey.

The Pontic Greeks who lived in this region for nearly 3000 years, and who were 
expelled in 1923 as part of the Exchange of Populations between Greece and 
Turkey, sometimes simply call the instrument a ‘lyra'.

Laurence Picken writes, "We shall never know what an illiterate fiddler of the early 
Middle Ages played on his lira; but the polyphonic fiddling of those who live on the 
Black Sea coast, in the belt of hazel-nut cultivation between Giresun and Hopa, may
without exaggeration be described as quasi-mediaeval." 

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Woman playing the kamancheh in a painting from the Hasht Behesht Palace in Isfahan Persia, 1669 

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Byzantine lyra found in excavations at Novgorod dated to 1190 AD 

Instrumental Polyphonic Folk Music in Asia Minor. Laurence Picken. Proceedings
of the Royal Musical Association. 80th session (1953-1954). pp 73-76

Polyphony in Touloum Playing by the Pontic Greeks. Christian Ahrens. Yearbook of
the Inrenational Folk Music Council. Vol 5. (1973), pp 122-131 



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