Mystery Instrument Riddle Solved!

For over ten years, I’ve had this instrument without knowing what it was or where it came from (at least before the music shop in Carrboro, NC that sold it to me used for $20):

Swarsangam and case

Weird looking right? And truly possibly the first “weird” instrument of my collection, if you don’t count the Appalachian mountain dulcimer I made at camp as a kid.

It has four “bass” strings, mounted on a jawari, or “buzz” bridge— the kind you might find on a sitar. When you pluck one of these strings there is a very long sustain with an oriental twang like you might hear in Indian music.

It also has eleven treble strings, mounted across a more normal style bridge, and which make a sharp turn across a series of screws to the end of the box, where somewhat flimsy tuners control their pitches. Someone had installed a “BB Jr.” stick-on pickup. And, it came with a charmingly old-fashioned velvet-lined case.

It was definitely a handmade instrument; the tuners and screws were the only part that appeared to be factory-made. So, I assumed that it was someone’s DIY project that was getting into instrument building and was quite good at it, but wanted to make something really strange and original. I’d assumed it was one-of-a-kind.

For the first 5 years I had it, it was a novelty, not knowing how to tune it or play it. Occasionally it was pulled out to make weird Chinese-sounding plucking noises.

After listening to Ravi Shankar a lot for a few years, though, and then attempting to learn to play a sitar, I realized that this was meant to be an accompaniment instrument, much like the harmonium or tanpura (also known as tambora or tamboura; I don’t attempt to pick a spelling). Tuning the four “bass” strings to the same notes that a tanpura might play sounded really, really good; and knowing that sitar players tuned their 11 sympathetic strings to subsequent notes of whichever scale they are playing in, then it followed that these 11 strings could be tuned similarly. They can be played then, much as a harp or zither, or just left alone to resonate in sympathy with the drone strings.

You can hear it all over the Murmur release Fermata, most noticably the first 12 minutes or so of the second track “Description of the Between.”

It’s also on “OTIII”, the last track of Chef Menteur’s The Answer’s In Forgetting. The tamboura side of the sound is buried beneath banjos and harmonium, but the harp side of the instrument can be heard clearly in the second minute.

You can listen to both tracks online. The links to each song are at the bottom of each page. In both cases we tuned it to open E-flat, as that’s the only key the harmonium we have will drone in. In the liner notes, we listed the instrument as “tamboura/zither box.”

Just this week, I got an email from Dan with a link to another site where the name is clearly listed. It is:

SWARSANGAM.

Here’s a page on Flickr that he found with the instrument’s name and photo. It also hints at the origin of the instrument as a hybrid or synthesis of two instruments:

  1. the drone side is a box tanpura (pictures/shop )
  2. the harp side is a kind of box zither called a swarmandal or surmandal (Wikipediapictures and tuning info). The swarmandal, according to the Wikipedia entry was the instrument producing the harp sound on many of my favorite Beatles songs, including both my wife’s and my all-time favorite song “Strawberry Fields Forever”, as well as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and the brilliant (but often maligned) Harrison composition “Within You Without You.”

This was very pleasing to read, though not wholly surprising, because it meant that we’d arrived at an understanding of the instrument that’s very close to its common use and purpose in a very organic way by trial and error and deduction; however it did take lots of patience and experimentation with tuning pegs and tuners and a few years messing about with the thing.

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