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Begin the begena
January 4, 2013 2:35 AM   Subscribe

Ever heard the other-worldly sound of the Ethiopian lyre known as the begena? It's sometimes referred to as the "Harp of David", since legend has it that it's the same instrument that soothed the Biblical king. Whether that's true or not, there is little doubt that the low pitched, buzzing sound the instrument produces is one of the most unusual to be found just about anywhere. Used to accompany meditation and prayer, Biblical passages and so forth, check out the amazing sound (along with accompanying male or female vocal) here, here, here and here.
posted by flapjax at midnite (14 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm… I'm not sure if I actually like it! But it's extremely unique and kind of cool!
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:52 AM on January 4, 2013


A couple years ago I went on a road trip touring prospective colleges with a friend and his dad. Our travels took us to Los Angeles where my friend's dad did a lot of business. He was born in Italy and had spent many years in Ethiopia training to be a priest (he has since switched paths). Our one night in LA he took us to an Ethiopian restaurant where he immediately slipped into the local tongue, the name of which I never thought to ask, with the waitress, and we ended up staying well past closing listening to stories about Ethiopia which they were courteous enough to tell in English.

While we were there begena recordings were playing softly in the background. Thanks for the post, I now know what the instrument is called!
posted by edeezy at 2:55 AM on January 4, 2013


I've heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord.

Cool post!
posted by solotoro at 3:17 AM on January 4, 2013


A quick google image search would suggest the begena has 10 strings. Being a bass player, I'm attracted to the low pitched, buzzing sound.

Thanks flapjax for another amazing post.
posted by Sailormom at 4:44 AM on January 4, 2013


A quick google image search would suggest the begena has 10 strings.

Indeed it does. But here's the really curious part... only 6 are played! From the Wikipedia link:

"Even though the begena has ten strings, only six are actually sounded by plucking. That is, the left hand plucks strings one, three, four, six, eight, and ten (starting from the left side when facing the instrument). The pointing finger plucks strings three and four while the other fingers are in charge of controlling one string each. The remaining strings are used for the finger rests or stops after the strings have been plucked allowing the plucked string to vibrate."
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:49 AM on January 4, 2013


Minor nit: David played the harp to soothe Saul. He did not listen to it.
posted by ocschwar at 5:46 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


This CD, my favourite of the excellent Ethiopiques series, is just harp and singer
posted by criticalbill at 6:18 AM on January 4, 2013


Can anyone explain why there is that buzzing quality to it? It sounds like something must be loosely coupled to it, and bouncing rapidly against it, like a snare on a snare drum. But I can't see anything like that on the instrument.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:31 AM on January 4, 2013


Can anyone explain why there is that buzzing quality to it?

That too is explained in the linked Wikipedia article:

"The begena is characterized by a very specific buzzing sound, due to U-shaped leather pieces placed between each string and the bridge. The thong for each string is adjusted up or down along the bridge so that the string, when plucked, repeatedly vibrates against the edge of the bridge."

Do people just basically not read Wiki links, I wonder? :)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:53 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks for pointing that out, flapjax.

If you're actually curious, I usually only read about the first 2 or 3 paragraphs of Wikipedia links. Once they get into the details of teaching the begena at night school starting in 2004 I figure there's not much of general interest below that.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:16 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I went looking for a close-up image of the begena to see how the leather straps work. I didn't find one, but I did find that if you like the sound of the begena, you can play one on your computer.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:27 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Haha! Happy new year!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:27 PM on January 4, 2013


benito.strauss: That haha was in response to your "details of teaching the begena at night school" ... as for your next comment, I was totally psyched but, dammit, it's only for Windows!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:30 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, but look! At that same site you can play the kirar (sometimes spelled krar) which is the other Ethiopian harp! And you can choose different scales for it. Very cool!

Check it out.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:34 PM on January 4, 2013


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