The Making of Habil Aliyev’s Kamancha Tarhu
by Peter Biffin


In 1994 when I first heard of Habil Aliyev, I was bringing together 20 years of experimental work to create the tarhu. During this phase I listened to music from many different countries, and had asked a friend to send me a tape of anything interesting he had of Persian music. He replied with some tapes of classical vocal music, and another tape of purely instrumental music from Azerbaijan. Interesting as the vocal music was, it was the instrumental tape that stopped me in my tracks, and continued to hold me there for years.

The tape was just labelled “Habil Aliyev, Azerbaijan”. I had never heard of Habil Aliyev, and Azerbaijan was a country whose music I had never studied. However: Habil Aliyev’s music was made of the most glorious immersion in tone colour that I had ever heard come from a bowed instrument. I had imagined that such a sound was possible, but had looked for it without success in bowed instruments from one end of the planet to the other. The closest models I had found for these sounds came from Eastern reed instruments (especially the Middle Eastern duduk and the Indian shenai), and in many ways the work I was doing with the beginnings of the tarhu was trying to squeeze these wind-generated sounds into the body of a stringed instrument. Habil’s kamancha playing revealed that it was possible to draw an extraordinary range of tone-colours out of a string, and this revelation supported my own quest with the tarhu in the strongest possible way.

The tarhu began its life as a long necked instrument, in a form inspired by the Turkish tanbur, the Indian rudra vina and the kamancha. It was intended to be played as both a plucked and a bowed instrument in the broadest range of styles possible, and the acoustic system that I found to be the best for this purpose was a light-weight wooden cone suspended inside a spherical body – this was to become the defining concept underlying all future tarhus.

The tarhu making gradually expanded from the initial longneck form to include various smaller forms, and in 2001 I began developing a tarhu version of the kamancha - one that was similar enough to the traditional kamancha that traditional players would be able to adjust to it easily. The tarhu’s spherical body form was very much suited to kamancha, and the design worked easily. I began by making a small version of a longneck tarhu body, with a kamancha neck attached. Like all tarhus, this prototype had a lot of power and could change harmonic registers very easily, but no matter what I tried I could not get the type of sounds that Habil created to come out of it. It was at this stage when I was working intensively on the sound of kamancha tarhu that Habil’s music became truly invaluable, and I referred to his recording continually. I finally had to modify the resonating system - both the way the cone is suspended, and the whole bridge design ended up being quite different to the longneck tarhu. Once these changes were made, the sounds that had inspired me for so long finally started to emerge.

In 2001 I had met the great Irish/Greek musician Ross Daly, and had subsequently made several tarhus for him. In passing conversations it had turned out that Habil Aliyev was a very central figure for Ross also, and it was through Ross that I learnt of the almost legendary status Habil’s playing had earnt for him throughout the Middle East. In 2003 Ross wrote to me telling me that he had arranged for Habil to come to Crete and give concerts and workshops there for 3 weeks. He invited me to come to Crete to work on kamancha tarhu over that same period of time. I did intensive work on kamancha tarhu in the few months leading up to the trip, and took with me many component parts and two incomplete kamancha tarhus, with the intention of using Ross's workshop in Crete to do the final stages of sound development while Habil and I were both living there.

When we first met, Habil was a bit taken aback by my unfamiliar methods – I showed him an instrument with a body that was just taped together so that it could be quickly taken apart to reveal the inside workings (even while it was still strung up). Within an hour or two he had adjusted to the new concepts and was very happy to take part in the development project. Finally seeing and playing Habil’s traditional kamancha was extremely interesting. I knew the sound of it intimately from 10 years of listening to it on the recording, but I had no idea what to expect so far it’s strength and projection was concerned. In order to produce the type of sound Habil liked, he had to dampen the vibrations of the skin top with a piece of cloth inserted behind the bridge.- while this method made a wonderful sound, the instrument had very low volume. The kamancha tarhu, on the other hand, had been developed to produce that same range of sounds, but at a much much greater level of projection, and Habil was instantly attracted to this aspect of the tarhu sound.

When Habil’s seminars began, I started work on developing the sound of the two kamancha tarhus. Each day he would use either one or the other of the two, depending on which one was most interesting at the time. I was able to play " leap frog" with the sound - while he was playing the rosewood one, I would be trying to make the walnut one better, and then the next day he would play the walnut one while I tried to make the rosewood one better……... In this way a huge amount of ground was covered in a short amount of time, and much to my surprise, even in performances and recordings Habil stopped using his traditional kamancha altogether, and would only play kamancha tarhu.

The three weeks we spent together were not without their difficulties. We had not a single word of a common language to communicate with, and often a translator was not available. There were times when there was some aspect of the instruments that he was not happy with and no matter what we did, I could not understand what he was referring to….and then there were other times when we experienced the traveller’s joy when the most complicated subject matter is miraculously understood. For the first week or so, the outcome was uncertain - whilst Habil loved the overall idea of the kamancha tarhu sound, there were some things that troubled him - especially the sound of the highest string. I tried the most ridiculous range of things, making cone after cone, bridge after bridge, until finally I saw where the problem lay and made the necessary changes. I was rewarded with the most satisfying Ahhhhh!!! from Habil.

At the end of our time together, so far as I can tell we were both happy with the outcome. Those three weeks remain the high-point of my decades making instruments, and it was the greatest honour I have received that Habil Aliyev left Crete with one of my instruments.

I recently received an email from someone in Azerbaijan telling me this:
I remember Maestro Habil Aliyev showed instrument you made for him on Azerbaijani TV Show and said " Dear friends, I can say today is very important day in kamancha history, kamancha was born today!"