The Karen arched harp has become a cultural icon for Karen people in Burma and Thailand. Traditionally the Karen harp had 7 strings but it is now sometimes played with 6,8  or even more. The wooden chamber was covered originally with animal skin, now with metal. For the bow, a soft wood like mango or jack fruit is used. Originally the strings were made from the forest plant known in Sgaw Karen as chochyyna, a form of creeper. They are now made of metal, either guitar strings or brake cable. I do not know whether the Karen harp is the ancestor of the Burmese harp or was copied from it.

The Karen harp, only played by men, is traditionally a courting instrument, the player usually accompanying his singing. There are a number of standard tunings for the harp, the basic pitch depending on the vocal range of the musician. Each tuning is associated with a particular repertoire. Usually the harp plays a regular rhythmic set of chords with a ‘trip’ note; sometimes it echoes the melody of the singer. In playing, it is cradled in the lap with the neck held out in the left hand, while the fingers of the right hand pluck the strings. An early tuning was probably EGABDE; nowadays D F#GAdf#, BbEbFAbBbD and DbGAbcDbF  are more common.


collection Victoria Vorreiter

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