By Daniel Merrill
Daniel Merrill is an educator, composer and improvising violinist currently living in London. He co-founded the innovative folk-storytelling ensemble Dead Rat Orchestra, with which he tours worldwide, as well as many other solo and ensemble projects.
To my mind, the violin is one of the most fascinating and expressive instruments. Then again, I would say that—I’ve been playing the instrument for 27 years, most of my life. But it is not the traditionally recognized Western repertoire, nor expressive use of the instrument that fascinates me. Rather, it is the multitude of ways in which the violin has been adopted into different cultures around the world.
The violin as we know it today originated in Europe 600 years ago. Along with its siblings, the other members of the violin family—viola, cello and double bass—it has been central significance to the development of European classical music.
In the ages of European exploration and colonization, these instruments were used in efforts to “civilize” the cultures of the Middle and Far East, thus beginning the violin’s journey around the world. But then somewhere along the violin’s civilizing journey around the world, something distinctive happened. It veered off path and embedded itself in massively diverse communities, not as an colonizer’s instrument, but a core voice of the people. Outside of its classical form, the violin became the fiddle.
It is the fiddle whose global adoption has become a delightful conundrum, seducing me over and over again, and it is the fiddle to whom this love letter is addressed.
When it comes to the violin there is a language, just everybody speaks their own unique dialect.
In some cases, the beloved fiddle replaced other similar forms of bowed string instruments (such as the rebec and rebab). In others, where there was no precedent instrument, the unique potentials for the instrument became enjoyed in ways not conceived in within the European tradition.
And this is where I find myself fascinated, enchanted and lovestruck.
I’ve travelled around the world as a violinist/fiddler, and have encountered many distinct forms of fiddle music. I’ve had the chance to play with violinists across the world. And whilst I do not believe music to be a universal language, it has become clear that when it comes to the violin there is a language, just everybody speaks their own unique dialect. Here are just three of my favorites.
The Arabic Fiddle Style
I find the sound of Arabic fiddle-playing extremely recognizable through the use of quarter tones, the left hand techniques of wide vibrato (that quick wobbling tone you hear violinists and singers use), often sounding more like glissandi (the sliding between two notably separate notes), and the difference in their standard tuning which affects the resonance of the strings (standard tuning for Arabic violin is GDGD, as opposed to GDAE for western-style violin).
Here is a particularly beautiful taqsim (an improvisation preceeding a composition, typically played on a solo instrument or accompanied by percussion or a drone).
Alongside the percussive bouncing of the bow to create rhythmic accompaniment (the violin is rarely considered a rhythm instrument), a more extended use of soft and hard bowing creates a depth of textural expressions that, to my ear, are akin to the range of glottal “gh” and “kh” vocal sounds used in the Arabic. In the European classical and folk tradition, this would be considered extended technique, but rhythm sits at the core of the playing tradition here.
Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure of working with the astounding Egyptian violin virtuoso Ayman Asfour. Asfour demonstrates the traits described above in his Arabic-jazz fusion composition “Tibah”.
In Ayman’s performance, he predominantly uses a restricted bow style, playing heavily in the middle of the bow (which itself is fairly loose ), with a sharp articulation yet muted glow realized through a point of contact close to the bridge . If you watch his left hand carefully, the glissandi (pitch bends) on notes can be seen as an integral expressive aspect of the pitch, creating almost speech like qualities. At 7:00 in this video, Asfour takes a solo featuring many of the quarter tones that are common in the Arabic style, as well as some very dramatic rhythmic stabs, and attempts to marry these with voicings typical of a contemporary jazz solo.
Fanø Fiddle Music Education
Venturing northward, we come to Fanø, a small island off the cost of Denmark. It is renowned for it’s folk music, which focuses heavily on the fiddle. In fact, almost every child grows up learning the instrument. As you walk around the 278-person town of Sønderho, you are likely to stumble across gangs of between 4 and 12 children with their fiddles in tow, ready to break into a tune to accompany any social gathering. And when they start, they will play and play and play…
It soon became apparent to me that the approach to learning the violin in this village is unique.
Playing the violin is a game for children, not something taught with performance in mind. The music is almost entirely to accompany the Sønderhoning—the island’s traditional dance. Accordingly, the music is part of a larger social function, and though there are master musicians, their mastery is not simply in the ability to memorize and play the island’s entire repertoire, but in being able to lead and manage dances, passing down the tunes effectively to the next generation.
This music is learned ultra-fast, and all the more challenging as it is learned by ear, not through score. There is nothing that puts a violinist of 27 years in his place more than an 9-year old child giving the most disdaining look for not being able to memorize a tune on the second listen. Somebody told me, “if you don’t tell the kids it’s difficult, they don’t realize that they are doing something really tough”.
Getting the feel right can be challenging, since in many violin traditions, it’s typical to start the first beat of each bar with a down bow. Not so in Sønderhoning; the up bow on the first beat creates a leaping nature of the musical phrasing. This is totally counterintuitive, and left me fighting all my natural instincts! But once you get that up bow, the music starts to leap (and all the children stop staring)
South African Jive Violin
Someday soon I hope to examine the function of the violin in American blues, Creole music and perhaps travel deeper into East Asia. But for now, I’ll leave you with something you really might not expect, we’re heading to South Africa!
What happens when vintage record collectors and archival YouTubers collide?
They uncover some pretty incredible stuff! In this case my attention was drawn to a form of violin music that might have gone totally unnoticed outside of South Africa, possibly to vanish into forever, if not for a few faithful collectors – Jive Violin!
In these joyously infectious tracks we hear the violin used as a backing instrument, rather than a soloist. It is roughly bowed to create grunting, rhythmic tones. It mimicks the guitar, it moves us through the chord progressions—the fiddle does it all!
As I continue to embed myself in new and different violin traditions the world over, I learn again and again that everything changes. Each style of playing forces you to rethink the instrument. The mechanics may be the same, but in each culture, the language of learning the instrument is an entirely new experience.