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Kirby Wilkerson


continental drift 12/11/23 - lutes

Howdy folks, welcome to Continental Drift! This episode, we're gonna play with the format a little; instead of focusing on a single country, we're gonna look at a single theme that manifests differently in different countries. I'm talking, of course, about lutes! You can find the playlist here and listen to the episode here!

A lute is any plucked string instrument that has a neck and strings that lie parallel to the sound board (which is what the strings resonate against). So guitars are a kind of lute, violins, basses, banjos, etc. are all types of lutes! It's a very broad category but they also exhibit pretty unique characteristics, so much so that I was able to find unique examples of lutes from multiple countries on every continent except for Antarctica and Australia. So today's episode will definitely have us continentally drifting. Let's start!


  • From Mali, we're hearing Jarabi by Toumani Diabaté, whose instrument of choice is the kora. And a kora is an interesting thing (it's got around 21 strings!) because it's an example of a harp-lute. Harps are not a kind of lute, they're their own category, but the kora is a hybrid of the two in a category appropriately called harp-lutes. Hearing it played, you'll notice that it sounds similar to a harp and the style of playing is reminiscent of a harp, but it's shaped like a lute. Pretty neat!
  • From Morocco, we have Arabiato by Simo Lagnawi, and it's being performed for an instrument called a sintir, which is a 3-stringed bass lute used by the Gnawa ethnic group. Usually the strings are made with goat intestine, and the body is a hollowed-out log covered in the front with camel skin. And if you listen closely, you can see that plucking the string does produce a bit of an attack, and so it sounds kinda like a bass banjo, almost! And in fact, they are anatomically fairly similar to banjos. All this talk of banjos, though, and nary a banjo in sight. We can do something about that, yeah?

North America

  • If you've ever consumed any kind of media that portrays the American South, you've probably heard a banjo. That twangy-soundin' instrument has been around since the 18th century, and actually has its origins in even older instruments developed and used in North America and the Caribbean by enslaved Africans since the 17th century. The song you're hearing is actually a pretty famous banjo/guitar duet called Dueling Banjos, by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell; it's from the film Deliverance, which is about 4 Atlanta businessmen trying to survive in mountainous Appalachia while being targeted by sadistic hillbillies.
  • El Cantar De Un Guitarrón by Mariachi Sol De Mexico heavily features the guitarrón mexicano (literally "big Mexican guitar"), which is a bass instrument. (In fact, plenty of modern acoustic basses are derivative of the design of the guitarrón!) As the name suggests, it is basically a giant guitar; it has 6 strings, no frets, and its back juts out a bit to increase its physical (and thus auditory) volume. Usually, the guitarrón is used as the bass instrument in mariachi bands, but it also finds other unorthodox uses; I first heard the guitarrón as a kid when I was listening to the Eagles song "New Kid in Town" and I liked the sound of it so the instrument's always been present in my mind.

South America

  • This song is Saludo (La del Zurdo) by Alfonso Ureta. I (for some reason) thought it'd be funny to include another guitarrón. See, "guitarrón" in Spanish just means "big guitar", so multiple Spanish-speaking countries have their own instruments called guitarrón. In Chile, we have the guitarrón chileno (big Chilean guitar), which is not all that similar to the Mexican guitarrón. The guitarrón chileno is a 25-stringed instrument(!) with its strings organized into groups called courses; basically, sets of strings tuned to the same pitch are closer to each other than to other strings so that when you pluck one of them, the rest of them resonate, but they're not perfectly in tune so the resonance produces a cool chorus effect. The guitarrón chileno is actually the first of a number of coursed lutes we'll be hearing in the episode.
  • From Brazil, we have Felicidade / Música Incidental: Prenda Minha, by Pena Branca & Xavantinho. The particular instrument in use here is called the viola caipira; caipiras are a population of people that live in rural Brazil, with the viola caipira being a characteristic instrument in their folk music; its strings are organized into 5 courses of 2 strings each. Do note that in Portuguese, words like viola and violão mean guitar and not the orchestra instrument we call viola.


  • Ubiquitous throughout the Middle East is an instrument called an oud, which is a fig-shaped lute that typically has 11 strings grouped into 6 courses. What distinguishes the oud is that it's designed to work with Arabic music theory, which in terms of Western music theory involves a lot of microtones and what I guess guitarists might call bends?? (I'm not a guitarist, sadly.) There are a number of different types of oud (the overarching 3 categories being the Arab oud, the Turkish oud, and the Persian oud), the Arab oud being what you hear in Hawil Ya Ghannam, by the Syrian oudist Amer Ammouri.
  • The song You You You is performed by a New York-based indie band called THE EITHER, who are notable for using traditional Chinese instruments. One of their members, Jiaju Shen, plays a pear-shaped 4-string lute called a pipa. (She has a lot of really cool short pipa snippets on her Instagram!) The pipa is meant to be played by alternately striking and plucking the strings, and Jiaju does this when she plays, but she plays in a somewhat unorthodox manner, occasionally infusing Western musical practices into her work.
  • Vertigo by Noriko Tadano features the shamisen. A shamisen is a lute from Japan with a very long neck and a comparatively short boxy body. Based on the Chinese sanxian, it has 3 strings (the name shamisen means "three strings") and there are different types and sizes of shamisen. The particular type Noriko Tadano is playing in this piece is called a tsugaru-shamisen, distinguished by a thicker neck and thicker strings than other types of shamisen; the thicker strings don't have a lot of give, so they lend themselves to a very percussive pluck.
  • Trúc Đào (performer not given) is a Vietnamese song featuring the đàn nguyệt (moon-shaped lute), which I am in love with. I swoon for the moon! The đàn nguyệt is a 2-stringed lute with a long neck and an almost perfectly-circular body (hence the name), and its frets are raised in such a way as to facilitate the cool bends that you hear in the piece.
  • Fathers is a piano/sitar duet by Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar. The sitar is an Indian lute with a very long neck and a squat round body. Sitar comes from the Farsi word sehtar meaning "three strings" (kind of a theme for this episode, huh?) but they can have anywhere from 18 to 21 strings in actuality. 6 or 7 of them are played, but the rest exist to resonate with the played strings.


  • So if you've ever been to a renaissance faire or played a bard in D&D or really consumed any sort of content involving medieval Europe aesthetics, when I say "lute", this is probably the instrument you're thinking of. Ricercare No. 51, by the Italian lutenist (what a fun word!) Francesco da Milano, is a piece written for and performed on a Renaissance lute, a fig-shaped string instrument with courses of one or two strings. The Renaissance lute is played similarly to a guitar (or I guess since the former precedes the latter, the guitar is played similarly to the Renaissance lute)!
  • From Russia with love, we have the Manchurian Waltz played by the Andreyev Balalaika Ensemble on their lute of choice, the balalaika. A balalaika is a 3-stringed Russian lute with an iconic triangular body. Usually, 2 of the 3 strings are tuned to the same note, and the 3rd string is something different, but none of the strings sustain the note for very long, so if you want to extend the length of time you hear a pitch, you kinda have to rapidly strum repetitively, almost like a roll on a xylophone or some other percussion instrument.
  • Our last lute of the night is a pear-shaped Greek instrument called a bouzouki. The bouzouki has either 3 or 4 courses of 2 strings each, and you can tell that they're tuned to the same pitch from the buzzing noise they generate by being slightly detuned from each other. The bouzouki is a pretty cool instrument, my first exposure to it was in Super Smash Bros. because it's part of Dark Pit's theme.

Song I Play Because I Want To And Have The Time

Hình Bóng Quê Nhà // (no artist given)