Learn about some of the instruments from all over the world that make up the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra:


Kamanche ~ four-stringed bowed instrument common in Iran (Persian Music) and in other Middle Eastern and Arabic traditions. It has a resonance box made of hardwood, such as walnut, which is covered with a very thin skin (commonly used membranes include goat, sheep or fish skin). Its wooden bridge is curved to allow for the bowing of separate strings. The neck, also made of a very hard wood, is attached to the resonance box, and has pegs at the top end to tune the strings. At the bottom end there is a spike, which is used to hold the instrument upright as it is played.

Tar ~ aft-fretted lute from Persia (Iran), which emerged in its present form in the middle of the eighteenth century. The long fingerboard has twenty-six to twenty-eight adjustable gut frets, and there are three double courses of strings. Its range is about two and one- half octaves, and is played with a small brass plectrum.

Setara member of the lute family, which originated in Persia before the spread of Islam. It originally had three strings; two and a half centuries ago a fourth was added. It is played with index finger of the right hand, and has 25 – 27 moveable frets which are usually made of animal intestines or silk.

Santur ~ Persian hammered dulcimer whose trapezoid body is made of a hard wood such as walnut or rosewood. It has 72 strings, which are strung over two sets of 9 bridges on either side of the instrument. It is strung 4 strings to a note, and has a diatonic range of just over 3 octaves. Played with 2 wooden mallets.

Ney ~ an end-blown flute that figures prominently in Middle Eastern music. The ney has been played continuously for 4,500–5,000 years, making it one of the oldest musical instruments still in use. The Persian ney consists of a hollow cylinder (a piece of hollow cane or giant reed) with five or six finger holes and one thumb hole. Sometimes a brass, horn, or plastic mouthpiece is placed at the top to protect the wood from damage, and to provide a sharper and more durable edge to blow at. A highly skilled ney player can reach more than three octaves, though it is also common to have several “helper” neys to cover different pitch ranges or to facilitate playing technically difficult passages in other dastgahs or maqams.

Tombak ~ a goblet drum, considered the principal percussion instrument of Persian music. The tombak is normally positioned diagonally across the torso while the player uses one or more fingers and/or the palm(s) of the hand(s) on the drumhead, often (for a ringing timbre) near the drumhead’s edge. Sometimes tombak players wear metal finger rings for an extra-percussive “click” on the drum’s shell. 

Daf ~ a frame drum, traditionally covered with goat skin. In the hands of a professional it is capable of all kinds of intricate rhythms and a variety of timbres by utilizing finger work, closed and open sounds, slaps, and pitch inflections. It may have metal rings attached to the inside of the rim, which create a jingling sound as the skin is struck.

Oud ~ a short necked fretless lute, known throughout the Arabic world, it typically has 5 double courses of strings tuned in intervals of a perfect fourth. It has a full, warm sound and its fretless neck allows for quarter tones and sliding effects. The European Lute derives directly from the Oud; in fact, the word Lute is derived from El Ud (the Ud).


Dizi ~ a Chinese bamboo flute with a membrane covering one hole to create an increase in resonance and a typical ‘buzzing’ quality. It is really a renaissance flute with a membrane. There are 6 playing holes. The speaking length is determined by blocking the pipe at both ends. There is extra pipe material, which is just esthetic – this extra length does not affect the speaking length. Since the dizi is mainly a diatonic-major-scale instrument, with very few accidentals playable, they come in many different lengths to accommodate the different keys that a piece of music calls for.

Erhu~ a bowed instrument from China with a long neck and two strings between which a horsehair bow is placed. The strings are tuned to a fifth. The sound box may take different shapes – hexagon, octagon, round, or ellipse – and is covered on one side by snakeskin. The Erhu performs an essential role in Chinese classical music as well as in the folk music tradition. It is held vertically to play – the lefthand plays without a fingerboard, while the right hand holds the bow and plays one string at a time. Note: The gaohu is simply a higher pitched version of the erhu.

Danbau ~ a one-string zither native to Vietnam. It is constructed of a long narrow sound box, with a tall curved stem made from water buffalo horn inserted at one end. The single string runs between the sound box and a small wooden gourd attached to the stem. The stem is bent to change the pitch of the string. The player touches the string lightly with the heel of the hand at harmonic-producing nodal points while plucking with the fingers. This produces the dan bau’s characteristic high clear sound.