The musical bow (bowstring or string bow) is a simple string instrument used by a number of South African peoples, which is also found in the Americas via slave trade. It consists of a flexible, usually wooden, stick 1.5 to 10 feet (0.5 to 3 m) long, and strung end to end with a taut cord, usually metal. It can be played with the hands or a wooden stick or branch. It is uncertain if the musical bow developed from the hunting bow, though the San or Bushmen people of the Kalahari Desert do convert their hunting bows to musical use.
There is speculation that the hunting bow may have been used as a musical instrument from as early as circa 13,000 B.C.Henri Breuil surveyed the Trois Frères in France caves and made an engraving that attempted to reproduce a c. 13,000 B.C. cave painting into a black-and-white lithograph engraving. His engraving showed a mysterious figure, a "man camouflaged to resemble a bison," in the midst of a mass of herd-animals, "herding the beasts and playing the musical bow." The artwork is confused, and those who are trying to reproduce the art in color have had to work to bring out legible images. One interpretation of the "magician-hunter" image considers his hunting-bow to be a musical bow, used as a single-stringed musical instrument.
Whether the bow in the cave illustration is a musical instrument or the hunting tool in a paleolithic hunt, musicologists have considered whether the bow could be a possible relative or ancestor to the chordophone: the lute, lyre, harp, and zither family. Curt Sachs said that there was good reason not to consider hunters' bows as likely musical bows. One reason was that the oldest known musical bows were 10 feet long, useless for hunting, and that "musical bows were not associated with hunters' beliefs and ceremonies." Sachs considered the musical bows important, however. He pointed out that the name for the Greek lute, pandura was likely derived from pan-tur, a Sumerian word meaning "small bow." He considered this evidence in support of the theory that the musical bow was ancestral to the pierced lute.
The bows used for music required a resonator, a hollowed object like a bowl, a gourd, or a musician's mouth, in order to produce audible sound. Although the musical bow could be manipulated to produce more than one tone, instruments were developed from it that used one note per string. Since each string played a single note, adding strings added new notes for instrument families such as bow harps, harps, and lyres. In turn, this led to being able to play dyads and chords. Another innovation occurred when the bow harp was straightened out and a bridge used to lift the strings off the stick-neck, creating the lute.
Musical bows are still used in a number of cultures today. It can be found as far south as Swaziland, and as far east as eastern Africa, Madagascar, and Réunion. and also outside of Africa, as in the case of berimbau, malunga (derivations of the African musical bow) or the Appalachian mouth-bow.
The usual way to make the bow sound is to pluck the string, although sometimes a subsidiary bow is used to scrape the string, much as on a violin. The Onavillu of Kerala sounds when struck with a thin stick. Unlike string instruments used in classical music, however, they do not have a built-in resonator, although resonators may be made to work with the bow in a number of ways.
The most usual type of resonator consists of a gourd attached to the back of the string bearer. The bow may also be stood in a pit or gourd on the ground, or one end of it may be partially placed in the mouth. This last method allows the size of the resonator to be varied as the instrument is played, thus allowing a melody to be heard consisting of the notes resonating in the player's mouth. As well as these various forms of resonators, the bow is frequently played without a resonator at all.
In Africa the musical bow is usually played by a solo performer. In Capoeira, the berimbau is played as part of the roda, a musical group standing in a circle, in the centre of which the Capoeiristas perform or play. The Appalachian mouth-bow can be played amplified in old-time music jams.
Due to the nature of their construction and playing, musical bows are quiet instruments, therefore needing a resonator to resound. The resonator can either be a gourd (as in uhadi, umakhweyana, segankure, xitende, berimbau, etc.) or the player's mouth (as in umrhubhe, umqangala, tshihwana, xizambi, etc.)
Musical bows are the main instruments of the Nguni and Sotho people, the predominant peoples of South Africa. Historians believe that many of the musical bows came from Khoisan peoples. Although there are many differences between musical bows, all of them share two things: a resonator, and at least two fundamental notes.
There are at least two fundamental notes produced by all musical bows, an open (when the player does not shorten it or touch it) and a closed (where the string is shortened or stopped by the player's hand). In Xhosa they are called vu (from the word Vuliwe, 'open') and ba (from Banjiwe, 'held') respectively. These two notes can already be on the string, if it is divided or stopped by a string attached to the gourd, as in the case of umakhweyana, xitende, berimbau, hungu, etc. The pitch difference between a vu and a ba is usually about a whole tone. In certain places in can be closer to a semitone (e.g. Zulu) or closer to a minor third (Tsonga).
Some of those instruments have more than two notes, for example the Zulu umakhweyana and the Tsonga xitende have three, whereas the Venda tshihwana has four.
Henri Breuil surveyed the cave... a detailed study was published by H.Breuil and R.Begouen of the hundreds of engraved drawings in the deep gallery known as the "Sanctuary"...Its walls are filled with some 280 engraved (often superimposed) images of bison, horses, stags, reindeer, ibexes, and mammoths...
[Concerning a pair of images below the text; the top image is a line drawing showing a herd of animals drawn over one another with the hunter and bow in the pack; the other image is a photo of the cave wall with that image, enhanced to show the hunter and animals directly in front of him distinctly:] En Les Trois Frères destacaría su estilo tan naturalista... Es famosa la escena que del hombre camuflado como un bisonte, ¿Un chamán o un cazador?, que persigue o conduce a otros animales y que he destacado del conjunto superpuesto de abajo. [translation: In Les Trois Frères I would highlight his naturalistic style...The scene is famous, that of the man camouflaged to resemble a bison, (a shaman or a hunter?), that pursues or leads other animals, and that I have stood out from the set superimposed below...]
a semi-human figure dances in the midst of the animals...herding the beasts and playing a musical bow. He wears the head and fur of a bison with human legs...
A cave-painting in the "Trois Frères" cave in France dating from about 15,000 years ago. The magician-hunter plays the musical bow.