Hear the First Song Recorded on the Yazh, a 2,000 Year-Old Indian Instrument

In ancient Hin­du mythol­o­gy, the Yali appears as a chimera, part lion, part horse, part ele­phant. It was carved into stone pil­lars to guard tem­ples, and its form adorned an instru­ment called the yazh, whose sound “once filled the halls and tem­ples of south­ern India,” Livia Ger­shon writes at Smith­son­ian. “Over time, how­ev­er, the Tamil musi­cal tra­di­tion all but van­ished,” along with the roy­al­ty who filled those ancient halls.

“A dis­tant cousin of the harp,” notes Atlas Obscu­ra, the yazh was said to make “the sweet­est sound,” but it’s a sound no one has heard until now. By study­ing ancient lit­er­ary ref­er­ences, luthi­er Tharun Sekar was able to recre­ate the instru­ment, tak­ing “some lib­er­ties with the design,” Ger­shon writes, like “replac­ing jack­fruit with red cedar,” a lighter wood, and replac­ing the tra­di­tion­al Yali with a pea­cock.

Ref­er­ences to the yazh go back around 2,000 years in Tamil lit­er­a­ture from the time known as the Sangam, the ear­li­est peri­od of South Indi­an his­to­ry, typ­i­cal­ly dat­ed between 600 BCE to 300 CE., when the yazh had its hey­day. Carved from a sin­gle block of wood and strung with either 7 or 14 strings, each mod­ern yazh takes Sekar about six months to com­plete. He’s been build­ing them in his Chen­nai work­shop since 2019.

Sekar tells Atlas Obscu­ra how he chose the yazh as the first instru­ment for his com­pa­ny Uru, which spe­cial­izes in redesign­ing folk instru­ments: “Today, while there are repli­cas of the yazh avail­able in muse­ums, they are nei­ther orig­i­nal nor playable. I wasn’t also able to find any record­ed sound sam­ples or videos of the instru­ment. So, this cre­at­ed a curios­i­ty in me.”

Now, there is both a song and video, “the world’s first,” Sekar tells DT Next, in the form of “Azha­gi,” above. A col­lab­o­ra­tion between Sekar, rap­per Syan Saheer, and singer Siva­sub­ra­man­ian, who wrote the song about “a girl with super­pow­ers from the Sangam era,” Sekar says. “We thought the con­text was very much relat­able to yazh.” The only instru­ment in the song is the yazh, and Sekar hopes the video will begin to pop­u­lar­ize the instru­ment. He’s already start­ed receiv­ing orders from inter­est­ed musi­cians from around the world.

Learn more how Sekar cre­ates a yazh in his work­shop, and how he learned to recre­ate sounds no one could record 2,000 years ago, in his inter­view at Atlas Obscu­ra.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Vis­it an Online Col­lec­tion of 61,761 Musi­cal Instru­ments from Across the World

What Did Ancient Greek Music Sound Like?: Lis­ten to a Recon­struc­tion That’s ‘100% Accu­rate’

Hear 10 of Bach’s Pieces Played on Orig­i­nal Baroque Instru­ments

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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