The Cimbalom

Košice is a beautiful city in eastern Slovakia. It is known, among many other things, for its musical Romani population. Romani musicians from Košice actively contribute to the productions of the local Romani theatre: Divadlo Romathan. Furthermore, young Romani people in Košice attend the local artistic school, learning how to play instruments featured in the renowned Romani ensembles – known in the region since the late 18th century.

These bands became widely popular, both in villages and towns.

A Romani ensemble – detail from the Transylvanian Panorama 1897 – a collaborative work of Hungarian, Polish and German painters (Courtesy of Muzeum Okręgowe w Tarnowie)

The most typical four-man composition of these bands comprised two fiddlers, a double bass player and one more instrumentalist, the one playing the dulcimer, which was used as a melodic and a harmonic instrument.

Romani musical band (courtesy of Adam Grzymała-Kazłowski)

The cimbalom, descending from a traditional Persian instrument called the santür, is closely related to the dulcimer found in England and the Hackbrett in Germany. It has a trapezoidal shape with strings (for example metal wires) stretched across a wooden sounding board, one to four strings for each note.

Video clip: the cimbalom from Paweł Lechowski’s Collection of Romani Artefacts

The cimbalom originally hung from a strap around the player’s neck. Alternatively it was lap-held or tabletop.

Romani musicians 2
Romani musicians with cimbaloms (courtesy of Adam Grzymała-Kazłowski)
Romani musicians 1
Romani musicians with cimbaloms (courtesy of Adam Grzymała-Kazłowski)
Romani musicians 3
Romani musicians with cimbaloms (courtesy of Adam Grzymała-Kazłowski)

Such a cimbalom – not too big, not too heavy – was quite portable. What makes the cimbalom unique is its distinctive timbre. In order to achieve it two things seem important: performative techniques and materials used for its production. The cymbalists usually play rapid arpeggios and provide harmony for the main tune, but oftentimes they also play solo parts. It is not easy to operate the mallets and playing the cimbalom requires a high degree of technical artistry.

The cimbalom is an instrument associated with Romany musicians in the eastern and south-eastern Europe. But in the region it was also common to see Jews performing the cimbalom. The Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz described such a concert in the Polish national epic called Pan Tadeusz of 1834.

In the late 19th century in Budapest Josef Schunda who produced cimbaloms hired Roma as specialists. Eventually they developed a much bigger instrument which rested on a table and had a sustain-pedal mechanism and dampers added. It was invented in the year 1874.

In contrast to the small cimbalom which is diatonic, the instrument Schunda produced was a true chromatic cimbalom. The concert dulcimer had a four octave chromatic scale and its considerable size (approx. 163 centimeters in length) meant that it had to be placed on a pedestal and was sometimes compared with a grand piano without the keys.
Because of its size the cimbalom came to be less frequently used in the street bands, but became a show-off instrument for several Romani musicians.

Video clip: Sara Czureja-Łakatosz performing at the meeting of young musicians in Filharmonia Szczecin (courtesy of Filharmonia Szczecin)

Today, during annually held meetings celebrating Romani culture – for example in Tarnow during Tabor pamięci (see: the cimbalom is still to be heard, usually as performed by Roma from Slovakia.

In Slovakia, in Košice the tradition of playing the cimbalom is still cultivated among the Roma who treasure the cimbalom as an instrument whose sound is at the heart of their musical culture.

Romani musicians from Košice (photo by Paweł Lechowski).