Listen to the First Song Ever Recorded on This Ancient, Harp-Like Instrument

Tharun Sekar, a luthier based in southern India, has painstakingly recreated the long-lost yazh

Yazh
The yazh's design is based on detailed descriptions of the ancient instrument. Uru Custom Instruments

The sounds of a harp-like instrument called the yazh, named for the mythological animal Yali whose image was carved into its stem, once filled the halls of temples and royal courts in southern India. Over time, however, the Tamil musical tradition all but vanished.

Now, luthier Tharun Sekar has recreated the seven-stringed instrument—and used it to create a new song and video in collaboration with fellow musicians.

“The instrument’s existence can be traced back to about 2,000 years in Sangam literature. However, its usage was lost [to] time,” Sekar tells the New Indian Express’ Roshne Balasubramanian. “The notation system was similar to that of a guitar, and I slowly found my way through that. However, it took a lot of practice and continues to be a learning process.”

Speaking with Atlas Obscura’s Radhika Iyengar, Sekar notes that he began the process by studying texts dated to the Sangam era, a period that spanned roughly 600 B.C. to 300 A.D. and was known for its poetry and literature. Eventually, he discovered research from 1947 that detailed how the yazh’s strings were aligned and provided musical notation that allowed him to recreate its sound.

Sekar took some liberties with the design, replacing jackfruit wood with red cedar, for example, but worked to ensure that the sound matched descriptions of the ancient instrument.

Presented by Sekar’s company, Uru Custom Instruments, and In Frame magazine, the new video—titled “Azhagi”—mixes ancient and modern sounds. A friend of Sekar’s, Sivasubramanian, also known as the Nomad Culture, originally wrote the lyrics for a comic book.

“The song is about the story of a girl with superpowers from the Sangam era,” Sekar tells Merin James of DT Next. “We thought the context was very much relatable to yazh.”

Also collaborating on the song is rapper Syan Saheer. The yazh is the only instrument used in the recording. Sekar tells New Indian Express that he’s still figuring out the best way to capture its sound.

“The instrument, I found, was more responsive to space,” he says. “So, positioning the mic and recording its live sound was quite tough. While we haven’t been able to capture it fully, through what we have learned so far, we are hoping to adopt and make the experience better in the future.”

Atlas Obscura reports that Sekar is also working to bring back other vanished and rare instruments, including the panchamukha vadyam, a five-faced drum played during the Chola dynasty period, between the 9th and 13th centuries A.D.

Sekar’s interest isn’t limited to instruments from southern India: As he points out, he has also made a Peruvian cajón and begun researching the Mongolian morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle.

“[P]art of my process includes hearing stories from local people, which gives me a better understanding of the instrument,” the musician tells Atlas Obscura. “Due to the pandemic, this is not currently possible. So, I thought that it might be better to focus on the instruments we have in my part of the world at the moment.”

For now, Sekar is focused on making more yazhs, including both 7- and 14-string varieties. Each instrument takes five to six months to craft out of a solid block of wood.

Sekar tells DT Next that he’s received orders for yazhs from musicians and singers in the United States, Norway and Dubai.

“People are slowly getting to know about [the] yazh,” he says. “Some wanted to buy it because of the beautiful sound of the instrument and a few buy it to know the history behind it. Once the instrument reaches a larger section of people, we will be having more people playing the instrument.”