Face Music - Traditional Instruments - Khakas people

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

more information about Traditional Instruments of the Khakas people - text available in German


- Khomys (string instument)

A two-string or three-string lute, related to the Altaian topshur, the Tuvan doshpulur and the Mongolian tovshuur.

The Khakas people play two types of khomys: the aghas-khomys and the topchyl-khomys. Both have a body and neck carved from cedar wood, but while the former has a sounding board from cedar wood, the body of the latter is covered with the skin of wild roe deer, domestic goat, or bovine. The traditional stringing is of twisted horsetail hair and the strings are tuned a fourth or fifth apart; the three-string khomys is tuned a fouth plus a fifth apart.
- Yykh (string instrument)

A two-string fiddle of the Khakas people, related to the Altaian ikili, the Tuvan igil and the Mongolian ikil.

Its body is similar to the khomys but has a longer neck. The body, like that of the topchylkhomys, is covered with the skin of wild roe deer, domestic goat or juvenile bovine. The strings are made from twisted horsetail hair and are tuned a fourth or fifth apart. It is played with a bow made of willow with horsetail hair stringing, and is coated with larch or cedar wood resin.
- Chatkhan or chadyghan (string instrument)

With six to forteen string plucked box zither of the Khakas people, distantly related to the Tuvan chadagan, Mongolian yatga, Japanese koto, Chinese quin and Korean kayagum.

The Khakas zither is a 1,5 metres long box from spruce wood, with each metal string running over an individual movable bridge made from sheep’s knucklebone. It is likely to originally have consisted of a short body (about 50 cm long) hollowed out from underneath like an upturned trough, with strings of horsetail hair. However, in the 18th century it already broadly had its present shape: a long box of nailed boards with 6 or 7 metal strings. It has a rather smooth sound, ideal for performance in intimate company. The chatkhan is tuned in a pentatonic scale, with one or two strings tuned a fifth and/or octave below the lowest melody string, to obtain a drone. The strings are plucked and strummed to the right of the moveable bridges with the right hand, to produce both melody and drone. The left hand is used to press particular strings to the left of the moveable bridge. This way, diatonic melodies can be played, as well as the adorning gliding tones and vibratos so typical for the instrument.

The chatkhan (like the Khakas lutes) could hold a spirit, and therefore handling and playing was bound to taboes and rituals. [Unlike the long zithers of their south-eastern neighbors the Mongols, who mainly used the long zither at court and in monasteries since strings symbolised the twelve levels of the palace hierarchy,] the chatkhan was used to accompany lyrical, historical and epic songs and heroic tales in intimate gatherings of common people, especially at weddings and nocturnal dead wakes.

The Khakas sacred heroic epics say: "We are all universal, since we participate in the creation of the world every year, every day and every moment". This goes also for their folklore, customs and traditions. Artistic creativity is interwoven with material production, the way of life and everyday relationships. In traditional Khakas society every man and every women can get the gift of creativity. A genre of oral folk creative work, known as the takhpakh (=improvised songs) was especially wide spread. Women hold an important place in Khakas society that is reflected in many heroic poems and epics. Female warriors have been great heroes against external enemies. Women wear a "pogho", a female breast ornament made of cowry shells, pearl buttons and colorful beads sewn to leather or textile, and how they live is explained in one specific tale, where the rules are described in ornamental form. The poghos build a bridge between generations and function at the same time as a spiritual protective shield that protects female fertility and thus secures offspring (animist thinking).

- Khobyrakh or Shoor - used while herding (wind instrument)

An open end-blown flute similar to that used by the Bashkirs and the Caucasians. It is a 50-70 cm long hollow pipe with four fingerholes to the front and one to the back. Today is mostly made from plastic.

- Syylas – used while herding (wind instrument)

Formerly an open end-blown flute similar to that used by the Bashkirs and the Caucasians. It was a 30 to 80 cm long, smooth, hollow pipe without fingerholes, made of the stem of a large
umbelliferous or willow plant.

The Khakas Kachin tribe called it “khobyrakh” (lit. “hogweed”, a kind of umbelliferous), while the Saghay and Shor tribes called it “shoor”, like (the Altaians. Nowadays it has a small block with a slit at the top, six fingerholes, and is made of wood veneer (ash, mahogany and other species) or plastic.


Die Jäger verwendeten u.a. verschiedene Arten und Grössen von Blasinstrumenten (Flöten und Pfeifen).
Dazu gehören eine Strohpfeife Syghyrkhy (sïghïrtkhï) , eine kleine Birkenpfeife Sybyskhy (sïbïskhï) und die grössere konische aus Birkenrinden hergestellte Pyrghy (pïrghï) Trompete. Töne werden durch Saugen ("Ziehen") produziert. Die Pyrghy wird oft verwendet als Signalhorn, um den Beginn eines Rituals während Clanversammlungen oder Schamanensessions zu markieren.

- Syghyrtkhy – used for hunting (wind instrument)

Is a small whistle from a bird feather or straw.

- Sybyskhy – used for hunting (wind instrument)

Is a small whistle of tree birch.

- Pyrghy – used for hunting (wind instrument)

A large, conical, sucked trumpet from birch bark or wood, used to hunt large game (elk, Siberian deer, red deer). It is made of two identical conical wooden halves, tied with strips of birch bark or willow. The tip is inserted into the corner of the mouth and air is sucked with force, which results in a sound like a deer’s call. Today it is used in addition as a signalling instrument to open community celebrations, clan meetings, and shamanic sessions.

- Türlö – swirled, used for lifestock keeping (wind insturment)

A wind instrument swung around by hand to produce wind that makes the instrument sound.

- Timir Khomys – jew's harp.

A small horseshoe-shaped instrument to which a stiff spring is attached. Today it is made of
brass or steel (timir khomys literally means “iron utensil”) but in the past it was made of

The player places the frame of the instrument with his left hand to his mouth, touching
the front teeth, and taps the spring, called ‘tongue’, with his right hand. The instrument’s
tongue acts as a vibrator, while the mouth cavity acts as a resonance chamber. The player can
vary pitch and timbre by changing the shape of the mouth cavity, opening or closing the
throat, and changing the attack on the instrument's tongue.

- Tüür - single-sided frame drum – shaman’s drum (percussion instrument)

The drum consists of a round wooden frame fixed inside with one vertical and one horizontal
wooden stick and covered with the skin of a cloven-hoofed animal. Formerly is was only used
as a ritual instrument, by shamans (kham). Today it is also used as the main percussion
instrument in music ensembles. When used as a ritual instrument, drawings are made on the
outer side of the drumhead, and collored ribbons (chalama), metal bits and bells are attached to the horizontal stick inside.
- Orba – drum stick of wood and leather belonging to the Tüür.

It is made of the urinary bladder of an animal filled with grain and has a handle.

Revised by Hermelinde Steiner and Liesbet Nyssen 2013