Apache Fiddle: History & Music

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

We don't often talk about string instruments in Amerindian music, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. In this lesson, we'll check out the Apache fiddle and see what makes it so unique.

The Apache Fiddle

When we think about Amerindian music of North America, the instrument that most often comes to mind is either the flute or drum. A lot of Amerindian music is accompanied by these instruments. But what about string instruments? Amerindian cultures, particularly those of the Southwest, have had string instruments since the Spanish introduced them in the late 1500s. Like the horse or metal tools, Spanish string instruments were pretty nice to have, and many cultures of this region adopted them into their own musical traditions.

One group, however, went even further. The Apache are an Amerindian nation of the American Southwest. Like many other Amerindian cultures, music is very important in Apache ceremonies and life. However, they developed a unique instrument called the Tsii'edo'a'tl, which directly translates to ''wood that sings.'' Most people outside of the Apache nation just call it the Apache fiddle. Widely regarded to be the only surviving string instrument native to Amerindian cultures in the USA, the Apache fiddle is an amazing instrument.

Apache fiddle
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History of the Apache Fiddle

So, where did the Apache fiddle come from? Honestly, we don't know for sure. Historically, the Apache did not have a written language, and most of their material possessions were made of organic materials that decomposed over time. There's a lot about their past that's still a mystery. Some scholars believe that the Apache people interacted with European string instruments and fiddles for years then decided to make their own. Others claim that the Apache fiddle predates European arrival in North America and has simply been part of Apache culture since it began.

What we know for sure is that the Apache fiddle has been a part of Apache musical traditions for a long time and became a staple of several dances. In fact, it is still used in many Apache ceremonies and dances to this day. Like other Apache instruments, the main purpose of the Apache fiddle is not always to provide melody. Especially when accompanying a dance, the role of the instrument is to provide a consistent and driving rhythm. The melody generally comes from chanting or singing performed by the dancers and other observers.

Apache musician named Chasi, son of the Apache chief Bonito, with an Apache fiddle
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Characteristics of the Apache Fiddle

So, what defines the Apache fiddle? Its body is made from a hollow tube, carved to help resonate a pitch. While some modern Apache fiddles are made of wood (walnut being a preferred material), the traditional Apache fiddle is made from the stalk of the agave plant. A cutout in the tube provides a sound hole that turns the inside of the tube into a resonance chamber. In a European fiddle, the sound holes are those f-shaped cutouts. In an Apache fiddle, sound holes are generally diamond shaped. That's the main body of the instrument, which is often painted and decorated with Apache symbols.

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