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C.15th painting on Voronet monastry

Republic of Moldova - modern fretted Cobza



Cobza, detail of string layout

The lute was known several thousand years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt but only appeared in western Europe in the 10th century. The west European instruments became highly developed with many strings and were generally fretted.

The Romanian lute, known as the cobza, is a short necked, unfretted lute very similar to the oud of Iraq and Syria. This form of the instrument may have arrived in Romania via the gypsy lăutari. The professional musicians in Romania are know as lăutari which directly translates as lute player. Similar instruments are seen in 16th century paintings on the walls of several monasteries.

The cobza has a soft tone, most often tuned to D-A-D-G. It is generally used to accompany violins or pipes. Playing melodies is rare due to the short neck construction. Once widespread through Moldavia, Oltenia and Muntenia cobza have become rare in village music, but can be seen in many "folk orchestras". The cobza can also be found in the Csango minority villages of Moldavia.

The name cobza most probably arrived via the Slavic kobza from a Turkic central Asian kobuz or komuz.  It is likely that the kobza evolved from an instrument spread by one of the invading Turkic tribes. The komuz is the national instrument of the Kyrgyz who believe they are the decedents of the Huns who invaded east Europe in the 4th century. The Bulgar migration from upper Volga to the lower Danube during the 6th and 7th centuries are known to have had lute type instruments. The Polovetsians who descendents are thought to be the Gagauz of the Ukraine and Moldavia.

The Ukrainian kobza is different in construction and can be traced back to an earlier instrument of the northern Slavs. It is mentioned in the 10 -11th centuries by wandering Arab scholars who visited Kyivan-Rus. The term kobza have being introduced into the Ukrainian language in the 13th century to differentiate this instrument from the husle string instruments.

The kobza was a favourite instrument of the Ukrainian Cossacks, and in the courts of Polish kings and Russian tsars, but fell into disuse as it was gradually replaced by the bandura. The Hungarian medieval lute was known as the koboz, a term now applied by Hungarians for simpler Romanian cobza when played by Hungarians in Romania.

So, we have the musician known as lăutar meaning lute player where lute is derived from the middle eastern oud but generally refers to a fretted and often long necked lute. The cobza instrument is almost identical to a middle eastern unfretted short neck oud, and the name comes from the Turkic instrument, possibly via the northern Slavic Кобза which is a fretless instrument of the lute family, but different in construction to the Romanian cobza.


Alexandru, T (1980), Romanian folk music, Musical publishing house, Bucharest


© Eliznik2005, First issue 2002, Last updated Mar-07