The komuz or kopuz (translating literally as instrument) is an ancient fretless string instrument used in Kyrgyz music, closely related to other Turkic string instruments and the lute. The oldest known komuz dates from the 4th century although the Gopuz in Azerbaijan is believed to date back to 6000 BC following an archaelogicial discovery of clay plates depicting gopuz players. The komuz is generally made from a single piece of wood (usually apricot or juniper) and has three strings made out of gut. In the most common tunings the middle string is the highest in pitch.
It can be used either as accompaniment or as a lead instrument. It is generally played seated and held horizontally, but the real virtuosos frequently play the komuz in a variety of different positions, such as over their shoulder, between their knees, or upside down. One piece (Mash botoi) consists of a simple tune repeated many times, each with a new stroke, as a test of the performer’s skill and creativity. A good komuz artist thus commands a high level of virtuosic skill on a seemingly primitive instrument.
Various myths exist about the komuz. One tells that the hunter Kambarkan was wandering in the forest when he heard a beautiful sound. He looked for the source and found the intestine of a squirrel tied between two tree branches, which he took and fashioned into a musical instrument. It is also said that the nightingale learned to sing by copying the komuz.
During the Soviet era the instrument fell from favour. It was derided as rudimentary and attempts were made to make it more like the Russian Balalaika, notably by adding frets. After independence the komuz was again taught in music colleges, though some of the Soviet changes have remained.