1920 Kankles Zither

Era: Cultural background: Collection: Theme:Folk Art Music Refugees Settlement WW2
Kankles zither. PHM
Kankles zither. Courtesy Powerhouse Museum

Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia.

Object Name
Kankles Zither.

Object/Collection Description
A Lithuanian kankles type zither. The instrument has a timber body and ornate soundboard and is strung with 14 pairs of same tuned strings. It has a red stencilled decoration around the sound hole with a rose petal design. It has an angled nut at the top and at the bridge of the instrument. A carved horn shaped scroll protrudes from the bridge. It includes a T shaped tuning key with wood handle and metal stem. Dimensions: Approx 530 wide x 70mm high x 195mm deep.

After World War II, Europe was in chaos, Germany was crushed and the map of Europe was being carved up by the United States and the Soviet Union. Western Europe was supported by the United States while Eastern Europe was invaded by the Soviet Union. Migrants began streaming out of Eastern Europe to places like Australia and the United States to get away from the oppression in their homelands by the Soviet Union. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union meant that nuclear war was a real threat and some people saw Australia as a safe place to live.

Between 1945 and 1965 more then two million migrants came to Australia. Most were assisted: the government paid most of their fare to get to Australia. In return they had to stay in Australia for at least two years and work in whatever jobs the government gave them. A number of migrants spent their first months in Australia living in migrant hostels while they tried to find themselves a home. Some found work in factories; others did the hard and dirty jobs in heavy industry. Skilled migrants found it hard to find work to suit their training and qualifications and had to accept what work was available. All migrants, especially those who did not speak English well, had to put up with prejudice.

Danute Giedraityte migrated to Australia as a refugee from Lithuania in the 1970s. One of the possessions Ms Giedraityte brought is a traditional Lithuanian zither to remind her of her home land and family. The zither was made for Izidorius Giedraitis who gave it to his niece Danute Giedraityte. There were apparently two zithers made and her uncle kept a smaller one. Ms Giedraityte’s father Antana Gedraitis was a Primary School Inspector in the Resainiai district and was later the Director of Vasaris 16 Lithuanian High School in Germany. He migrated to the United States where he died in 1973 or 1975.

The kankles is a Lithuanian plucked string musical instrument related to the zither. It is roughly in the shape of a trapezium (British) or trapezoid (American). The instrument is strung with several wire or gut strings which produce notes when plucked. It is usually rested on the player’s lap and played with the fingers or a pick made of bone or quill. The instrument is similar in construction and origin to the Latvian kokle, Estonian kannel and Finnish kantele.

The body of the kankles is constructed of one piece of hardwood, hollowed out to make a cavity. A thin sheet of softwood (usually spruce) is used to make a sounding board, which covers the body. Sound holes, which traditionally take the shape of a stylized flower or star, are cut into the sounding board, allowing sound to project outward. At the shortest side of the body a metal bar is attached, to which the strings made of wire or gut are anchored. The opposite ends of the strings are attached to a row of tuning pegs inserted into holes at the opposite side of the body. The tuning pegs allow for adjustment of each string’s tension, and therefore its pitch.

Within Lithuania, there are three basic regional types of kankles, although there are variations within each type and some overlap of areas. Each type has its own playing technique:

The kankles of North-eastern Aukštaitija are the simplest and most ancient form, most frequently having five strings, and having a rounded bottom like a boat.

The kankles of Žemaitija and North-western Aukštaitija are somewhat larger than those of North-eastern Aukštaitija, usually having between eight and twelve strings. They have a flat bottom, and in some cases, the shortest end is carved with the stylized figure of a bird’s or fish’s tail. This zither appears to be of this type.

The kankles of Suvalkija and North-western Žemaitija are usually the most highly decorated type, and kankles used in concert performance are most often based on this variety. The most prominent identifying feature is the addition of a carved spiral figure to the point of the instrument’s body and sometimes, the rounding of the narrow end of the body. Typically these instruments have between nine and thirteen strings.

The Lithuanian zithers differ from the traditional German zithers. The kankles zithers are quite different in shape and design for the heavily lacquered German zithers. The kankles zithers have a greater resemblance to the zithers made in Finland, Latvia and Estonia.

The zither was made by Puišys in Jurbarkas Lithuania circa 1920s- 30s. Puišys lived next to the Imsre River with two sisters who wove floor runners from rag strips a popular Lithuanian floor covering. Puišys also made looms and weaving equipment.

The zither has historic significance as evidence of post World War II refugee migration to Australia and the traumatic experience of dislocation and separation from family. The object served as a tangible link to the old world.

The zither has aesthetic significance in the design and manufacture of Lithuanian musical instruments and their distinctiveness from those from surrounding regions.

The zither provides a research tool for historians to explore post World War II migration stories from Lithuania and the development of musical instrument production and design.

The zither’s provenance is strong. This zither was brought to Australia by Ms Giedraityte when she migrated to Australia as a refugee from Lithuania in the 1970s.

The zither represents the culture and traditions Lithuania and the experience of post World War II refugee migration to Australia. Traditionally the Kankle zithers were used to play folk melodies and to accompany folk songs and dances. The zither was probably used in rituals too. This function was continued in Australia to maintain folk culture and rituals

The condition of the object in general is good.

The zither’s importance lies in its potential to interpret post World War II mass migration to Australia, social dislocation of refugees and the importance of cultural heritage to soften the blow and trauma of migration, dislocation and isolation. The instrument also has the potential to interpret Lithuanian instrument making and design and the importance of music in Lithuanian culture.


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The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.

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Regional Services at the Powerhouse Museum is supported by Movable Heritage, NSW funding from the NSW Ministry for the Arts.