Ali Jihad Racy, Ph.D.
Reprinted here from the original chapter in The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, John Hayes, editor, in the second edition (1983) by Eurabia (Publishing) Ltd. and in the third edition (1992) by New York University Press with the kind permission of the author, Professor Ali Jihad Racy, Ph.D.
The html code, hyperlinks, and linked knowledge webs associated with this chapter are not part of the original chapter cited above, and are authored by Jack Logan, Ph.D.
Musical instruments of the Arab world reflect the unity and diversity within the music itself. Certain types of instruments, including end-blown reed flutes, double-reeds, single-reeds, fiddles, plucked lutes and frame drums predominate. Yet, in each area, there may be a preference for particular instruments or instrument types. Moreover, details of construction and playing techniques are affected by local intonation and sound ideals, availability of construction materials, external musical influences, and the functions assigned to each instrument.
In the Arab world today, instruments include an important category whose domain is mostly the urban communities and whose popularity tends to transcend national and geographical barriers. In Egypt, before World War I, these instruments constituted a traditional ensemble known by the name takht, literally "platform."
As described by Edward Lane and others, these instruments were the 'ud, the qanun, the nay, the riqq, and the kamanjah, a spike fiddle, which during the late nineteenth century was replaced with the Western violin, but which also remained as a folk instrument under the name rababah. After World War I, the takht was gradually expanded into an orchestra that combined these Arab instruments and other instruments borrowed from the West, especially members of the violin family.
Ehsan Emam, Oud - Nahawand Maqam
|The 'ud, (an example of a chordophone) typical of Egypt and the Levant, is a pear-shaped, short-necked, fretless instrument. It has five double courses of nylon or gut and metal-wound silk strings. Occasionally, a sixth single course is added. Plucked with an eagle's feather or a piece of plastic, the five courses are tuned to G', A', D, G, c. The first course may also be tuned to F'. Like its counterparts within the ensemble, the 'ud is suitable for both solo and ensemble playing. Having a warm timbre, low tessitura, and microtonal flexibility, the 'ud is known as amir altarab, or "the prince of enchantment." It is the favourite instrument among theorists, composers as well as amateur performers. Intricate visual ornamentation is typical of the 'ud, especially in the rosette design and the wood inlay.|
|The qanun is a flat zither-type instrument, trapezoidal in shape. Its twenty-six triple courses of strings are made from nylon or gut and metal-wound silk. The performer plucks the strings with short horn-plectra placed between the tip of each index finger and a small metal ring. The bridge of the qanun rests on segments of fish skin covering small square spaces on the wood top. The strings are tuned to the basic notes of a given scale. The pitch of each course is lowered or raised by a whole step, half step, or quarter step by lowering or raising fixed metal levers that stop the strings at specific distances.|
|The nay is an open-ended, obliquely blown flute made from reed, not bamboo. Exhibiting a breathy tone, it has a wide range of almost two and a half octaves. It is also extremely expressive and capable of producing dynamic and tonal inflections. The development and use of the nay has been attributed to shepherds, but it is, in fact, an urban instrument. The nay also appears in some Sufi musical performances.|
|The western violin, kamân or kamânjah, has been fully adapted to the Arab musical ideal in matters of tuning and playing technique. Almost indispensable to the modern Arab ensemble, the violin in Arab music is customarily tuned to G, d, g, d'.|
|In the urban ensemble, two percussion instruments are essential and may appear side by side. The riqq, also called daff, is a small tambourine; the tablah, also called darbukkah, is a vase-shaped hand-drum.|
In the urban music of Iraq, all of the above instruments are used. In addition, two other instruments are locally important. One is the santur, a hammer dulcimer with metal strings, and the jawzah, a four-string spike-fiddle whose sound box is part of a coconut shell covered with skin. These instruments are members of the traditional ensemble that accompanies Iraqi Maqam singing.
In the urban traditions of North Africa, other instruments are essential. Among them is the Andalusian 'ud of Tunisia. Having a fretted neck, this 'ud type has four double-courses of strings. Also included is the Moroccan Moorish rabab, a small boat-shaped fiddle whose appearance is somewhat similar to that of the medieval European rebec.
In the area extending through the Levant and Iraq, folk musical instruments tend to exhibit common features and performance characteristics. The melody instruments generally demonstrate an affinity for accentuated motifs, elaborate and intricate ornamentation, and sound continuity. These instruments are most often played solo or with percussion instruments and accompany singing and dancing.
|Probably the most important instrument employed throughout this
region is the Bedouin
rababah. Played with a horsehair bow, this instrument has a quadrilateral sound box covered with skin and a single string made from horsehair. Capable of a side range of dynamic accents and ornaments, this instrument is the essential melody instrument of the nomadic Bedouins. It is customarily played by the sha'ir, or poet-singer, to accompany heroic and love songs.
|Another Bedouin instrument is the mihbaj (an example of an idiophone), a wood coffee-grinder consisting of approximately a foot-tall base and a two-foot pestle. The mihbaj serves the double purpose of being an household item and, when an expert artist uses it, a percussion instrument as well. It is also a symbol of affluence, social status, and the much-cherished Arab virtue, hospitality.|