Belly Dance to the Music of Americanistan!
An Overview of Middle Eastern Instruments
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Christmas chant

Overview, continued

Janet Naylor, kanoonist
Janet and her kanoon
Photo by Fred Herinckx

The Oud
"The oud is a fretless, plucked short-necked lute with a body shaped like half a pear." (1) For centuries hugely popular in Egyptian and Turkish music, the oud is also widespread in North Africa, the Near East, Central Asia, and the Sahara. Known to the Arabs as "the Prince of Ecstasy" and "the Sultan of musical instruments," the oud has a rich, deep sound and a passionate or meditative quality, depending on how it is played. Famous contemporary oud players include John Belezijikian, who plays in Armenian and Turkish styles with lots of ornamentation and embellishments, and Hamza al Din, a Nubian musician who plays in a sparse, rhythmic, meditative style. Both are fabulous, though John B's music is probably more appropriate for most "belly dances." During the Middle Ages the oud made its way to Europe with the returning crusaders through Spain in the West and Byzantium in the East. Troubadors and wandering minstrels took up the instrument to accompany their singing. In the 16th century the popularity of the oud, or lute, reached its peak in Europe. All the European names for the instrument, such as liuto, or lute, are derived from the Arabic "al oud", which meant wood. (2)
The Kanoon
The kanoon (also spelled qanun) can be described as "a plucked box zither in the shape of a right trapezoid, with 63 to 84 strings." (5) Holding the instrument across the lap, or on a small table, the musician plucks the strings with tortoise-shell or metal plectra attached to rings that are worn on the right and left index finger. While plucking the strings with the plectra, the fingers are held an octave apart. The left index finger follows the right, creating a "syncopated, heterophonic two-voice composition in parallel octaves." (6) This is how the "shimmering" sound of the kanoon is produced, the sound that makes dancers want to shimmy. Jalaleddin Takesh is a well-known kanoon player in the U.S. and Middle East. The kanoon is mentioned in Arabic sources as early as the 10th century (7). Today, the kanoon is popular everywnere in North Africa and the Near East as an instrument of Arabian and Turkish art music. Kanoon is prominent in Turkish Gypsy music as well. In the U.S. in the 1970s, the sound of the kanoon became familiar to belly dance audiences through the music of George Abdo and Eddie Kochak. In the Middle East it is primarily men who play the kanoon, Touma says. In the West, Mimi Spencer is a well-known kanoonist. Americanistan, of Eugene, Oregon, also features a female kanoon player, Janet Naylor.

The Ney

The ney is an end-blown flute that is open at both ends. It is constructed in different sizes, traditionally from reed, bamboo, or cane. In modern times, however, plastic pipe or even metal tent stakes have been used in place of the traditional material. This instrument in its structure is deceptively simple, generally having one finger hole on the underside and six on the front. The musician blows against the edge of the pipe opening. Through the technique of over-blowing, the musician can play a range of more than three octaves. The fundamental tone of a ney depends on the length of the flute pipe. The apparent simplicity of the instrument is countered by the devilish difficulty of playing it. Beginning players may practice for weeks or months to produce a single tone. Breath control is paramount to successful ney playing. The breathy quality of its tone adds much to the haunting, passionate sound of the ney. The Sufis refer to its sound as that of the wailing of the reed upon its separation from the reed-bed, a metaphor for the human spiritual condition of separation from God. Neys are found in Sufi music, and in traditional Arabic and Turkish musical ensembles. Neys have been found in Egyptian tombs. According to Touma, the ney is traditionally played exclusively by men. (3) Omar Farouk Tekbilek is one of the leading ney players, known to Western listeners through his marvelous recordings and appearances at the Mendocino music camp and other events.

Mizwiz and Arghul

These wind instruments belong to the realm of folk music. Both are two-reed instruments with double pipes. In the mizwij, the pipes are of equal length; the arghul has pipes of different lengths. Mizwij has fingering holes on both pipes; arghul has one pipe with fingering holes and one with no fingering holes, which is the drone pipe. In some instruments the drone pipe can reach a length of over two meters. (4) These instruments are played using the technique of circular breathing, in which air is inhaled through the nostrils and held in the cheeks while exhaling, producing a continuous tone with no breaks. The mizwij, with its double chambers of equal length, produces a loud resonant wailing sound which is thought to produce ecstatic states. The arghul, with its chambers of different lengths, produces a continuous drone sound overlaid with a melody line. These instruments are sometimes difficult for Western listeners to get used to. I love them. The mizwij, especially, just opens the top of my head (crown chakra), lifts my spirits, raises my energy level, and gets me into those "ecstatic states."

The Darabukkah

Also known in the U.S. as the dumbek, this is a single-headed drum in the shape of a goblet. The membrane is struck with both hands. The heavy principal dum beats are produced in the center, whereas the light secondary tek beats are produced near the rim. Traditionally made with a clay body and a goat or fish-skin head, today the instrument is often made of metal, with a synthetic mylar or fyberskin head and a tension ring and tightening device. The darabukkah is extremely popular in the Middle East and is present at many festivities. It is an instrument of folk music as well as art music and is played at wedding celebrations in the village and the city, as well as in the ensembles of art music. Both men and women play the darabukkah, although men dominate in the art music ensembles. (10) The darabukkah is the heart of the ensemble, providing the rhythmic base on which the melodies are overlaid. For the dancer the rhythm is the most basic element fo which her body responds, and to which she must match her zill-playing. A dancer without rhythm is an impossible emotion. Hossam Ramzy is perhaps the most famous dumbek player in the West. Susu Pampanin is a well-known female dumbek player. Jennifer James-Long, a fabulous drummer who studied in the Middle East, sometimes sits in with Americanistan.


 1-3, 5-10 Touma, Habib H. Music of the Arabs, 1995. Amadeus Press, Portland, OR 4-Lark in the Morning Music Catalogue. 1998-99, Lark in the Morning, Mendocino, CA

This article was originally published in Jareeda Magazine in 2001. Used by permission. Revised by the author 2/7/04. All rights reserved.

About the Author: Dunyah, aka Denise Gilbertson, has studied and performed Middle Eastern dance since 1976. Her musical studies began at an early age, with instruction in piano. She began drumming for other dancers in the 80s, and has continued to learn and to play Middle Eastern music ever since. She is the director of Americanistan.