Instruments of (mostly) Egyptian Music
Updated: Mar 20
This is intended as a source of review for students, or as an orientation. It is by no means an exhaustive list of all MENAHT instruments, but it is a good foundation list of instruments for raks sharki dancers to be able to recognize in their music. As you learn to identify the sounds of each instrument, practice interpreting their textures. Over time, you will develop certain associations, or moves that "feel right for this sound" to you. Look also at the how the musicians play, their faces and their hands, for information about the feeling and ideas about how fast/slow or sharp/smooth you might want to move. Studying taxeem (solo improvisation on a melodic instrument) is also a key skill as you progress in your dancing.
Naqr Family: plucked instruments
Oud is a fretless short-necked lute with 6 double strings and a warm sound played with a long flexible plectrum.
Bouzuk a long-necked lute with a small body and no frets, it has fewer stings than an oud. It is different from the Greek bouzouki, which has fixed frets and cannot play Middle Eastern Maqam.
Bouzuki, different by one letter, one language, and a lot of sound! This is a Greek instrument. Although the bouzuki can sound fast, it is important to listen to the underlying rhythm and not become too frantic in your dancing.
The Saz is an instrument of Turkish music. I don't know much about it, but it has a distinctive sound, and I'll add more info later as I continue to learn ^_^
Back to Arabic instruments!
Kanoun/Qanun a trapezoidal instrument with 26 sets of triple strings played with picks that attach to the fingers. It has a tighter metallic vibration sound.
Keyboard: Electric keyboards, also called the org, can be modified to play Arabic quartertones that are not found on the piano. It can be programed to mimic (sometimes with exciting results, sometimes tragic) other Arabic instruments. It’s very handy for small bands because of this trait.
Percussion is also part of the Naqr family
Tabla/Doumbek/Darbeki/Darbouka is the goblet drum that is pervasive in Middle Eastern music. The Turkish name is Tabla and it has a more pronounced bowl which produces longer reverb, just like Turkish zills, you are also more likely to see tuning pegs on the outside.
Turkish drummers might use either style of drum. The Arabic drum’s head is more smoothly joined with the body and was traditionally made from ceramic. The edges are always rounded and might use synthetic or goatskin heads. It makes a punchier sound than the Turkish version; Arabic drummers don’t really use the Turkish style of drum.
Doholla is a bass doumbek. It is bigger and sounds deeper. Both are played over the knee/under the arm, not between the legs, as an African djembe would be.
In Turkish they're called zills and in Arabic they're called sagat. Both words mean finger cymbals, and until modern manufacturing methods came around both were made with one hole. As we know, the American bellydancers in the 60’s&70’s were heavily influenced by the Turkish style. Now a'days, Many Americans often prefer two holes for the elastic, which keeps the cymbals steadier, and a deeper bell shape lets them ring longer and sound clearer. They are also called Champarat or Jambarat in Iraqi dialect.
In Egypt, the generally preferred sound comes from a flatter rim and small, shallow bell, usually with only one hole for elastic. This creates a clattery sound and they have to be played in a different style. Karim Nagi performs with them in this clip, which illustrates the wide range of pitches and sounds a good sagat player can get out of them.
Another type of cymbal found in Egypt is called tourra, these are played by musicians, not dancers. They are very large and not meant to be danced with.
There's a myth that Egyptian dancers don't/didn't play finger cymbals, but it is a myth. There are tons of clips of vintage Egyptian dancers playing sagat.
Riq: Arabic tambourine. The riq was the main rhythm instrument in classical music and it gives the percussion a subtler feel, allowing the artistry of the melody and/or singer to stand out.
There are a lot of frame drums, and their names vary from region to region. I am still sorting out these regional names, so the info for tar and duff is the best I know right now, and is focused on Egypt. Updates to come.
Duff a deep, large frame drum traditionally made with goatskin and often used as a backup drum to the doumbek. It is also used in Zaar rituals. Some have thin chains, like a snare drum, inside.
Tar is a thinner frame drum than the duff also with goatskin, used in Zaar rituals.
Tabl Beledi found in both Sa’idi music and Lebanese dabke, a very large round drum held by a strap from the shoulder with a large beater in one hand and a switch on the other side. The player will often move amongst the crowed, dancing around and kneeling to highlight particular dancers in the crowed.
SaHb: pulled instruments family
Rababa played upright with horsehair stings (2 or 4) and a horsehair bow. The body is made from a coconut and fish or goatskin. This is one of the instruments that give Sa’idi music its distinct sound.
Violin is the descendant of the rababa; it’s also called the Kaman/Kamanga in Arabic. Because it doesn’t have any frets it easily plays Arabic maqamat.
Nafkh: blown instruments
Accordion is a Western instrument that was re-tuned to play Arabic maqamat. It is now very popular for beledi music and raks sharki in general.
Nai the Arabic flute made from bamboo reed. Each one is tuned to a different maqam, so the musician will have to switch instruments to modulate or change songs; they come in a set of 7. They have 7 holes, one of which is on the back. They produce a breathy and moving sound.
Mizmar is a conical double reed instrument similar to the oboe. Traditionally played in a group of 3 (or 2 if one of the brothers in the band got a new job) with the least senior musician playing a drone, the second playing the main melody, and the most senior playing decorations. It is very loud. In Turkey they call it a Zurna.
Arghul a double clarinet with one long reed to play a drone note and a shorter reed to play the melody. This instrument is popular for Sa’idi style music as well as in Palestine.
Mijwiz is another double reed instrument popular in the Levantine region. It also has two reeds, but they are equal length and much shorter than an arghul. Listening to it makes me wish I was better at dabke <3
Clarinet mostly found in Greek and some Turkish music, along with the bouzouki and a drum kit. Greek style music might accompany an American bellydance performance, thanks to the prevalence of Greek clubs that employed dancers.
As mentioned, my focus is primarily on Egyptian music, with some instruments finding their way in from my experience with Greek night clubs or Lebanese cultural events. If you go here you can find a more comprehensive list of instruments of the MENAT region.