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  • Lisa Lumina

L2: String Instruments

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

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 raqs sharki dancers to be able to recognize in their music. For a more comprehensive list of Middle Eastern instruments, go here. 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.

We're starting with the "plucked" family of instruments, which includes the kanoon, oud, bouzuki, guitar, saz, bouzuk (different instrument from the bouzuki). It also includes all of the percussion instruments that will be in a different post.

The Kanoun/Qanun a trapezoidal instrument with 26 sets of triple strings played with picks that attach to the fingers. It has a bright, metallic vibration sound. It makes me want to shimmy, but this is a fairly modern-style response. You can also follow along with the rising and falling melody.

The Oud is a fretless short-necked lute with 6 double strings and a warm sound played with a long flexible plectrum. In fact, "lute" is derived from a French pronunciation of "le oud" over many years. In my opinion, it has a warm and relaxed sound.

The Guitar, We often think of a lot of classic raks sharki music as old, but a lot actually came out in the 50s-70s. The guitar is used in lots of music as an accent instrument, and sometimes as the main instrument. Of course it must be tuned and notes "bent" to reach the quartertones.

Omar Korshid was one of the pioneers in playing guitar for Arabic music

In this video of Zizi Mostafa you can see a guitar player featured.

The Bouzuki, different from the bouzuk by one letter, one language, and a lot of sound! Bouzukis are something you hear a lot in Greek music, and almost not at all outside of it. As the second clip shows, you don't need to dance as fast as the bouzuki feels, you can fall back on the more mellow beat. This is a critique from some Greek audiences on how Western bellydancers perform to it: that non-Greeks move too fast, "yes, the bouzuki is fast, but the rhythm is not."

It's worth noting, that Greeks have had a big influence on Middle Eastern arts, especially in Egypt. Cleopatra was Greek, and Alexandria has had a sizable Greek population into modern times. In addition to having bellydance in Greece (first clip below, with modern bouzuki music overdubbed) Greek stars like Katy (of the golden era in Egypt) and Italian-Greek Nadia Jamal (naturalized to Lebanon) have had major influences. Greeks, along with Rom, Armenian, and Jewish women, also made up many of the dancers in Turkey.

We often think of a lot of classic raks sharki music as old, and that is true of folk songs, but a lot of what we dance to now actually came out in the 50s-70s. The guitar is used in lots of music as an accent instrument, and sometimes as the main instrument. Of course it must be accompanied by other instruments that are capable of playing the quarter tones that a guitar's frets prohibit.

The 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 Arabic Maqam.

The Saz is an instrument of Anatolian and nearby 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 ^_^

Pulled instruments: moving on from the plucked family, you'll notice the following instruments call for a different texture of movement.

The 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. Although, it originated sometime before the 700s, at which point is was found in the Arabic Peninsula and Iran. The rehbaba players in these clips are wearing traditional Saidi and rural Egyptian clothing.

A fun back and forth with violin and rebabas

The Violin is the descendant of the rababa via Vinice's connection to the silk road; it’s also called the kaman/kamanga/kemanja in Arabic. Because it doesn’t have any frets it easily plays Arabic maqamat (plural of maqam). Sometimes Arabic musicians will play it upright, the way a rhebaba would be played.

You don't see much of the violinist in the clip below, but at 2:55 the character Zou Zou (an Alma, singular of Awalim, there with her family troupe to entertain at the wedding, where it's expected they'll tease the bride and groom about their upcoming night) says "she's the kemenga (violin) and he's the oud, and together they'll make lovely music". Violin are also sometimes used in beledi progressions instead of the accordion.

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.

For "blown instruments", check out the next post. For the percussion family, a sub group of the plucked instruments, click here.

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