Ancient Egyptian Lute and double Pipe players

Today’s harp, lyre, drum, tambourine, flute and reed instruments are either similar to what they looked from earliest Arab civilization or a variation of the Arabs’ early musical instruments. For example the guitar and mandolin are sisters to the pear-shaped stringed instrument, the Oud.

Arab poetry was perfected into musical expression. The modes continue to influence our ballads and folk songs today. Arab weddings and other occasions are still celebrated with impromptu versing and musical compositions.

Click here to listen to Samah-l Nuba Egyptian Folk Songs
clip courtesy of Wael Kakish of Kan Zaman

Samah-l Nuba Egyptian Folk Songs clip courtesy of Wael Kakish of Kan Zaman

Instruments used are the "Mizmar" there are few sizes depending on the Key (C, G, D or A), it's an outdoor instrument (because it's too loud), mostly played at wedding processions and other Festivities & events (Happy and Sad ones), normally it is accompanied by a large drum called "Tabl" (also called Dumbeq or Darabuka” that is struck by two pieces of wood “Madhrab” and the “Daff” (also called Riq). Recording from KAN ZAMAN website, “Egyptian Folk Songs”, Claremont Colleges 2006 CD, Little Bridges Performance.


Baghdad Musical Theatre Group – 1920

Musicians in Aleppo from the 18th century

Some Arabic Music Instruments

The Oud (Ud)
The Oud is one of the most popular instruments in Arabic music. The name derived from the Arabic for 'a thin strip of wood', and this refers to the strips of wood used to make its curved body.

The neck of the Oud, which is short in comparison to the body, has no frets and this contributes to its unique sound. It also allows playing notes in any intonation, which makes it ideal for performing the Arabic maqam.




Fouad Mohamad, Oud player (left) and Helmi Charif, singer (right)


Click here to listen to the Oud as played by Fouad Mohamad


Strings are generally made of nylon or gut, and are plucked with a plectrum known as a risha (Arabic for feather). Modern strings are made of steel wound over nylon. The instrument is often intricately decorated.



Intricately decorated Oud – back view


Intricately decorated Oud – side view

The Oud used in the Arab world is slightly different to that found in Turkey, Armenia and Greece.

The European lute is a descendant of the Oud, from which it takes its name the Lute (al-oud).

There are different opinions on the origins of the Oud. Some researchers claim that Noah was the first to use the instrument before the flood. It is clear though that the Oud was found in the Egyptian excavations dated back to 3000 B.C. and was discovered in Iraq’s excavations dating back to 2350 B.C. during the Acadian era.

Masters of the Oud: Muhammad El Qasabji (Egypt), Riyadh El Sunbati (Egypt), Farid El Atrache (Lebanon/Egypt), Munir Bashir (Iraq), Simon Shaheen (Palestine).

The Qanun (Qanoun or Kanun)

The qanun is a descendent of the old Egyptian harp. It is an integral part of the Arabic music since the 10th century. The word qanun means 'law' in Arabic, and the word exists in English in the form of "canon." The qanun was introduced to Europe by the 12th Century, becoming known during the 14th to the 16th Century as a psaltery or zither. The qanun also resembles a dulcimer.

The qanun has a trapezoid shape, flat board with 81 strings in groups of three. The instrument is placed on the knees or table. Strings are plucked with the finger or two plectra, each attached to the forefinger on each hand.

The player initially sets the levers to create the scale of the starting maqam. He then has to switch some levers back and forth with the left hand while playing with the right hand to modulate to another maqam.

Masters of the Qanun: Muhammad El 'Aqqad (Egypt), Abraham Salman (Iraq).

The Nay
The nay (Farsi for reed) is an open-ended flute made of cane. They nay was known in the Middle Eastern from the ancient times. The nay usually has 6 holes in the front for the fingers to play and 1 hole underneath for the thumb. Nays come in different lengths with specific pitch.

The nay is blown using a unique lip technique called bilabial blowing, with both upper and lower lip used to partially close the end of the Nay.

Although the Nay is a very simple instrument, yet is one of the most difficult Arabic instruments to play. A fine player can produce a large variety of liquid sounds. The Nay produces a warm sound.

Masters of the nay: Bassam Saba (Lebanon).

The Riq (or Daf)
The riq (or Daf) is a very ancient musical instrument that existed in the Mesopotamia region more than 3000 years B.C. It is a small tambourine traditionally covered with a goat or fish skin head, stretched over a wooden frame inlaid with mother of pearl. The riq has five sets of two pairs of brass cymbals spaced evenly around the frame. The cymbals are what produce the beautiful jingle sound.


Since fish or goat skin heads are very sensitive to humidity and can easily lose their tightness the riq players had to heat their riqs just before the performance. Since the riq skin could stretch again after 5-10 minutes, proffessional riq players often had to own two identical riqs, heating one while playing the other.

In the late 1980s, a mylar-headed, aluminum (or wooden) bodied instrument was introduced and was adopted by a number of professional riq players. The best tunable riq today is made by Kevork Kazanjian in Lebanon.

The sound of the riq sets the rhythm of much Arabic music.


Masters of the riq: Mohamed El 'Arabi (Egypt), 'Adel Shams Eddine (Egypt), Hossam Ramzi (Egypt).

The Dumbek, dumbec, doumbec, doumbek, tabla, darabuka
The Dumbek has been known by the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations more than 6000 years B.C. and it is believed by some to have been invented before the chair.





Click here to listen to the Tabla/Dumbek
as played by Fouad Mohamad



The Dumbek is goblet shaped hand drum. The goblet drum may be played while held under one arm or by placing it between the knees while seated. It produces a resonant, low-sustain sound while played lightly with the fingertips and palm. Some players move their fists in and out of the bell to alter the tone.

Origin of the bagpipe

It is still not known when or where the bagpipe historically started, although, many depictions of this object were found in ancient excavations in Assyria (Iraq) and Egypt. Many researchers think that using an inflated leather bag as an air reservoir for a wind instrument or other purposes originated there.

The very earliest depiction of a bagpipe is a stone carving that dates back to 800 B.C. from an Assyrian palace in Nimrud (today’s Iraq) and presently resting in the British Museum, of a warrior swimming in a river and assisted by a (skin-float) probably an animal hide. The bag is equipped with a blow-pipe through which the swimmer can replace leaking air.

The other early depiction of a bagpipe used as a musical instrument is a terra cotta figure currently residing in Berlin's “Staatliche Museum.” from Alexandria (Egypt), and dates to the first century B.C. The figure looks like a man using a mouth-blown pan-pipe with a bag underneath providing air to the musical pipes.

It is either the Romans who should be credited for introducing the bagpipes to Europe from North Africa, or the Crusaders who were returning from Palestine, later the bagpipe became identified with the British Isles.

Helmi Charif and Fouad Mohamad performing folklore music


Click here to listen to folklore songs as
performed by Helmi Charif and Fouad Mohamad


Click here to listen to Mountains of Lebanon folklore
songs as performed by Helmi Charif and Fouad Mohamad


Click here to listen to the Meejana and Ataba
song by Helmi Charif and Fouad Mohamad



Click here to listen to "Having Fun"

Clip courtesy of Haytham Safia From and Recording from Haytham Safia Quartet, Promises CD Playing the Oud, Tablah accompanied by other instruments.