Egyptian Traditional, Folkloric and Modern Oriental Dance Costume


Ancient musical instruments from the Middle East

Ancient musical instruments from pre-Islamic times - ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Sumerian and other former kingdoms - the lands that are today part of the general expanse now known as the Middle East - are still often played nowdays, several thousand years later.

The lute or 'oud' also pictured below in the Egyptian Pharaonic painting is an ancient instrument, with images of it dating back to the Pharonic tomb paintings. The rababa, a coconut shell type of violin instument was often depicted in ancient paintings and sculptures. Flutes, sagat (finger cymbals), harps and tambourines were commonly played by musicians, who were often women.

Rhythm instruments featured strongly. Predominantly crafted and played were instruments from the percussion group, ie; tabla (shown in picture to the left) and dof (tambourine minus cymbals) and the brass finger cymbals.

The first tablas (drums) were believed to have been earthenware water pots that had lost their clay bases. The broken pots were covered in fish skin and the skin tightened as it dried in the sun, forming a tight resonating cover, that when struck made two main sounds - a 'dom' and a 'tak'. To this day the tabla's main rhythms are created from 'doms' and 'taks' arranged in various patterns, often, but not always in groups of four.


Percussion and types of Middle Eastern drums

A 'dom' is a bass beat and a 'tak' is a treble beat. There are various other techniques used to strike the tabla or tambourine to produce various rhythms, like the strong, sudden 'cut', but the rhythmic structures revolve mainly around the assembly of doms and taks - the way they are spaced and the sound patterns they create. They are often, but not always played in groups of 4 - but sometimes 2 or 8.

As a rule of thumb, there is an underlying 'groups of four' structure that underlies most Middle Eastern rhythms, hence they are able to be danced to. The dancer usually follows the drummer's rhythm and as the two become comfortable with each other's dance and playing snycopation and attunement, so the tabla solo becomes more challenging! The dancer knows to change on the one, as this is the new set of repetitions and dictates new movement.

Rhythms primarily affect the feet and hips - therefore stepping patterns, hip lifts, drops and accents, and of course shimmies, are all affected by the depth, speed and nuance within the rhythm. The speed at which these patters and rhytmic assemblies are played is called the tempo. A dancer must follow both to stay in synch with the rhythm, which supports the main timing and structure of the music.

The doholla in Egypt is the largest tabla, a goblet-shaped clay body with a heavy skin and also a heavy bass beat. The tabla is the medium sized drum - goblet shaped with a skin stretched over the topre played by being held under the arm, sometimes settled on a knee - many tabla players will use a chair as a support for the lifted and bent supporting leg. The tabul is played at the front of the body with two big heavy sticks, it is often used with the mizmar (horn) at weddings, for the Saiidi cane dance and for folkloric processions.

The req is a tambourine with cymbals around the edge, whilst a dof is similar - but with no cymbals. There are various shapes and sizes - the larger ones can be quite heavy and intricate to play as the req player must strike the skin, similar to how the tabla is played, plus click the cymbals together! The wonderful sound is a blend of tinkering shimmery brass and thick, resonating skin - a dual purpose instrument.

The Turkish equivalent of the tabla, a refined brass version with a metal rim and stretched skin top creates similar sounds, perhaps not quite as earthy. The Turkish drum is called the 'dumbek'. In Syria and lebabnon, there are similar drums.

Moroccan drummers use polyrhythms and play both the tabla and earthier versions of African djembes, skin tambourines and a variety of hand made clay, wood and skin drums.


String instruments from the Middle East

The zither is known as the 'qanoon' in Egypt. It is usually made of walnut and has 48 sets of horse hair strings which are strummed and plucked using tortoise shell picks fixed to metal rings worn on the musicianÕs fingers. It is played on the lap, or seated and produces a melancholy, emotive tremolando sound. A master instrument, it is usually played as an improvised solo for taqsim.

The Turkish Zither is called similarly the kanun. Like the Arabic qanoon, each note has 3 strings associated with it. Each instrument is beautifully and individually decorated. The Kanun design of today is said to be the creation of the great 10th century Islamic scholar Farabi, although its roots go much further back in history.

The oud, similar to the European lute, is a pear shaped stringed guitar crafted from wood. Its sound is robust yet soulful. Oud literally means "bent twig", or flexible piece of wood. It is short necked, fretless, has a bowl back and usually three ornate soundholes on the body.

There are two main variations of the oud: Turkish ouds often called the Saz which are made from a very light wood, producing a bright tone, usually made in Istanbul. Arabic ouds are larger, heavier, instruments with a deeper tone color, usually made in Cairo and Damascus. Farid El Attrache, a Druze prince and musicician/actor, who became famous in Egypt, created some of the most famous oud pieces that are also very good to dance to.

The bazooki is the Greek version of the oud - more similar to the Turkish oud, with a very long neck and smaller pear shaped body.

The coconut shell rebaba is part of the oud family, and typically has 2 or 3 strings. The word rebab is an Arabic term translated as "bowed string instrument". It is closely associated with Islamic culture, and dates back to at least the 8th century. Its roots are probably in Arabia or Persia, and its influence has reached from Indonesia to Europe and Africa (it is thought to be the earliest ancestor of the violin). There are two basic types of rebaba: wooden fiddles with pear-shaped bodies, and spiked fiddles, named for the spike on the bottom of the instrument on which it stands while being played. Spiked rebabs typically have no frets, but instead, the fingers of your left hand become movable bridges. These instruments complement the melodic line by creating a dialogue with the singers.

The rababa is still played by folk musicians in Egypt and Turkey, and often by gypsies. However, the violin is now a more common instrument in today's Oriental orchestras - since the influence of the European orchestra from the early 1900's. The Gypsy Rom, formerly rababa players, have become some of today's master violinists, and this influence throughout Eastern Europe has produced some of the world's most haunting, soulful and beautiful music.


Wind instruments from the Middle East

Flutes have been played for thousands of years in the Middle Eastern countries. The ancient shepherd's pastoral calling instrument was the high pitched Kavala (Arabic) or Kawala (Turkish). It is a reed pipe played like a flute.

The nay, its close cousin, another reed instrument, has a breathy, haunting quality often used for the spiritual music of the whirling derwish or mervlana. The two often exchange in call-and-response interplay in the orchestra.

The arghool is a double reed pipe and is much louder. The mizmar is a wooden horn capable of producing incredibly loud folkoric 'calling' sounds, and is often accompanied by the tabul drum in processions, as both are easy to walk with. weddings, festivals and feasts are heralded with the mizmar.

The accordian is not really a wind instrument, but does rely on the compression of air to fuel its sounds. The European instrument became a popular baladi musc instrument in the 30's and 40's. Like the violin, the accordian creates emotional nuance which suits the heartfelt and lyrical qualities of baladi.


Brass instruments from the Middle East

The saxaphone's lonely, wailing sounds made it a popular baladi music instrument since the 40's.With the onset of Jazz and its African overtones - jazz instruments and composition styles also blended well with the uptempo orchestral sounds of Egyptian music as it emerged from the streets of Cairo streets and found its way onto television and into clubs. The saxaphone and trombone have become popular instruments for Egyptian and Turkish musicians since their introduction earlier this century.

The trumpet, with its shrill musical qualities mimicked the mizmar and also brought a brilliance to the orchestra, especially for call-and-response duets.

Brass finger cymbals have been played since the days of the Temple of Artemis was a sancturay for dance, and Artemis was reputed to call them "the drums of the air". Known as sagat in Arabic or zills in Turkish, the four cymbals are played by the dancer and the larger toura are played by male percussionists in the orchestra. Turkey is especially famous for its zills, coming in all shapes and sizes, including cymbals for drum kits, which are also now often used in the Middle Eastern Oriental orchestras.

Middle Eastern music is a blend of ancient and modern traditions and sounds. Earthy rhythms, melodic tunes and beautiful quarter tones make it rich and mesmerising - the music that inspires bellydance



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