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Description of Middle East Instruments

Last year at the Texas Renaissance Festival, my dance troupe was introduced to an amazing group of musicians. They were dressed in costumes from that time period, and their music set the mood for the performers. Amazed as I was, hearing Middle Eastern music by a live band, I did not know the names of those instruments.

Western instruments are easy to identify, and I think we take it for granted how instruments have such an intense history. The piano, the drum, and the guitar, have their roots in other countries. Middle Eastern music, mostly used in belly dance performances, is complex. At times, I feel that there are many solos being played in a song. A string instrument, for instance, will take the lead, followed by a small drum solo, then an accordion along with the dumbek. It is difficult for me to explain in words!

Instruments have traveled with humans throughout time. Carvings and paintings on the walls show how civilizations incorporated music in their lives. Between the eighth and tenth century, instruments evolved. The construction of an instrument depended on the material available in a particular region. Brass, wood, and animal skins created the different instruments.

The most common instrument known to any belly dancer is the darbukka or the dumbek. This instrument is classified as a membranophone, which basically are drums. You hear a vibrating sound that is created by a stretched membrane. The dumbek has an hourglass type of shape. An animal skin made up the head of the dumbek (the top, flat area), and the body was made out of ceramic. Most dumbeks today are made of synthetic heads and brass.

Some belly dancers use dumbeks in their performances. You can place the dumbek under one arm and play it with the opposite hand while dancing. I believe that Suhaila and her dance troupe perform with dumbeks. You can also play the dumbek by placing it in between your legs.

What is beautiful about this instrument is the dancer can bring it to life. Watch several performances where the dancer and the dumbek player occupy the stage. Just the two of them.

The riqq is another member. Known as the tambourine, this instrument is a hand held instrument, with small cymbals around the frame. It was the most important percussion instrument until the dumbek came along. The riqq is also known as daff al-zinjari in Iraq, and the riqq is part of the takht (Arabic orhestra). A riqq player alternates between hitting the membrane and making the instrument jingle.

During the Renaissance Festival, we danced around with tambourines, inviting visitors to watch the performance. Gypsies are known to have danced with this instrument.

Finger cymbals or zills are another type of percussion instrument. Belly dancers use the finger cymbals while performing. However, musicians who use finger cymbals have a more conservative method.

The oud, known as the king of all instruments, is a string instrument, pear shaped instrument. It has a bowl shape sound box, and like the guitar, it has a neck. Unlike the guitar, there are no frets. Oud means “wood”, which later became the English lute.

There are different sizes of ouds, depending on the country of origin. On the face of the oud, are three sound-holes named shamsiyya, qamarat, and ayun. Eleven strings with no frets. Farid al-Atrash was one of the most famous oud players.

Poet singers usually used an instrument called the rebaba or rebabah. This was the earliest known bowed instrument, with one to two strings. Traditionally, this instrument is played in Said, upper Egypt, and can be seen in medieval art.

A philosopher by the name of Ibn Al-Farabi created the qanun, which was the ancestor to the piano. This instrument had over 81 stings, twenty-four treble chords. Al-Farabi believed that this instrument came from the body of one of Adam’s sons.

The qanun can be played by placing it on your lap or just by holding it. Literally, the name of this instrument means “law”.

Ney is a flute-like instrument that dates back to the age of the pyramids. The instrument has seven holes, six finger holes, plus a thumb hole. Ney players produce the sounds depending on the force used to blow into the instrument. Wind instruments such as the ney are traditional to wedding songs and dances.

This of course is a snapshot of just a few. There are many more instruments out there. Just like humans, instruments do have a history.

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