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The Qanun - An Arab Musical Instrument Par-Excellence

posted on: May 4, 2016

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer

“Ahmad my love! Ahmad my love!”

You who aids the stranger, salutations to you.”

The beguiling voice of Maryem Hassan, inspired by the strings of the qanun, played by Roula Said, rang out that April day in Toronto – Canada’s world-renowned cosmopolitan city. It was the opening song of an evening resounding with the melodies of classical Arabic music. This would be the first time in my life that I attended an entire evening of classical medieval Arab music and song.

Entranced not only by the singing, but also by the soft-sweet music of the qanun, I sat back enchanted with the atmosphere created by the singing and music of the Doula Group – Toronto’s muwashshah band which was reviving the tunes and songs of the Arabs’ golden age. More than in the Arab countries, these two young Arab-Canadian ladies, in this far-away land, were resuscitating the music of al-Andalus – once the paradise of the Arabs in Europe.

In my dozens of journeys to the Middle East and North Africa, I have rarely been able to attend a concert of classical Arabic music. Yet, ironically, here in Toronto, that evening, I enjoyed great Arabic entertainment, due in the main, to the tender yet brilliant tone of the qanun – a musical instrument dear to the heart of the Arabs.

Historians indicate similar musical instruments to the qanun were used by the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites (Phoenicians), Greeks and the people of the Indian sub-continent. The qanun appears in one of the stories of the Arabian Nights while the oldest recorded usage of the word qanun as a musical instrument was in the 10th century, during the Abbasid era. Historians attribute its invention, in the same century, to the renowned Arab philosopher, mathematician, physicist and musician Al-Farabi. A man of many talents, he wrote at least 130 books; from among them, Kitab al-Musiqi al-Kabir (The Great Book of Music) – the most grandiose of all the Arabic works relating to music.

Deriving its name from the Greek kanōn (rule or law), this king of Arab musical instruments, sometimes called the ‘Arabic psaltery’, was introduced by the Arabs in the 11th century into the Iberian Peninsula. In that century, Ibn Hazm, a Spanish-Arab author, famous for his treatise on love, referred to the qanun as the ra’is (chief or leader) of musical instruments.

By the 12th century, under the names: kanon, caña and canon, its use as a musical instrument had become known in most European countries. Ultimately, in the ensuing centuries, it spread to all lands under Muslim influence – as far as China and Indonesia. However, today, it survives as a favoured musical instrument, especially in the playing of classical music, primarily in the Arabic-speaking countries, Turkey and in the Indian subcontinent.

In Spain, until the 15th century, the qanun preserved its form, eastern ornamentation and name. However, even after its decline, this creation of Al-Farabi continued to be played on special occasions in fashionable society. Subsequently, not only in Spain but also in all the European countries, the qanun evolved into the psaltery, a member of the zither family, which in turn gave birth to the harpsichord (a large form of a psaltery) from which the piano was born. In our times, plucked psalteries continue to be played in European folkloric music. From among these are the: Estonian kannel, Finnish kantele, French micanon, German kanon, Italian canone, Russian gusli, Scandinavian kanala, and Ukrainian bandura.

The qanun is a flat right-angled trapezoidal instrument, 75 to a 100 cm (30 to 40 in) long and 50 to 60 cm (20 to 24 in) wide. Its body is made of wood and the soundboard half of wood and half of usually fish skin. The total number of strings varies from 64 to 82 but is usually 24 strings in triple with a range of three octaves. They are made from gut or nylon. However, in India, they are, at times, made from metal.

More than any other instrument in an Arab orchestra, the qanun is suitable for the display of virtuosity and the execution of rapid scale. Players place the qanun horizontally resting across the knees or on a special table before them, with the tuning pegs to the left and the longest string close to the body.

It is played by plucking with thimble plectrums, placed on the tip of the index finger of each hand. The right hand plays the melody while the left doubles it in the lower octave. The pitch can easily be raised or lowered while playing by means of levers.

In the modern classical Arab orchestras, usually consisting of the qanun, ‘ud (lute), kamanja (violin) and nay (flute), the qanun is the leading instrument – the orchestra’s takht (bed). It rivals and even outdoes the ‘ud – said to be by some Arab musicians, the sultan of Arab entertainment.

Considered to be a noble instrument, the qanun is not normally utilized for folk or popular music. Its players are the elite in the world of musicians. They enjoy high stature and are always in demand. This esteem has firm basis. To learn to play this complex instrument is no easy task. Its enemies say that it takes half a lifetime to learn to play the qanun and the other half to tune the instrument.

The tuning of the qanun to quarter- tones produces a delicate yet brilliant tone, usually ensnaring its listeners – even those who are not familiar with Arab music. The tourist hotels in the Arab world have understood the luring effect of this Arab invented instrument. In their luxury abodes, often a qanun player is hired to play soft-soothing melodies for visitors in tearooms, lounges and restaurants.

I was thinking of the captivating voice of Maryem Hassan, inspired by the soft music of the qanun, played by Roula Said, when I sat down in the lounge of the Le Palace Gammarth Hotel, a few miles north of the city of Tunis. The enticing music coming from the fingers of a brilliant qanun player held me spell-bound. Even though more than a thousand years have passed since Al-Farabi gave the world the qanun, it remains for me as well as many others, an Arab magical instrument par-excellence.