Traditional Arab Instruments: The Mijwiz
By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer
You may have heard of the qanun, oud, or the tabla as common Arab instruments. However, the mijwiz is another classic and traditional Arab instrument. Other than being a traditional instrument, the mijwiz is also used in the background of many popular songs today. One of the oldest wind instruments, the mijwiz goes back to Ancient Egypt. Originally, the mijwiz was most common in Egypt. However, as time has gone on, the mijwiz has become a staple instrument in the Levant, being most popular in Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. In Egypt, the comparable instruments to the mijwiz are the zummarah and the arghul.
What is the Mijwiz?
The mijwiz is a wind instrument made of fragile bamboo reeds. Its name means “dual” in Arabic. It has two shorter bamboo reeds (about six to eight centimeters each) tied together with tar or a string coated in beeswax. Each reed has five or six finger holes that control the note and has a single vibrating reed used to create the sound. The range of notes that the instrument can play is just under an octave. It is known for being loud and having a substantial radiating power.
The instrument is relatively complicated to play, so only trained professionals play it. This is because of the breathing technique that it requires and the fact that the instrument is played continuously. The mijwiz requires circular breathing, a technique that doesn’t come naturally to many people. Circular breathing allows the musician to continue playing the note without breaking the note while stopping to breathe. The musician will puff up their cheeks with air and hold it in their cheeks, then use the muscles in their cheeks to push the air into the instrument. As they are running out of air, they breathe in through the nose. This breathing technique is common among many wind instruments, yet is a process that a musician has to learn. On top of that, the mouthpiece on the mijwiz (the two vibrating reeds) have to be placed pretty deep in the mouth while playing (and breathing).
Typically, the two reeds on a mijwiz are played in unison, producing a strong and somewhat nasal sound. The sound that it makes is what makes it so distinct and different from other instruments.
When is it Played?
The mijwiz is usually played by middle-class men and is generally connected to rural life, especially goat herding. Most of the songs that use the instrument are traditional folk songs, although more popular songs today are picking it up to use in the background. It is commonly played outside because of how much sound the instrument makes, although it can definitely be played inside. When playing the mijwiz, there are no accompaniments because it makes such an impact on its own.
The instrument is associated with happy occasions, such as weddings. It is also good to play a song for a single person to folk dance, although the instrument can also play music for a group dancing, which usually means the dabke. This style of playing the mijwiz is more common. When someone is playing the mijwiz for a single person to folk dance, the song has repeating themes and a slower pulse. Even though the mijwiz is traditionally played without accompaniments, in this case, people can clap along. If the song is for dabke, the style is more varied. The musician will stand in the middle of the dabke dancers, who are standing in a semicircle. While playing, the musician will hold the mijwiz at a right angle to his head and tilt his head forward. Once the dabke dancers start moving, the musician will continue moving with them so that he does not have his back to them. The musician can move his body with the rhythm of the song, although most do not. Songs played with the mijwiz tend to have central themes that repeat throughout the song as well as a climax.
All in all, the mijwiz is known for the feeling that it gives to the audience when it is played. The instrument can have an almost enchanting effect on the listeners.
Here is a video of the mijwiz:
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