Middle Eastern Shawms: Zurnas & Mizmars

Middle Eastern Shawms: Zurnas & Mizmars

Middle Eastern Shawms
Zurnas & Mizmars

by David Brown


From Morocco to Central Asia, from the Sudan to the Balkans, festivals, dances, weddings and processions are accompanied by the exotic wail of the ancient folk oboe. These similar instruments are called different names in each region, but all share basic, essential features: stepped conical bore; a flattened straw or grass for the reed which is placed completely in the mouth, no limping; 7 fingerholes plus one thumbhole rendering a Majorca scale with an upper note, with the rd and degree lower than a tempered major scale; all other chromatics available by breath pressure variation, partially opening or closing toneholes, forked fingerings, or a combination of the above; some overflowing about a 5th range above the fundamental; no dynamics, only "on" or "off"; use of a lip ring to aid cheek muscles when blowing; extra tuning hole below the lowest fingerhole.

Some of the names used by country or region are: Raita, Ghaita, Morocco and Algeria; Zukra in Tunisia; Mizmar in Egypt and the Levant; Zurna in Turkey and Central Asia; Zurla in the Balkans; Sorna in Iran.

Several sizes are in use. The most common is pitched with G as the lowest tone; Some from Morocco are at F; and the larger size, kaba zurna/zurla in Turkey/Balkans or Telt in Egypt( the smaller in Egypt being called mizmar saidi) with the lowest pitch a 4th or so lower; there is also a very small Egyptian oboe called the sibsi, about an octave above the telt.

Each region has somewhat different playing styles and uses the oboes in different contexts. In Morocco, they are used variously for wedding processionals (indoors the same musicians play on cane recorders for a softer sound), folkdance, and snake handling. Often in places like Jajouka, 20 or 30 raita players from a group. The most common drum accompaniment is the bendir, a frame drum with a snare. In Egypt, mizmars are used for weddings and for belly dance, in particular the Ghawazze tribe. The usual drum played with the oboes are the table baladi, a small drum played with a large and a thin stick and the darbukka (dumbek), and a group may have several different size mizmar and may also include a bowed instrument called the rebaba. In Turkey, single zurnas with a davul, a larger version of the tabla baladi, play for line dancing in many regions. The Turks also have a long-standing military band called the mehter, which featured many zurnas, often on horseback, with kettledrums, cymbals, - the basis for the later development of the European military bands. In some situation in Turkey, and in Armenia and other Central Asian regions there is use of a drone player too; although used in all regions, here it seems indispensable whereas it is one more texture in North Africa, etc.

A related instrument is the Chinese Suona, which is a sinified version of the sorna. The name is even a Chinese way of saying sorna. It has the same fingerhole layout, but has a true conical bore, not stepped, and has no tuning holes but rather a large metal bell. They are often somewhat slightly louder even than the Mideast variety, and the scale is a bit closer to a regular major scale. In China the suona is used at wedding and funeral processions, some Buddhist music, and for regional Opera performances, providing a shrill melody that carried a great distance. A Tibetan version, the kangling, is a major melodic component of the Tibetan Buddhist ensemble, with cymbals, long and short trumpets.

One more place the Chinese oboe is used- Cuba! Last century when the Chinese were brought to work the cane fields, they also brought their suonas; the Cubans adopted them into the comparsa, the Carnival street band, and are still an essential feature, as many groups feature a Trompete de China, as itÕs called.

In India, the oboe family is varied, but most common is the Shenai, a full conical bore oboe, no thumbholes and varying numbers of fingerholes, often with wax closing one or two. The main player is often accompanied by a drone player whose oboe may even have no holes! Long used in folk music, festivals, etc. the shenai was elevated to the level of a classical instrument capable of performing ragas by Bismillah Khan. He favored a larger shenai, typical of Benares, with a low note around C#-D-Eb. In Pakistan, Ali Nawaz Khan performed on a smaller horn pitched around Ab. A notable difference in Middle Eastern technique and Indian is that Indian shenai players often use the lips on the reed to shade dynamics and pitch, and the use of melodic lines that cross the register break, as the shenai can overblow more easily; however, the range of pitch produced by any single tonehole is so wide a firm vocal command of intonation is needed to play shenai, even more than the other types.

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