My Qanun Lesson

One of the first things to catch my attention when I started boning up on Zanzibar was the Dhow Countries Music Academy. This very hip and active organization was established in 2001 to provide musical education to Zanzibar’s residents and visitors, and to preserve and perpetuate the island’s unique musical traditions.

Principal among these is taarab, the island’s most distinctive musical genre, reflecting Zanzibar’s long history as a crossroads of Arabic, African, and Indian cultures. The standard instrumentation closely resembles an Arabic orchestra, with a choir of violins playing mostly in unison, double bass, oud (a kind of lute, predecessor of the guitar), and qanun (about which more in a bit), tabla, and tambourine, but with the addition of some skin drums from the African mainland, plus a soloist and a choir singing responses.

Qanun master Rajab Suleiman
Qanun master Rajab Suleiman

Jutta got it in her head that she’d like to take a drumming lesson. Though I took a year of djembe lessons back in Seattle, I’m still a lousy djembe player, and I didn’t figure one more hand drumming lesson was going to push me over the edge to proficiency. So I opted instead for an instrument about which I knew next to nothing, and whose name I even had a hard time remembering: the qanun. What follows is my report.

My qanun professor was Rajab Suleiman, who plays qanun with one of Zanzibar’s two most respected taarab ensembles, the Culture Musical Club. He’s also an active collaborator: the Dhow Countries Music Academy has published a Baladna Taarab CD featuring him and Palestinian oud player Habib Shehadeh Hanna, and during the Sauti za Busara festival (which we had timed our visit to catch, a fantastic four days of African music under African skies), he was all over, including a set with Norwegian Sámi artist Mari Boine. He is not only an extremely accomplished musician, but in interacting with him and observing him at a several performances during our stay in Zanzibar, he was friendly and gregarious with everyone he spoke to.

Rajab told me that the qanun was originally from Cairo and is now found all over the Arab world, including Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey (although he said the Turks have a slightly different variation of the instrument). In one forty-five minute lesson I didn’t expect to learn to play much at all; my objective was to get my hands on the instrument, to get to know how it works and what it can do. After Rajab first set the qanun on my lap he had to leave the room, so I set about counting strings and taking copious notes:

-The qanun would be classified as a zither, with strings stretched parallel across a soundboard and not extending beyond it (as opposed to the harp family, in which the strings run perpendicular to and emanate directly from the soundboard).
-The soundboard is a flat, hollow box about 3 inches thick, in which the sound from the strings resonates, and with (in this case, at least) three decoratively carved holes to let the sound out.
-The soundboard is in the shape of a right trapezoid; the right side runs perpendicular to the bottom of the instrument (as you’re looking down at it), and at the left the instrument tapers from bottom to top as the strings get shorter.
-On the left are the tuning pegs (Rajab said he spends more time tuning than playing). On the right is a bridge.
-The qanun has twenty-six sets of three strings, which span the gamut of three and a half octaves (going up to a re on top, and down to a sol at the bottom). There are seven strings to the octave.
-Most strings on the instrument I played were nylon, except the lowest four sets, which were metal.
-For each set of three strings, on the left near the tuning pegs, are five metal switches. These allow the player to effectively shorten the length of each set of strings to raise the pitch and obtain different scales. If all switches are off, the pitch is a double flat (i.e., unison with the string below it).
-As Rajab pointed out to me, the five switches per string allow the instrument to be tuned to Arabic scales involving quarter tones.

Strings are plucked or strummed with the fingers of both hands. The player attaches a plectrum to each forefinger, but all fingers can be used. The right hand should move only up and down, parallel to the bridge, but the left hand should move left and right as well, following the length of the strings.

I told Rajab about my musical background, and he suggested I just poke around a bit on the thing and try to play something. He had tuned the qanun to a major scale, so I started picking out Burt Bacharach’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” which has perhaps a slightly ambitious range for a first time player. When he saw I was merely hunting around for notes, he reigned me in to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and after a bit we moved on to the traditional East African tune “Malaika (Angel)” (I first heard this tune when I recorded the Mungano National Choir of Kenya’s performance at St. Olaf College in 1996 or so, but I have no idea if it’s Kenyan or Tanzanian or what, and I don’t care to enter the debate; we’ve picked up on a bit of Kenya/Tanzania rivalry during our travels).

Towards the end of my lesson, Rajab asked if I’d like to just hear what the thing could do, which is what I was hoping for, and he let her rip. Melodies doubled at the octave, chords, arpeggiated patterns, he was all over the soundboard, and the density of sound was really amazing. Tremolos were very effective, plucking the same set of strings repeatedly with one or more fingers. To bend tones he would occasionally push down on the string on the far side of the bridge, similar to how Chinese guzheng players bend their tones. I asked if he ever played harmonics on the strings, and he said seldom.

I was amazed to realize that all of the metal tuning switches could be manipulated on the fly with great facility, which means the qanun is not just a diatonic instrument, but really should be considered to have thirty-five tones per octave (six tones per string, although some are enharmonics), all readily accessible. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised; this is not so different from what Western harpists, for example, do with their pedals. But to see the agility with which he flicked those switches while playing, not only to obtain notes out of the diatonic scale, but also flicking back and forth for trills, was really breathtaking.

An excellent way to spend an afternoon, at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, along the waterfront in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, learning a thing or two about Zanzibari music. In my book, that’s the kind of thing that makes a good vacation!

Qanun master Rajab Suleiman in action!
Qanun master Rajab Suleiman in action!