Melodic Instruments

Most traditional musical instruments are linked to certain funun. The structure of the instrument always meets the requirements of the specific fann, or the musical genre. These instruments were not made to be used in all funun. By contrast, the instruments of European music, e.g. the violin or the piano are not tied to specific genres, but serve as a universal means to express the musical ideas of the composer. Omani traditional instruments, however, betray throughout their construction and possibilities of performance not only their origin - even when they do not originate in Oman - but also the genres in which they find their use.

String Instruments

Traditional Omani funun include the following three string instruments:
1. Tanbura
2. Rababa
3. Ud

1. Tanbura

The tanbura is one of the most important string instruments presently used in the Sultanate. It hasn't changed over thousands of years on its journey through different cultures and it is easy to follow the historical traces which prove this. This instrument appeared for the first time in the Sumerian civilization in 2700BC.Then it moved through the Arab Peninsula to the Pharaohs and then, through the Nubians, to Africa, where it assumed a strong position among other instruments. Furthermore, other smaller or larger forms of it emerged.

The number of the tanbura strings is 5 + 1, so the tanbura player cannot produce more than five different tones. The sixth and lowest string is positioned beside the first (seen from the top) and produces the suboctave of the highest tone. The absolute pitch is subject to the tuning employed. The melodic work of a tanbura is always based on the pentatonic scale which is prevalent in Africa, particularly in Greater Nubia.

The tanbura is characterized by a way of playing which did not change over the centuries. That is because the instrument does not have a neck by which it is held. So the strings, which are also called khiyut (thread), the plural of khait in Arabic, are free - i.e. the player cannot shorten the string to change its tone.
The strings are beaten by a horn which is usually made from the end of a bull's horn. It can be seen in ancient paintings and reliefs that the tanbura player always places his left hand behind the strings. He beats all the strings simultaneously with the horn in his right hand, whereas the left hand has the task of muting all the strings except the string that plays the melody. In order to be able to mute six strings with five fingers, the sixth (suboctave) string is positioned close to the first. Therefore, the player can reach both of these with his thumb. This way of playing is the reason for producing non-tonal sounds accompanying the melody. The muting of the strings creates a rhythmical rather than a melodic sound, which is a unique way of playing.

There is a clear African trait in this instrument. The tanbura is played in a genre that takes the name of the instrument called a fann at-tanbura or sometimes the nuban. This latter name confirms the African provenance as the language used is Swahili and the topics deal with many memories of the time of the African colonies. The musical forms of the tanbura follow the scientific classification called funun of traditional healing which were gradually changed into 'entertainment funun'. Since the modern Sultanate of Oman now provides sufficient professional medical care for its citizens, the use of medicine men and their rites is no longer practised.

2. Rababa

The rababa is one of the instruments that are rarely used in the Sultanate. It is on its way to becoming extinct, although it cannot be ignored as it was, albeit for a short time, one of the most important ancient instruments of Oman's traditional music.

The rababa in general is considered 'the mother of all the string instruments' in the whole world. The first scientific evidence of string instruments using a bow was made by the Arab scholar and philosopher, Abu Nasr Mohammed bin Tarkhan al-Farabi who died in Damascus in 950 AD. It is used in Arab countries in different sizes and forms, as well as with different numbers of strings. There can be one, two and four-string versions of the rababa.

The Omani rababa contains one string only and is called rababit ash-shair. The one-string type is used not only in Oman, but also in most other Arab countries such as the Arabian Gulf countries, Jordan and Lebanon. The name implies 'the function of the instrument', that is: helping the poet to recite his poetry. Therefore, one string is enough because a poet does not need a wide melodic ambitus like a singer for example. The poet usually uses only four or five tones that can easily be produced on one string on the neck of the rababa without changing position of the left hand.

All the types of rababa are played in a vertical position - i.e. the instrument is put on the player's thigh and not on the shoulder like the Western violin. It is worth mentioning that Moroccan players use the violin in a vertical position like the familiar playing of the rababa.

The rababa has no frets. The instrumentalist is therefore not confined to fixed steps of a scale. The poet can determine the intervallic structure of the tetrachord on which his melody is based, as he wishes. This is a typical Arabic trait in Omani music - tetrachords with typical Arabic intervals, including three-quarter tones taken from the Arabic musical scales; the maqamat. This proves the Omani-Arab link.

3. Ud

The ud is considered the most important Arab instrument and is called 'The Prince of Instruments'. It is easy to use, but not to master. 'Use' means simple playing, while mastering is the art itself which needs effort and special talent. The ud is the symbol of Arab music in general because it has accompanied the history of Arab music since its very start. It was necessary and essential for any researcher or philosopher who wanted to deal with Arab music and at all times, it was, and still is, equally important for the composer and singer.

The modern ud with its short neck has not changed from that seen in ancient manuscripts. The importance of the ud comes from the fact that it contains a large melodic range (ambitus) of two octaves because it contains five or six strings. As the strings are tuned in fourths, the player can, even without changing the movement of the left hand, from its 'first' or 'primary position', obtain two complete octaves. And, as the ud does not have any frets that determine its intervallic structure (like the guitar), it can produce tones that include all Arabic and non-Arabic intervals.

By using the 'side tones' that are in between the basic tones, the player can produce all the tones of the Arabic musical octaves which are theoretically divided into 24 quartertones. The genres in which the ud is employed are marked by the following characteristics:
" Emphasis of the Arabic lyric through the use of the three-quarter tones.
" Use of a wide melodic range
" Emphasis on the virtuosity of the player though the potentials of the instrument.

There is not much evidence of the ud in traditional Omani music. It occurs in vocal genres like as-sot in its two types: shami and arabi. It can also be seen in the bara of Dhofar, although it does not play a dominant role in this genre. The ud is, however, beginning to assume a more important status in the Sultanate than it has in the past.

This site is designed and maintained by Oman Electronic Network.
Copyright © 2002 Ministry of Information. All rights reserved.
Copyright of all photographs belongs to the Ministry of Information from whom permission must
be sought for use in any other format, i.e. whether this be in a printed or electronic form, or in a retrieval system