The kanun is traditionally used to accompany singing. It repeats the musical phrase and is played with two fingers. Here we see it in a new light: accompanist-interpreter-soloist on a par with any singer. The kanun as a “complete” instrument, in fact, revealed in all its glory by Imane Homsy and the ten finger technique developed by her, a technique that conjures up new ambiences and colours. The kanun has at last found the place it deserves at the heart of the classical Arab orchestra.
1 – Taqâssîm ꜤAjam Ushayrân/Improvisations in the ꜤAjam Ushayrân mode – 2’37
2 – Al RabîꜤ/Spring – 5’01
3 – Sara – 5’02
4 – SamâꜤî Suzdâl/Instrumental music in the Suzdâl mode – 9’42
5 – Taqâssîm Rast/Improvisations in the Rast mode – 4’01
6 – Between Mom and Dad – 5’37
7 – Taqâssîm Nahawand/Improvisations in the Nahawand mode – 6’27
8 – Yâ Layla/Ô Layla – 4’07
9 – Taqâssîm Bayâtî/Improvisations in the Bayâtî mode – 5’51
10 – Serviko – 8’58
11 – Dance Cycle – 5’56
Interpreters and instruments
Imane Homsy (kanun)
Antoine Khalie (violin)
“Craciun” (clarinet, bass clarinette)
Abboud El Saadi (bass)
Angela Hounanian (cello)
Bassam Saleh (contrebass)
Ali El Khatib (riqq)
Tony Anka (derbouka, katem)
Ibrahim Jaber (percussion)
Tania Saleh (singing)
Jawhara Elias (singing)
Jacky Succar (choir)
Rafka Fares (choir)
Habib Bassil (choir)
Patrick Alfa (choir)
Antoine Maalouf (choir)
Since the dawn of time, the role and importance of music have been evident to every human society. Considered by the ancients to be a sort of key to all knowledge, music has brought discipline and spirituality to time, space, duration, movement, silence and sound. Down the ages, it has shown materials as diverse as stone, iron, flint, clay, bone, horn, ivory, crystal, rope, animal skins and wood that they posssessed the gift of song.
Music is everywhere, it surrounds us and the effect it produces on us is immediate: our bodies obey it and instinctively begin to dance. It is the stuff both of everyday life and of magic.
Each era has had its own music and its own instruments. Archeological remains from different epochs and of various kinds provide us with ample proof that, in the ancient world, music was constantly present as an accompaniment to life itself. There was not a religious ceremony, a group event or a sacred moment that did not call for the presence of certain specific musicians. We know what instruments they played thanks to cave paintings, bas-reliefs, frescos, mosaics, clay tablets, texts and inscriptions (The Book of the Dead, The Pyramid Texts), prayers and hymns of praise to the gods, as well as tools found at burial sites (the royal tombs in Ur, the Egyptian tombs), and these instruments punctuated religious and social life. They developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and also in Hebrew and Greek society and many instruments that we use today were invented and perfected in ancient times. These include string instruments (lyre, harp, lute), wind instruments (flute, trumpet, shofar, aulos, horn, ram’s horn trumpet, pipe) and percussion (cymbals, sistrum, frame drum, tambourine).
Such diversity would suggest that great attention was paid to timbre, each sound often associated with a specific event. This musical inheritance has continued to evolve from ancient times up until the present day: the world is always singing a tune played on its own instruments. There exists a close link between music and the materials used in each era, resulting in a correspondingly close partnership between the artist and the craftsman, the composer and the instrument maker.
The History of the Kanun
The kanun is one string instrument amongst others that has evolved over the course of time. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, its presence has become more widespread in the countries of the Near-East, including Turkey, in Greece and in North Africa. Several conflicting theories exist concerning its somewhat obscure origins.
According to one of these, the kanun dates back to the ancient Greeks, to an era shortly before Pythagoras.1 A second theory compares it to a similar instrument common in ancient Indian civilisation and also with an instrument invented by Pythagoras himself 2; while a third suggests that the kanun evolved from three different sources: the ancient Egyptian harp, an Assyrian instrument and the Greek “monochord” 3. Yet more theories exist: the kanun could be the invention of the Arab philosopher al-Farâbî, this according to a description of the instrument given by the philosopher himself 4.. Or, in contradiction to all the other sources quoted above, it could indeed be an instrument of Assyrian origin: “The kanun started out as an Assyrian instrument, which was rectangular in shape with strings stretched parallel to the sound box. This instrument, dating from the ninth century BC, that is to say from Assyrian times, was known as al-nuzha by the Arabs of the Abbasid era. The kanun in its current trapezoidal, right-angled form, was very much influenced by the Assyrian al-nuzha and took on its present shape at an unknown moment in its history, without there being any change in the al-nuzha. The latter continued a parallel existence to the kanun in the East and the West, but fell out of use, while the kanun went on to dominate the scene. Pre-Islamic times have not yet revealed any archeological evidence showing the kanun in its current form, but the earliest mention of the kanun as we know it today dates back to the Abbasids. The kanun was the last musical instrument borrowed from the East by Europe. It appeared in Europe and was in use from the eleventh century AD onwards. However, with the advent of the piano in the seventeenth century, it fell out of favour and saw its importance decline.5 ”
As far as the origins of the word kanun are concerned, most experts agree that it comes from the Arab qânûn, which is in turn derived from the Greek kanon, meaning “rule” or “law”: the presence of the kanun, whether in the Eastern orchestra or in its reduced version the takht, is essential if the ensemble is to be considered “perfect” or complete. In Europe, the kanun was referred to as the “canon” or the “micanon”.
The kanun belongs to the string family. Its sound box is made of wood and taut fish skin. The oblique side forms an angle of about 45 degrees to the longest edge of the instrument, while its opposite side is perpendicular to both edges.
The dimensions of the “Arab” kanun are, for the longest edge, 97 cm to 100 cm, and for the short edge, 29,5 cm, the width of the instrument being 43 or 44 cm across. It is interesting to note that the sound box is 4 cm high at the shortest edge, and 5 cm high at the longest edge. The dimensions of the kanun played in Turkey, Greece and Armenia are about 87 cm for the longest edge, 26 cm for the shortest one, the width of the instrument measuring 42 cm. The sound box is is 4.5 cm high throughout.
Here is a description of the instrument 6 : “Seventy-two to seventy-eight strings (on the Egyptian model) made out of animal gut, nylon or metal, grouped in courses of three tuned in unisson, are stretched out parallel to the sound box; they are drawn taut from the straight side of the instrument over a bridge set onto five rectangular membranes of skin stretched across the body of the instrument and are attached to tuning pegs at the oblique end (twenty-six sets of tuning pegs, grouped in threes); the strings thus decrease progressively in length. Close to the pegbox, levers or flexible latches made of copper or another metal are placed under each course of strings; on some models a set of keys is used. The kanun is tuned in the diatonic scale and the levers, latches or keys allow the the player to modulate the strings, lowering or raising them by a quarter-tone. To play the kanun, the instrument is placed horizontally on the player’s knees, sometimes on the ground or more and more often, on a table. The longest edge is placed closest to the player.”
The strings are plucked using picks, or plectra, made from buffalo horn, frequently used by Arab kanun players, or from tortoiseshell, particularly favoured by Greek, Turkish and Armenian performers.
Two large metal rings made of copper, steel, gold, silver, stainless steel or aluminium, covering the distal phalanx on each index finger, hold the picks or plectra in place between the ring finger and the inside of the index. It would seem that these rings were not used during the Middle Ages, either in the West or in the East. Several archeological discoveries, and examples of drawings on European earthenware show that the kanun was played with the fingers, without any plectrum, occasionally with a pick similar to that used to play the cûd/luth 7. In much the same way, the levers or latches placed under the strings, known as mandal-s, are also a recent invention: up until a century ago, the instrument was tuned to the required maqâm (musical mode) and whenever the performer wished to change key or modulate, he simply pressed on the strings with his left thumb, a technique still used today and known as cafeq in spoken Arabic.
Traditionally, both hands play the tune at the same time, separated by an interval of an octave. The left hand will generally be playing an octave lower than the right hand. Occasionally, the hands play alternately at the same pitch or over two octaves. This diversity in playing techniques is characteristic of the kanun.
The instrument, with its clear sound, soft yet distinct, has its own, easily identifiable personality. The sheer diversity of playing techniques allows the musician to reach advanced levels of virtuosity and professionalism.
The kanun traditionally performs the classical Arab repertoire and may play one of several roles. The kanun may feature as a solo instrument; or, it may form part of an orchestra or an ensemble, where its timbre and distinctive technique stand out and where it adds its own inimitable touch. It is vital to the Oriental takht to complete the picture; it accompanies classical Arab singing, faithfully echoing the singer’s vocal improvisations in the muwâl and the layâlî. Most important of all, is the taqsîm-s, the art of improvisation through which the kanun player may arouse powerful emotions in the listener, provoking the famous state of tarab, an untranslatable notion whose meaning lies somewhere between agitation and euphoria.
The soloist, the beating heart of the orchestra, the faithful performer, genuine, able and courageous, the kanun is the true lord of his musical domain.
Strings and Sound Box: the Heart and Soul of the Kanun
The heart of the kanun and of related instruments, the source of the sound that is the life-blood of the music itself, is the string.
In the beginning, the strings were always made of sheep-gut (malicious gossip had us believe that they were made of catgut, which explained the scraping and screeching of certain mediocre violinists). For the last hundred years or so, kanun strings have been made of nylon and in the case of the lower register, of steel wire wrapped around a silk thread. The use of these materials produces a string that is much stronger and most important of all, easier to tune.
Plucking the strings causes them to vibrate, but does not create the sound. If a steel wire is fixed to a curved metal stem, without the support of a board or a box that can vibrate, and if the wire is plucked, the sound obtained is practically inaudible. The wire is too fine to set the air in motion and create a sound wave that is strong enough to be heard. If a thick length of string is held stretched out between a pair of hands and plucked, a very weak sound is emitted. However, if the end of the string is attached to a thin board, the result is a basic string instrument, which produces a much louder sound thanks to the amplitude of the vibration of the board.
Thus, the sound of the kanun does not come from the strings, nor from the plucking action of the musician, but from the sound box. A wooden bridge with an ivory tip, acts as a point of contact between the strings and the table of the kanun. The bridge is crafted in such a way that it filters the sound created by the vibration of the strings. To produce powerful sounds, the table of the kanun has to satisfy certain criteria: it should be solid, light enough to vibrate easily and big enough to set a large volume of air in motion when it actually does vibrate. The wood most commonly used in the making of a kanun is walnut.
The sound is produced in the following manner:
The kanun is basically a set of strings stretched over a wooden box containing a volume of air. The bridge that supports the strings is placed on taut fish skin panels. A little of the energy produced when the musician plucks the strings and makes them vibrate is passed on to both the box and the air, causing them to vibrate at the same frequency. It is the bridge that transmits these vibrations to the fish skin stretched underneath it; this in its turn passes the vibrations on to the air on the inside of the box, and also acts as an amplifier. Inside the kanun, a hollow resonating chamber is in direct contact with the exterior by means of the sound holes on the top plate. The vibrations of the air within the sound box pass into the air between the instrument and the listener until they finally reach his ears.
The wood itself possesses natural resonating frequencies at which it vibrates with greater intensity. When the resonating frequency of the wood coincides with the frequency of a harmonic produced by the string, the result will be an increase in the energy transferred from the string to the sound box and a correspondingly higher level of amplification of that particular note.
The plucking technique, the beating heart of the kanun, which brings about this physical phenomenon, thus breathes life into the sound box, the soul of this lord who carries us away to an enchanted world and lets us dream amongst the stars.
Such were the feelings of Sheikh Badr-Eddîn ibn al-Shahîd al-Dimashqî (m. 1397), as expressed in this short poem 8 , on hearing a musician playing the kanun:
“He sang on the kanun without stopping
And made the world quiver with delight
Heavy hearts were healed of pain
And beat with passion once again
The floating notes raised them to the heavens
And filled with admiration they cried: the kanun has found its lord.”
1 Salim El Helou, La Musique théorique, ed. Manshûrât Dâr Maktabat al-Hayât, Beirut/Lebanon, 1961, p. 169.
2 François-René Tranchefort, Les Instruments de musique dans le monde, volume 1, Editions du Seuil, 1980, p. 243.
3 Mahmoud Ahmet El Hefni, Le Savoir des instruments de musique, ed. Al-Hay’a al-Masriyya al-cÂmma lil-Kitâb, 1987, p. 47.
4 Al-Farâbî, Kitâb al-Mûsîqâ al-kabîr, « Our Heritage » : The Arab Writers Publishers & Printers, Cairo/Egypt, 1967, p. 481.
5 Soubhi Anwar Rachid, Les Instruments de musique accompagnant le maqâm irakien, Al-Jumhûriyya al-cIrâqiyya – Wazârat ath-Thaqâfa wal Iclâm – Dâ’irat al-Funûn al-Mûsiqiyya, ed. Al-Lajna al-Wataniyya al-cIrâqiyya lil-Mûsîqa – Matbacat al-cImâl al-Markaziyya, Baghdad/Irak, 1989, p. 79.
6 François-René Tranchefort, op. cit., p. 244.
7 Mona Senjekdar Chearany, Histoire de la musique arabe et de ses instruments, coll. Silsilat al-Kutub al-cIlmiyya 1, Machad al-Inmâ’ al-cArabî, Beirut/Lebanon, 1987, p. 55.
8 Translated from Arabic by Dr. Georges Hage and the poet Nassib Noujaim.
Interview with Imane Homsy
Your first CD is about to be released. How would you describe your life in music up until now? What reasons led you to choose the kanun and what have been the most important moments in your relationship with this instrument?
Above all else, it was the encouragement given to me by my parents that formed the basis for my musical development. Their love of music influenced the whole family in very specific ways. My sisters both took private piano lessons and images of them practising form part of my most vivid childhood memories. As well as the piano, a specialist taught them the rudiments of Byzantine music. To this rich musical environment at home was added the presence of my kanun teacher Muhammad al-Sabsabî, to whom I owe a great deal. He was the one who encouraged me, at a very young age, to take up the kanun and taught me to love it, not only as an instrument, but also as a faithful companion. I was sent to the National Superior Conservatory of Music in Beirut at the age of seven. It was my parents, encouraged by al-Sabsabî, who chose the kanun for me. Yet, their choice very quickly became mine. I remember very clearly that when I was seven I didn’t play and sleep with a cuddly toy, but with my kanun! You might call it a love story. It was like a bud that took very little time to open. My story is that of a little girl who went to school, secure in the knowledge that in the evening, after her homework, a friend was waiting for her. The kanun has turned out to be a sort of safe haven, a faithful companion, a mirror transparently reflecting my thoughts and feelings. So much so, that if I go a day without practising, I feel that something is missing. Love is what motivates me to carry on. Any other factor seems of secondary importance to me.
The first key moment in my love affair with the kanun was when at the age of twelve, as an amateur, I took part in a programme on Télé-Liban. I found it very moving, ten years later, to play with the orchestra that actually performs on this programme. For several years, I worked with orchestras and groups on television and taught at the National Superior Conservatory in Beirut. Teaching brought me a great deal, in spite of the tiredness that comes with that kind of work; you’re constantly being reminded of your responsibility towards yourself, the instrument and the students.
Another defining moment which made a deep impression on me, and which I still remember fondly both for personal and professional reasons, was my collaboration with the Greek group En Chordais, as well as the time I took part in the European Union project Medimuses, with its emphasis on cultural exchanges and communication. This turned out to be a very rewarding experience. We organised master classes and concerts for five years, the high point being the International Kanun Meeting, which took place in December 2003 in Beirut.
I’ve always taken part in recordings and concerts of music by Lebanese and Arab composers. For this reason, the fact of playing with Fayrouz and her orchestra for several years is of particular importance to me. Every time she comes out onto the stage and her angelic voice rises into the air, I feel as if I were dreaming; I’m filled with a mixture of joy and fear: joy that my kanun is part of this event, and fear of the responsibility I have towards this great artist and the music that she’s performing.
Apart from your family, it is, above all, your kanun teacher who has most influenced your approach and musical choices. What are the outstanding characteristics of his method?
I was certainly very lucky to have been introduced to the kanun by Muhammad al-Sabsabî, who left his mark on my musical training from my first lesson right up until I graduated. Al-Sabsabî was with me throughout my childhood, adolescence and the beginning of my adult life, like a father with his daughter. He himself had been introduced to the kanun by an Egyptian master of the instrument, Emile Angelil, who advised him to attend the Beirut Conservatory. However, at that time, there were no kanun teachers at the Conservatory. So, al-Sabsabî had to learn music with the oud teacher, Jurj Farah, and then transpose what he had been taught onto the kanun. In 1945, al-Sabsabî graduated from the National Superior Conservatory in Beirut and became ipso facto the first ever teacher of kanun. He began teaching what is referred to as the “Arab” method, which was what he himself had learned. Those among his students who later became teachers also teach the “Arab” kanun. Muhammad al-Sabsabî was always honest, demanding and serious in his work. I owe a great deal to his professionalism, which set me on the right path and thus left me free to realise my true potential. His qualities make him a master in the art of the kanun that I respect and appreciate both on a professional and personal level.
What are the main differences between the Arab school and the Turkish school of kanun playing?
The first difference is in the nature of the instrument itself: the sound box of the Arab kanun is bigger than that of the Turkish kanun, which leads to a not inconsiderable difference in the nature of the sound produced. The second difference concerns musical interpretation. A Turkish kanun player once explained to me that when playing his instrument he performed the phrases as if he were a singer. Now, you could make the same remark about the Arab kanun. The result is a difference in the style of “singing”, in the manner of performing. This difference in the “reading” of the musical phrase and the way in which the repertoire is interpreted and brought up to date will obviously lead to differences in performance or in playing techniques.
One of the high points of the CD is in the use of a new technique, referred to as the ten finger technique, that you yourself have created and perfected How did this come about?
The kanun is a string instrument that is traditionally played with two fingers. However, when I started performing pieces taken from the Western classical repertoire, I noticed that increasing the number of plectra opened up a whole new set of possibilities. To start with, I just added plectra to the middle finger and the thumb of each hand. However, the more I worked on Czerny and Schumann, the more it became apparent that six fingers were not enough. So I added two extra plectra to my ring fingers. The two little fingers just pluck the strings without any plectrum at all, which gives the sound a different colour, the result of direct contact with the skin. Thanks to this new technique, both hands can play simultaneously on different registers. However, as there are few or no pieces written for the kanun using ten fingers, the player has to work out his or her own fingering technique.
The kanun is an Arab instrument that forms an integral part of the Eastern takht. What are the possibilities open to the instrument using the new ten finger technique?
First of all, I wish to emphasise that, in my opinion, the kanun is an indispensable element of the takht. It would be somehow “imperfect” if the kanun were missing. However, apart from the obvious need for the kanun, the ten finger technique generates a new set of ambiences and colours and brings with it a new way of accompanying the vocal melody that is totally different from the traditional accompaniment where the kanun plays the same musical phrase as the singer; the instrument can produce chords, counterpoint, harmony and so on, exploiting its full polyphonic potential. It goes without saying that solo works, concert repertoire, every piece in fact will need to be studied in the light of the new possibilities open to the instrument thanks to the ten finger technique. As far as I’m concerned, this technique pushes the picture out of its frame, adding bright colours and contrasts; I find myself drawn into an exciting adventure in composition and interpretation. I cannot imagine where it will all end, because with every exercise, every rehearsal, every piece, I learn something new. Even if the technique took shape as a response to the demands of performing the Western classical repertoire, it will now continue its development in the context of the Arab classical repertoire.
Let us move on to consider your choice of music. This CD covers a varied repertoire, bringing together works that are traditional and modern, instrumental and vocal. How did you decide what to include?
I wished to communicate with the largest possible number of listeners and demonstrate the full potential of the kanun. It is true that with this instrument you can perform the traditional repertoire as well as the modern, instrumental music as well as vocal accompaniment. Whether as a solo instrument or as a vital member of an orchestra or an ensemble, it inspires admiration. This disc is a sort of reply to an audience with various opinions about the kanun; I wanted to reveal the different “constellations”, in which the kanun can place itself and the sheer multitude of worlds and images that it can conjure up. The choice of some of the pieces is clearly personal in nature: “Sara”, for example, which is dedicated to my eldest daughter or “Al Rabîc”, a tribute to its composer, Muhammad al-Sabsabî. Moreover, on this album, there are some works that are performed with the traditional two finger technique and others with the ten finger finger. In the case of the latter, the recording was done live. Please don’t imagine that each of the two hands were recorded separately and then remixed! What you hear can actually be performed live. In any case, it’s what I perform in concert.
What is the message that you wish to put across?
I want as wide a public as possible to know more about the kanun and appreciate its charm and depth of expression. The kanun is worthy of admiration and recognition. My message is the kanun itself. As an instrument, I owe it a great deal and I am at its service.
After your work with well-known musicians and singers and all those remarkable Mediterranean and international projects, as well as this, your first CD, what are your plans for the future?
They all involve the kanun, of course! I’m currently devising a teaching method for the instrument, which has a dual approach integrating the ten finger technique.
I’m also working on another CD, as well as composing new pieces and arrangements.
Interviewer: Dr. Assaad Elias Kattan, Professor of Orthodox Theology
1- Taqâssîm cAjam Ushayrân/Improvisations in the cAjam Ushayrân mode – 2’37
Maqâm/mode: cAjam Ushayrân/B flat major; “traditional” technique
2- Al Rabîc/Spring – 5’01
A tribute to Mr Muhammad al-Sabsabî, my beloved kanun teacher, who always showed me such kindness and whose passionate belief in the importance of perserverance in the art of music will always be with me.
Maqâm/mode: cAjam Ushayrân/B flat major; ten finger technique
3- Sara – 5’02
This piece is divided in three parts (A, B, A). Theme (A) is a tune I used to sing to my daughter Sara, “my little star”, to help her sleep. This spontaneous lullaby moves on with great simplicity to the second theme (B), which is based on the Samâcî Thaqîl (10/8) rhythm and reflects my feelings towards my daughter, adorable little creature… In the third part, theme (A) return, but this time with a richer and more elaborate harmony.
Maqâm/mode: (A) C major, (B) B major, (A) C major; ten finger technique
4- Samâcî Suzdâl/Instrumental music in the Suzdâl mode – 9’42
Maqâm/mode: Suzdâl/in A; ten finger technique
5- Taqâssîm Rast/ Improvisations in the Rast mode – 4’01
Maqâm/mode: Rast in C; ‘traditional’ technique
6- Entre maman et papa/Between Mom and Dad – 5’37
This music describes a scene from a typical family Sunday:
– Mom, from the kitchen, calls out to Dad: “Yâ Rizkallah…”
– Dad, as usual, doesn’t hear her… (He’s reading his newspaper on the balcony!)
– Mom calls out to him again, but this time raises her voice: “Yâ Rizkallah…”
– Dad hears the echo. He goes in and starts a conversation/dialogue with my mother. Sometimes he breaks into a monologue to counter what my mother is saying. Sometimes, quite simply, he talks of love.
Maqâm/mode: Nahawand in C/C minor; “traditional” technique
7- Taqâssîm Nahawand/Improvisations in the Nahawand mode – 6’27
The scene continues. What exists between my mother and father is eternal. The other instruments fall silent, the violin sounds the same note repeatedly, leaving the last word to the kanun: escape, dreams, passion and so on, without end.
Maqâm/mode: Nahawand in C/C minor; “traditional” technique.
8- Yâ Layla/Ô Layla – 4’07
Traditionally, the kanun accompanies the songline and follows the same tune. Redefining the accompaniment, so as to give the kanun its rightful place in the classical Arab orchestra, led to the development of the ten finger technique. The kanun now plays a role similar to that of the singer – solo performer and accompanist. This arrangement was written to give the kanun player the chance to dream of new horizons, to increase the possibilities open to the instrument, to become a kanun player “without limits”.
Maqâm/mode: Hijaz in A; ten finger technique
9- Taqâssîm Bayâtî/Improvisations in the Bayâtî mode – 5’51
Maqâm/mode: Bayati in D; “traditional technique”
10- Serviko – 8’58
Maqâm: Hijaz in D; “traditional” and ten finger technique
11- Dance Cycle – 5’56
Maqâm/mode: Hijâz in G; “traditional” technique
- Reference : 321.085
- Ean : 794 881 890 521
- Main artist : Imane Homsy (إيمان حُمصي)
- Year of recording : 2006
- Year of publishing : 2008
- Music style: World music
- Country : Lebanon
- City of recording : Paris
- Main language : Arabe
- Composers : Imane Homsy ; Muhammad al-Sabsabî ; Salim El Helou ; Zaki Nassif ; Traditional
- Lyricists : Zaki Nassif ; Traditional
- Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe