The kanun (or qanun) in Arabic (قانون) is a kind of trapezoidal zither that rests on the players' lap, containing 78 nylon and wound nylon strings. Its origin possibly dates back to the Assyrian empire or even earlier. Today the instrument is played in a wide variety of countries/cultures, such as the Middle-East, North Africa, Turkey, Greece, Armenia, Iran and more. “Kanun” in Arabic translates literally to "law" or "rule," having come to Arabic from ancient Greek.
I'll never forget the first time I heard a kanun. As a teenager I was very fascinated with the history of ancient Egypt (as I still am). In order to effectively captivate one’s sense of imagination, many television documentaries uncovering the mysteries of ancient Egypt typically featured instruments like the kanun. I vividly recall the legends, images and footage of the pyramids, Karnak, Valley of the Kings, the Great Sphinx of Giza, all while hearing the sound of the kanun.
The kanun's sound can often be described as very earthy yet still evoking trance-like angelic overtones. The strings are plucked with plectrums on both index fingers, fastened to the fingers with rings. Due to an innate percussive quality in its timbre, the player's attack produces a sound that quickly peaks, followed by a slow decay; yielding a harp-like effect that echos deep within your soul. Making a kanun isn't a simple task, even for the versatile luthier. There is a painful void when it comes to locating literary materials sufficient enough for building such a complex instrument. In my case, it came in the form of a disaster.
Hassan Tanari is a very proficient kanun player best known for his performances with the famed Syrian singer, Sabah Fakhri. Mr. Tanari came to New York in 1981 (the year I was born!) to perform with singer Youssef Kassab. At the airport in New York, Mr. Tanari’s instrument was badly damaged, rendering the instrument unplayable. The kanun was made nearly 100 years ago by a maker named Al Haj Ahmad Munir Sabagh in Aleppo, Syria. It stayed with Youssef from 1981 until 2014 when I decided to take it on as a restoration project. At that point I had done some basic repairs to the kanun, restringing, fixing cracks, replacing the membrane, setups, restringing.
However this instrument would need all that and a lot more. After successfully bringing the instrument back to life I was told by Mr. Kassab that this instrument would be ideal to copy should I ever want to build a kanun due to its medium size yet satisfactory tone. The idea of making a kanun was always naively in the back of my mind. Due to a lack of understanding, I also naively underestimated the process. There are several challenges in the process of creating any instrument. Good measurements, good mould to build the instrument on (there is a saying, the instrument is only as perfect as the mould), of course the instrument needs to function in a good way, the sound is important, and last but not least; the lay out of the mandel levers used for the intonation of critical pitches. The open kanun strings themselves are tuned to whole-tone pitches. However to play whole tones, half tones and/or quarter tones, small moveable levers (mandels) are installed on the mandel board. The player then has the ability to open and close the levers in order to produce specific musical pitches necessary to carry out a melody or tune whilst utilizing the maqamaat (model system used for Arabic music). Think of these mandels as movable frets. There are a variety of mandel configurations available when it comes to the kanun. Sometimes it can be understood by examining the systems by region.
Cheaper beginner kanuns typically feature 4 mandels per string, giving you the bare bones basic configuration for Arabic playing. Some kanuns in Armenia are found with just 2 mandels per string, used for a system not utilizing quarter tones all together. Turkish systems are typically more numerous containing as many as 11 per string. This allows you to play any mode in any obscure key. However, even for progressive Arabic repertoire, 11 mandels per string can be over complicated and bulky as there is no need to play a microtonal mode in the key of F# as an example. The old Aleppian kanun featured 11 mandels per string, (modified by adding more mandels at some later point) is a typical example of redundancy. So the central question is which mandel configuration would be implemented? Since players usually try to find kanuns mainly based on specific mandel systems that suit their playing preferences, I decided to sit down with renowned kanun master Jamal Sinno and ask him what is the ideal system for progressive Arabic repertoire.
Jamal has performed extensively with virtuoso Simon Shaheen, who has been at the forefront of Classical Arab music, pushing the envelope and knowing what tonal requirements should be available to the kanun. Jamal, having to keep up with Mr. Shaheen and his technical/tonal demands, would be the best person within my vicinity to know what configuration would be ideal.
After some back and forth with Jamal he concluded that a 6-8 mandel system per string would be optimal for the progressive Arabic player, doing away with redundant pitches, keeping only the very important ones, while still having double the amount of a standard kanun of 4 mandels per string. Jamal was also helpful in dictating the exact pitches needed per string, in order.
For the next step I needed to find a supplier that makes the mandels. I found a supplier in Turkey that makes very high quality mandels from nickel silver, but they are not cheap! Yet moreover, installing mandels proved to be an ordeal and a learning process in itself as it is a skill not used in any other aspect of life or even luthiery! Some of the other technical challenges of building a kanun are the measuring and marking of all the grooves for the strings on the bridge and mandel board end, the tuning pegs, the holes where the strings tie to on the end, and more. All of these parameters need to be executed successfully with precision and thoughtful planning or the functionality will be greatly compromised. Of course tuning is another element that is critical. The kanun requires an enormous amount of tuning, especially on a newly crafted instrument with a fresh set of strings! Every stringed instrument, whether guitar, violin, or oud require a considerable amount of tuning until the instrument settles, but with 78 strings that sit on top of a thin flexible membrane, the kanun is the king!
It was also necessary that I put together a set of optimal kanun strings as I found no readily available source specifically for the Arabic kanun. String sets are accessible for Turkish kanun, but the string lengths, and nuances in the music require a different set of gauges as the Turkish sets tend to use the same gauge for up to 6 strings! My kanun strings are available on the accessories tab located on my website.
After building a few kanuns I’ve recently taken up learning to play, which has also been a very pleasurable experience. I hope many more people won’t feel intimidated by the mandels, coping with tuning and the amount of strings the kanun has. You’ll be rewarded once you get past these seemingly overwhelming obstacles. For the sake of preservation and knowledge, I will produce more material regarding kanun construction in the near future.