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 processing 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.
Yet another astounding oud made by Toufik Nahat in 1928 recently received an extensive restoration here at my workshop. Exhibiting some of the classic motifs and ornamentation we'd expect to see on a classic Nahat. (Please read my previous blog post to learn more about Nahat ouds) Hand carved bone rosettes, mother of pearl for the fingerboard, beautiful mosaic/marquetry pattern on the soundboard, bowl and neck, and of course that famed sound of an old Damascene oud.
This was a very extensive restoration project as many difficult challenges arose and dragged out extensively over the period of a few months. To repair the many cracks on the soundboard, it needed to be removed which is a very risky and invasive operation since the instrument is 90 years of age and the soundboard in some places is only one millimeter thick! I would also correct the loose neck and really high action in this stage. A brace inside was also replaced, along with repairing some loose braces; a very critical necessary task for the instrument's structural integrity.
The mosaic binding was copied to the 10th of a millimeter and replaced when the soundboard was reinstalled to keep everything as original as possible. Unfortunately this treasure was repaired previously by an ameteur, causing some damage to the soundboard and to the rosettes.
After installing the soundboard back there was a very obnoxious buzzing sound coming from the rosette once I put the strings on it and tested it extensively. This is often the problem with these older instruments with Bone rosettes. The main rosette and the small one were "repaired" previously using white plastic pieces, and white out, and weren't contacting the soundboard. A lot of the mosaic pieces around the soundhole needed to be replaced as well. The original small bone asfour (bird) rosettes was replaced altogether with a new hand carved one due to damage and the precious bad repair.
All in all I'd have to say that this particular instrument is quite remarkable in that apart from the damage to the rosettes over time, unprofessional repair work and some other issues, it is incredibly well preserved. For example, the finish on the bowl and neck still appears vivacious as if Toufik himself just applied the final coats of finish last week.
Damascus, Syria. Arguably the epicenter of the oud. The most significant makers hail from this important city of the Arab world. Nahat isn't a single maker, but a family dynasty starting with Abdo Nahat in the 1830's and ending with Elias Nahat as late as the 1980's in Brazil. Nahat ouds are regarded as the best and are highly sought after. The craftsmanship and rarity play a part in this. The Nahats are important because they established what would be defined as a classic Damascene oud. The dimensions, shapes, patterns, motif/marquetry designs, and of course the "true Arabic sound". The very word "Nahat" means carpentry or wood worker in Arabic, which most likely implies a family trade that could span a number of generations. We know they made furniture as a primary occupation. Their oud labels read "atelier de menuiserie" in French, or "carpentry shop" in English followed by "quality furniture at discount prices." Some of their ouds are lovingly embellished with mosaic inlays similar to the ones in their furniture. The geometries used to shape the bowl and soundboard demonstrate an advanced understanding of mathematics and it's role in optimizing acoustic output. The use of ratios and combinations of angles and mastery of craftsmanship is difficult for us to reproduce even in modernity, with all the technology that has been bequeathed to us.
A common problem I've had in the past with repair and restoration work in general is that the client doesn't want to pay for authentic restoration work. Typically they only want to render the instrument into a functioning state. This can sometimes mean alienating certain aspects of the instrument's originality. The work sometimes can be so lengthy and difficult at times more than one can possibly fathom. In the case of this particular oud, a 1927 Toufik Nahat which belonged to the clients father, I was given permission to do whatever necessary to bring it to a respectable state shortly after finding out the soundboard was already replaced. According to a small rectangular handwritten label next to the maker's label it says, "Toufiq Ajhar, soundboard replaced. 95 Court St. Brooklyn " with no date. Upon further inspection the binding tiles did not match the fingerboard's binding. Usually the tiles should be all the same, around the soundboard and neck, sometimes around the outer edges of the pegbox walls. The main reasons my client brought his Nahat to me is the bad warping on the soundboard, the soundboard coming loose from the bowl, and the horrendous action. I considered repairing the warped soundboard, perhaps by removing it, rendering it more freely without the restraints of working with my hand through the narrow soundhole. I planned on routing off all the unoriginal binding tiles from around the soundboard to remove it with more ease, execute the soundboard repair, then copy the pattern of binding tiles from around the fingerboard (which are original) and so I would have made the oud slightly more authentic. Upon removing the soundboard I can see why it failed and was collapsing in on itself. First off the board was thicknessed too thin, being 9mm in some areas, not even a full millimeter and roughly half the thicknesses under spec. Additionally the unoriginal soundboard was lacking the necessary 2x vertical braces adjacent to the soundhole where it was also ultra thin. At that point it was obvious to me that it would be foolish spending time and money repairing this soundboard and that it should be replaced. I called my client to share some photos and talk about the idea of not only replacing the soundboard (which his father put many miles on) but do an authentic Nahat style soundboard, complete with motifs copied from the bowl and in a style very much known from original Nahat soundboards that have survived. My client was surprised the soundboard was replaced and said it would have had to been done long before his memory could serve him, and quickly agreed to having the soundboard replaced to Nahat parameters.
After clearing some outstanding tasks from my work bench, I began plotting my path with the Nahat project. I became obsessed thinking about the details and how it would turn out in the end. I began by choosing some aged turkish Spruce a friend had given me, from a board I had good luck with the sound in the past. The wood's appearance would be commonly seen on an original Nahat oud; medium to wide grain, wavy grain pattern. I would have to copy the binding around the fingerboard to complete the soundboard and I would copy one of the diamond S pattern from the back of the bowl to inlay into the soundboard. The pattern around the fingerboard consists of various sandwiched strips of veneers varying in color to produce the pattern. The same was done with the motif on the bowl. The veneers are thicknessed to the correct dimensions then glued together and left to sit for two days to dry. Once dry, the edges can be cleaned up of glue squeeze out, cut along its edge into strips which are fit into a custom made mitre box which the various angles are built in for a fine saw to cut the strip into pieces that forms edge binding or inlay mosaics. The soundboard was joined and the braces thicknessed, located and shape to previous Nahat specifications; a critical measure for an authentic Nahat sound. One of the small bone rosettes were completely missing so I had to reproduce a matching replica. The other rosettes were removed, cleaned up and performed minor repairs on them. Four diamond S shaped inlays were made and inlaid into the soundboard around the soundhole on top of a black purfling which encircles the main soundhole. The pickguard was fashioned from black veneer using a classic Nahat pattern. Binding tiles were also inlaid around all 3 of the soundholes from the copied pattern on the fingerboard. The neck needed serious reworking as the action was another serious issue. It was reset with the soundboard off, and 2x additional 3/8ths hardwood dowels were installed through the neck block into the neck to add additional strength to the neck. The soundboard was installed, pickguard glued on, and 3 additional Nahat style inlays would be added. I made a new bridge because the bridge on the soundboard was not in the Nahat style. The bridge was fashioned from walnut, dyed black and a decorative mosaic cap joined to the top. The rosettes installed, along with the binding. The action came down significantly however I wasn't entirely please and performed a second reset from the top of the soundboard and landed a very comfortable low action which should be very future proof considering 2 dowels were added from the inside prior to the installation of the soundboard. After installing the strings I was very satisfied with the rich sweet Arabic tone we all search for. The use of quality wood and an aged bowl should be the main reasons for this.
In general I wish most of my clients would be more understanding about the amount of work it takes to do a proper restoration. Many can't afford it as well which is a part of the reason you see many antique instruments butchered and stripped of their authenticity. I recently took the stance of doing restoration work as original as possible. Some say it wouldn't matter, but to me, it does.
Many people have issues on the oud with "buzzing". I hope this video sheds light and demystifies issues with buzzing on the oud.
This Hanna Nahat oud was made in 1910, Damascus Syria. It belonged to my clients grandfather, and comes from a family of musicians.. so this oud had a lot of playing on it. Coincidentally it had a lot of bad repairs. As a luthier, one of the most challenging thing about doing a restoration is going over bad previous repairs. The soundboard not being original, it was replaced after realizing the braces were notched behind the fragile bone rosettes. There was no strong emotional attachment to the soundboard which also had long cracks in various places. The oud was restored to "Nahat" parameters. The rosette had some pieces missing, and so not much able to be done about that. Scroll through the slide show to see the work being done in chronological order.
I've been known for my disdain of fusion, however here is a fusion of Latin and Arabic music I cranked out with my friend, fellow musician and luthier, Tony Velez. In this video I play a guitar, oud and violin I made, Tony plays a tres he made. All instruments are available on this website under "Store" tab.
This oud was inspired by the classic designs coming from Aleppo. 600 scale. Beautiful rich delicate tone.
Body length: 460
Lower bout: 377
Upper bout: 377
Body depth upper: 87
Body depth lower: 103
Nut width: 49.5
12th fret width: 58.5
Torrefied spruce top, bird's eye maple sides and back, mahogany neck, bird's eye maple bridge w/ebony saddle, ebony head plate, maple binding.
Very responsive instrument built in the Torres/Romanillos style. Superb tone. For the serious player and collector alike.
, Toreified spruce top, bird's eye maple back and sides, ebony head plate, bird's eye maple bridge, ebony saddle.
For people who don't know or understand. Why does a Stradivari violin sell for $3.6 million dollars? Why would a little cluster of wooden parts be so grossly valuable? A musical instrument is not just a visual work of art. It is not just an audible work of art. It also has to play with ease while being durable enough to withstand the demanding hands of the energetic player and last many years after it's maker. In this case almost 300 years after the maker's death! (Instruments have survived wars, abuse, neglect, and not to mention years of music singing from its magical box) Professionals who play this instruments will tell you that a factory made, or lesser grade instrument will not produce satisfactory results enough to perform on. If you are a race car driver, you cannot bring a KIA to the race track, you bring the Ferrari. To the trained hands, these instruments are God. $3.6 million is a drop in the bucket for such splendor. This is why I sacrificed so much to make musical instruments, and why I consider musical instruments to be the highest of all arts. Of course I also wanted to be a little closer to God.
Another great addition to the Vergara guitar collection. Spanish cypress sides and back, ebony fingerboard, 650 scale, French polish, flamenco bracing modeled after Santos Hernandez, this guitar delivers a big punch, crisp rasgueado, powerful lively bases. The traditional peghead is fitted with mechanical tuning pegs with a gear mechanism inside for seamless tuning.