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Rababah Ethnomusicology

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  • Category: Arab Music

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The Rebab is a stringed instrument with one or two strings and played by using a bow. And it is considered part of the lute family (oud in Arabic). A lot of plucked versions like the kabuli rebab (sometimes referred to as the robab or rubab) are plucked like the lute, but other versions are played with a bow. Gusle is the closest instrument  to it, the instrument still widely used in the Balkans, it is almost certainly the direct ancestor of the European violin, via the medieval rebec, as the Rebab is a key instrument of Arabo-Andalusian music. Rababa used in a wide and different musical ensembles and genres, corresponding with its wide distribution, and is built and played somewhat differently in different areas.

The Rababa instrument was first mentioned in the 10th century, became prominent in medieval and later in Arab art music. Along time ago the word Rababa was used for any bowed instrument. And it  has a membrane belly made mainly of wood, two or three strings. In the Rababa there is normally no fingerboard, the strings being stopped by the player’s fingers. The body shapes of Rababa are vary pear-and boat-shaped Rababa was particularly common ,Bedouin musicians mainly play rectangular bodies, and flat round and trapezoidal are also found. In all  Middle East and Egypt, the word “rababa” or a derivative name refers to a spike fiddle, one that has a small round or cylindrical body and a narrow neck. Rababa has an easily recognizable rich thick and very nice sound a combination of high and low tones. The Rebab known in China as rawap and very popular among the uighur, the uzbek and the tajik, throughout Central Asia the instrument is inlaid with mother in pearl geometric designs.

The Rebab was considered  as a key instrument in Arab classical music, along with such instruments as the oud (ancestor of the lute), the ney (end-blown flute), and various percussion instruments. A lot of Arab music is based on the style developed in Andalucia during its Islamic period, and includes instrumental passages, usually with a strong element of improvisation, alternating with sung poetry. And improvisations or taksim are based on a complex system of modes (maqamat) and rhythms (iquala). Theses maqamat have vary and different combinations of 24 possible quarter-tones, and each has its own mood, often associated with particular feelings or seasons ,One hundred and eleven rhythmic patterns or iquala can be used, the simplest of these is the rajaz, based on the rhythm of a camel’s hooves on the sand.

The Rebab became the most favorite instrument of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, and could be heard everywhere from the palace to the tea house, Arabian orchestra or group uses many drones, unisons and parallel octaves, giving a stirring, powerful sound, but it is mostly modal with little in the way of chordal movement. And also the rebaba valued for its voice-like tone, has a very limited range (little over an octave), and was gradually replaced throughout much of the Arab world by the violin and kemenche.

In gamelan music of Indonesia, the rebab is not part of the core of gongs, met allophones, and drums but instead an elaborating instrument, ornamenting the basic melody ,in contrast to the other elaborating instruments (except the suling), however, and like the singers, it does not have to conform exactly to the scale of the other gamelan instruments (with effects such as barang miring, the insertion of non-slendro pitches into a slendro piece to evoke a sad mood), and can be played in relatively free time, finishing its phrases after the beat of the gong ageng (the big gong that “rules” the ensemble). It is traditional for rebab players to heavily ornament their melodies, just as singers do in those styles In both Indonesian and Malay gamelan music, the rebab also frequently plays the buka when it is part of the ensemble and it is related to the Iraqi instrument the djose, which has four strings.

All Rababa’s type 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 and it is worth mentioning that Moroccan players use the violin in a vertical position like the familiar playing of the rababa.

The rababa hasn’t any frets and 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. So 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.

Rababa’a sound is captivating , pure and naïve and tinged with the kind of faint melancholy that can be found in rough and poor areas ,its original homeland,But the deplorable reality is that handling Rababa music is still done in backward and irresponsible approaches , besides other negative playing aspects of monotony ,primitivism and resemblance .

discovery of Rababa :

The rababa discovered and appeared at the military checkpoint, and what is meant here is not the white cloud, the classical, linguistic meaning of the word, whose appearance did not catch anybody’s attention. Winter’s spring is more pristine ,exciting and beautiful than spring itself , the wash of the world has dried, but it is still fresh, soft, fragrant, free of the dust that will induce allergies. It is appeared in the hand of a Bedouin man from the city, who had turned it into a performance instrument in a public place teaming with throngs of people. In those days the musician was begging for money, as they do in European city centers where young and old, panhandlers and non-panhandlers alike play their fiddles, guitars or saxophones, the instruments’ black cases at their feet and open to meager metal pieces thrown in, But the rababa is a naked, homeless instrument, and that is why, like beggars who do not have a rababa, the man used a standard tool for panhandling, a plastic plate.

With the rababa discovered an old, absent friend-the small chair, whose return, unlike winter or spring, is not seasonal, and at the beginning of the reign of chairs and benches, the stool had dominated the scene: four wooden legs, a height not exceeding thirty centimeters, and a seat made of caned bamboo or rope, toward the end of the era, the caned material had evolved into plastic rope, a harbinger of the plastic chairs to follow.

This stool became famous in gatherings and coffee shops, and on verandas. And it was suitable for the shishbesh game, in which the board was placed on a third chair between the two chairs, the stool is for sipping coffee, for smoking cigarettes, for conversation, and it is not suitable for contemplation unless the personal and public tragedy is so great that brooding becomes a real possibility, even if the brooder, like a hermit, sits in emptiness, on top of a pole. Now adays young people cannot understand how the sons of that generation could sit for long hours on a stool, without suffering backaches: the position is the same as that of the athletic squat, or the crouch, in precivilized times, to relieve oneself.

These few chairs disappeared and were replaced everywhere by plastic ones-among the wealthy, on the veranda only, if at all; among the poor, on the veranda and inside the house, and in their coffee shops everything was plastic, except the walls.

Then  between this stool and the rababa-both of them worn out and obsolete-sat a silent human being, insistent on staying, played the rababa but did not sing, his gaze fixed on the ground, and at an angle from which he would see only the feet of the passersby, and perhaps their legs, his eyes did not meet anyone else’s. His head and chin were covered by kaffiyeh, exposing the mouth and mustache to people’s gaze, his features were pleasant, his body skinny, folded in on itself and in no way suggestive of the proud, prominent posture of the rababa players in the bedouin television series that became popular with the domination of the desert on the mass media. In these time, bedouin songs were sung in bedouin dialect by blonde women who were not bedouins themselves, without a rababa.

Often the rababa is fit for what is known in English as “sound effect”, it merely accompanies the singing but is not itself music, while the singing-by itself often a lament-tries to mitigate the rababa’s monotonous drone. Monotony’s blame should not be placed on the man seated between the rababa and the stool, the man who refused to sing, who was on strike like other people in this place who refused to even talk, it  is rather the result of the fact that the rababa is made of one string only, the Rababa pulled tightly over a leather sheath, which in turn has been pulled over a rudimentary wooden box. Now musician carries this small instrument as though it were a misshapen cello, supported on the knee and it is played with a bow made of a horse’s tail, the source of all bows. Strings are always made from the intestines of cattle,  (There is also no relationship between this source and the effect of the playing on the intestines of the listener.) One string is enough for half an octave. So that the possibilities of the rababa are few and barely enough for one fourth of the dolorous oriental scale. Akhtabout or  the octopus, is derived from octave, and the number of its feet exceeds the sounds of the rababa, but all this has nothing to do with the octopus engulfing the checkpoints and the laments of the rababa.

People in these lands do not usually use a musical instrument to panhandle with, it is not customary for musicians to appear on the side of streets or in the public square (if there were any), nor in train stations that have not been operating since the establishment of the country of checkpoints, nor in the central bus station which has been overtaken by the barrier, nor even as a way of having some fun, or making people feel better. So that rababa’s player attracted the attention of the passersby; they gave him a surprised, amused look and if he had played a fiddle or guitar, he would have attracted the same degree of attention, but the sight of the rababa, and its sound, on the checkpoint, parallel to the lines of people trying to cross, mixed well with the scene, and only the sun of winter’s spring a background of joy to the sorrows of the rababa.-Like, you could say, a kind of “contrast.”

Rababa’s Classification :

There are two main and important types :

1) The Bowed Rabab Forms

Even today in North Africa a lot of Spike fiddle rababs were be found, in Morroco a bowed rabab is only second in popularity to the Ud, a pear-shaped plucked lute derived from the Persian barbat which may prove to be a common ancestor of the rabab. And until the 17th century the bowed rabab existed by that name in Turkey after which it has come to be known as kamenche, an ancient Persian instrument of large and diminuitive sizes which can also be found in late 19th Century musical treatises of Indian musical instruments, it may be a predecessor of the taus. arabian rabab travelled through the spreading of Muslim culture and is commonly believed to be the basis of the western violin. Until it reached Europe by two routes: a pear-shaped variety was adopted in the Byzantine Empire in the 9th Century as the lira, spreading westward and possibly giving rise to the Italian fiddle , and a boat-shaped variety, still played in North Africa, was introduced by the Arabs to Spain in the 11th century and was played alongside its newly-developed European descendent, the rebec, until the 14th Century. But the original violin was not played under the chin in the western manner, but upright on the knee like the bowed rababa.

Spike fiddles can be  small square, rectangular, round and triangular resonators have been largely used as an accompaniment for the voice ,its strings tuned in fifths. Then  the instrument and its name have traveled far, It has a wide distribution from the Middle-East, to North Africa, South-east Asia where it performs the melodic function as part of the gamelan orchestras of that region.

Tunisian Rebab

There are many variations exist in the rebab but it’s consists of a small, usually rounded body, the front of which is covered in a membrane such as parchment or sheepskin. It has a long thin neck with a pegbox at the end and there are one, two or three strings. It is held upright, either resting on the lap or on the floor. There is a spike at the bottom to rest on the ground, for this reason it is often referred to as a spike fiddle. Rababa’s bow is usually more curved than that of the violin and the more sophisticated versions have a wooden sound box and the front may be half covered with beaten copper, half with goatskin, an ornately carved Javanese version forms part of the gamelan orchestra, whilst simpler models such as the 2-string Egyptian “fiddle of the Nile” may have a body made of half a coconut shell.

In Ottoman (Turkish) Empire the rebab became a favorite instrument, and could be heard everywhere from the palace to the tea house, the Arab orchestra or group uses many drones, unisons and parallel octaves, giving a stirring, powerful sound, but it is mostly modal with little in the way of chordal movement.

2)The Plucked Rababa Forms

If the Arabic-derived bowed rababa went westward, a plucked lute version has always been more prominent in parts of Central Asia. It is generally believed to be derived from Persian musical culture, but may have been found earlier in the Indus Valley civilizations as mentioned earlier and may be the true birth-place of rababa. Maybe  it was later prominent in the Islamic period and its Arabic name may have been a local variant of an earlier instrument whose name and genealogy have been lost

Hindustani Rabab (Tansen Senia Rabab)

Bilas Khan was the first of a famous line of rababis and vocalist and the rababi tradition of Indian classical music is said to originate with him. In 18th and 19th centuries, Lucknow and Rampur were major centres for the drupad rababa, it and the bin are the instruments associated with this form of music, both are plucked instruments. And according to painter and art historian Imtiaz Ali Khan Khandara (taped interview conducted by the researcher) the only direct living male descendent of the Bilas Khan lineage presently residing in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, no bowed instrument was ever used in drupad performance, as bowed instruments produced shrill tones deemed unsuitable for this stately and measured form of music. He is not a musician but he absorbed the atmosphere and culture of rababi sangeet in the courtly atmosphere of Rampur. The most important thing that he remembers his father playing and teaching the instrument. And then the drupad rababa was used as a solo instrument as well as in accompaniment. It has long thin neck with 4 strings gave greater opportunity to the rababi to perform over three or more complete octaves or saptaks, its strings were of gut and this rababa was played with hardened nails sliding on the fretless neck on the instrument, he remembers the elaborate efforts of his father in preparing his nails, which he did by grinding the filings into dust and then applying them to the nails mixed with coconut oil, These were heated and hardened over burning charcoal.

Famous rababa’s  player: 

Rababa’s player Ali Saleh Dokhnan is an outstanding poet, and master of Bedouin heritage from Mareb – Rababa being the one-stringed musical instrument used by Bedouins in Yemen and all over the Arab world, its whining sad sound is often heard at Bedouin encampments in the desert.

There are not a lot of musicians who still play the Rababa in Yemen,  some artists feel is beneath them to play this old musical instrument. And they consider it a primitive piece of ancient folklore.

The player Dokhnan started playing the Rababa as a hobby more than 20 years ago, making his own Rababa, he represented Mareb in the 1996 arts festival organized by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and he is presented by the Yemeni satellite TV channel.

Tent in the Front Yard Dokhnan’s love of the desert and its ambiance has made him erect his own little camel-hair tent at his house front yard in Sanaa. It is fully decorated with ancient Yemeni swords, old rifles, traditional huge coffee mortars and pots, hand-woven mats and colorful pillows, the tent has become a tourist attraction as well as a live piece of old Yemeni desert traditions.

Dokhnan pointed out that the listening to the Rababa excites all sorts of emotions, but it mainly induces a more contemplative mood and it can only be enjoyed by people who have a taste for the music produced by the instrument. Dokhnan also plays the Rababa at weddings mainly in the eastern governorates, where “audiences are more receptive due to their Bedouin origins. And a lot of people in Taiz also love to listen to the Rababa sound.


Badley , Bill “Sounds of the Arabian Peninsula”. 2000, In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 351-354.

Hanna hany (Senior Conservator) .(1998),Rababa, ICOM-CC-Wood

Neil Sorrell. (1990) A Guide to the Gamelan. London( Pp. 97-98)

Sallam mohammed (1986) . Rababa’s player , Yemen Times.

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