Oriental Oboes and Shawms

by David Brown

The ancestor of the modern oboe is the baroque oboe; it is descended from the Renaissance shawm. All of these double-reed woodwinds share several characteristics; a conical bore, double reed, and a common ultimate ancestor- the folk oboe of the Orient.

These instruments are known under many names, often each region having its own terms, and come in three main types, namely the Middle Eastern, Chinese and Indian versions.

All of these folk oboes use a flattened grass stalk reed, not a hard cane reed like the Renaissance shawm or the Highland pipe chanter.

A small amount of air is being forced under pressure through a small metal tube called the staple which serves to hold the reed and match it to the bore. This requires the player to make sure, as in oboe playing, that one also empties the lungs of stale air when taking a new breath. All forms also use the same embouchure, that is, instead of putting the lips on the reed like an orchestral oboeist, the reed isplaced completely in the mouth, called free blowing. Often a lip ring is used to help prevent fatigue of the mouth and lip muscles in long playing session.

All play roughly a majorish scale from the lowest hole on up the register, and have a range in the fundamental octave of one octave plus a note above; most will over blow at least another 4th. Dynamics are not generally possible, the sound either being "on or off".

Although predated in the ancient world by reed instruments using single beating idioglottal reeds by several thousand years, by the beginning of the common era Roman and Hebrew coins have been found that depict folk oboes. Earlier it had been thought these were trumpets, but this was a mistaken idea based on the bell of the oboe and the freeblowing embouchure that often gives a superficial resemplance to a brass embouchure, particularly if the oboe is fitted as so many are with a lip ring.

The oldest form is most likely the Middle Eastern one, as the Iranian plateau is the most likely place of origin for these folk oboes. The Middle eastern form is characterized by a turned wood body of simple shape, with a heavily flared bell; 7 fingerholes plus a thumbhole between the 1st and 2nd left hand fingers; small holes between the lowest right hand fingerhole and the bell, which can be closed with beeswax to alter the intonation of the lowest note; a stepped conical bore, the upper part being stepped down by a clothespin-like piece called the capisto.

In many Arabic countries the shawm players are a low-caste group, often acting as barbers and performing circumcisions.

The names by country are as follows, but this is only the most common terms used:
Morocco, Maghreb- raita or ghaita
Tunisia- zukra
Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq- mizmar
Turkey, Greece, Armenia- Zurna
Balkans- Zurla (and until the 19th century was the Hungarian taragoto, later replaced by the wooden keyed single reed horn still used today)
Iran, Afghanistan- Sorna

Several sizes are in use. The most common is pitched at G for the lowest note; this is the Turkish orta zurna, the Egyptian mizmar al saidi, and the mostwidely used. Some area, Morocco, also use a horn pitched at F.

The Egyptians and Turks also have a larger oboe pitched at D, called kaba zurna (or zurla, as this is the most common Balkan instrument) in Turkey , and in Egypt the telt. The Egyptians also play a small oboe, pitched about a 4th higher than the mizmar al saidi, called sibs.

Playing styles are quite varied from region to region.

Regional characteristics:
Morocco and Maghreb- played solo and in groups, including the 20-30 player band in Jajouka; circular breathing and tongueing both used; open and closed fingerings used. Often some players provide a drone for the others, and the note of the drone can vary in different sections of the same tune. Also used for snake handling. Similar styles in North Africa, but it must be noted that Tunisian zukra is often played alone, with drums, like the Turkish Zurna and often in a similar style.

Egypt, Lebanon, Syria; Arab style in general-often played alone with drums, except in Luxor and Qena, Egypt, where ensemble playing is well developed particularly among ther Ghawazee tribe. This tribe also uses the mizmar for belly dance accompaniment, whereas its most common use is for folk dance, processions and festivals, all outdoors.

Turkey- the zurna and davul oboe/drum duet is the mainstay of Turkish folkdance, except in the Black Sea region. The zurna is often played with circular breathing which requires the player to make rhythmic articulation in the same manner as a bagpiper, with cuts, graces, and other finger devices. Many Turkish players turn the reed vertically so as to allow the tip of the tongue to lightly touch the underside corner of the reed making a "yelping" vibrato that is often used in time with the beat of the tune.

Turkey is also the home of the Mehter, the traditional Janissary military band. The zurna has been the main melody instrument for centuries in this ensemble, which served as the inspiration for the European military marching bands, and the Classical "alla Turca" style.

Iran and Central Asia- Often zurnas are played in pairs, with a melody and a drone player. This drone may move to different notes during a piece of music, changing at prescribed places in the composition. Oddly, this is also typical of Balkan styles on the large zurla. In Iran the sorna was also used to play at the end of the day from the city gate or from the local administration building. This custom persisted in England until the 19th century, the town waits playing shawms to mark the hours.

In Gilgit, the central Asian game of polo, played with a goat as "ball" is accompanied by the sorna.

The Shenai and related North Indian instruments

The folk oboe of India is similar to the Middle Eastern type but several key differences should be noted.

The Indian instruments are true conical bores, including staple, and as such overblow more easily. Indeed, while most Middle Eastern shawm tunes are confined to the notes of the first octave, melodies on the shenai are often played across the register break.

Most shenais lack a thumbhole, and usually have no additional lower tuning holes. The bell is metal, often etched. Two main sizes are used, the smaller pitched around Ab from Pakistan, and the larger from Benares and pitched about D.

Until recently, this was a festival, wedding, and processsional instrument, and some courts copied the Persian bands playing above the city gates. Then since WWII the shenai has risen to the status of a classical instrument capable of playing the subtleties of ragas, now used to auspiciously open music festivals. The late Ustad Bismillah Khan was the best known exponent of this Benares-based style. In this way of playing, another drone oboe, the shruti, which is a shenai without fingerholes, accompanies the melody. Often student will also double the master's melody at the repeated sections, and rarely fill in the melody when the lead player allows- or needs to adjust the reed, which sometimes closes up under the demands of this playing method which uses much tongueing, portamenti, and even pulling back on the reed to lip it some and soften and shade the tone. Played sitting in tailor fashion, it is also common to put the bell of the horn into the knee to further shade the tone.

Chinese shawms

The trade route from Iran through Central Asia into Chinese Turkestan into China was a major source of musical migration. The Chinese wholeheartedly adopted the folk oboe, based on the Middle Eastern model, with the same fingering. The suona, as it is known in China, comes from "sor na" the Persian name. These differences from the Middle Eastern should be noted:

Large metal bell, not firmly attached as ia the shenai's, and metal staple with built-in lip ring and cork joint with some tuning capability. Body turned in "scalloped" pattern, no lower tuning holes. True conical bore, and range in some cases of over two octaves.

Chinese reeds are not tied with thread like the others but are held with a thin copper wire.

In addition to the usual festival/procession use, the Chines often use the suona in funerals, and in regional opera like Peking Opera. It is also a member of some of the many regional Chinese orchestras' reeded wind sections.

It comes in several sizes, from low note at F or so on up to very small high pitched sounas. It should be noted that it was brought to Cuba by Chinese immigrant sugar cane workers and has been adopted into the street Carnival comparsas, and called trompeta de china.

Helpful Hints on Reeds

A fine Oriental oboe, like its Western descendants, is only as good as the reed. A fine horn with a poor reed will just not work properly, no matter HOW good the player. To add to this, a reed may work well on one oboe and not as well on another.

Of course professional players of all styles have access to reeds, but in the USA I have found Chinese reeds the easiest to find and most consistently good. Many Turkish and Pakistani staples have reeds already tied on; these reeds may work fine- if they do not, they can be untied and another reed put in its place. I have been playing a Turkish zurna, an Egyptian mizmar, and a Chinese suona for over a dozen years and mostly have used Chinese reeds.

Of course as the world trade situation changes we may find better access to Turkish and Arabic high-quality reeds.

When trying a new reed, first see if it is open at the end. If not, soak it a few moments until it opens. Then see if it will "crow" when placed in the mouth and blown. If so, it will likely be a workable reed.

Remember, unlike Western reeds this is a free blown reed and is completely in the mouth, the lips not touching the reed but rather resting on the lip ring. This can be an integral part of the staple, or often is a separate disc with a hole, many times a slot, that can fit on the staple.

The reed needs a good bit of breath pressure....not as much as a medium reeded Highland pipe, but much more than a flute. This backpressure, caused by forcing an airstream through a small tube, requires that a player let the stale are in the lungs out before replenishing the air supply.

If the reed doesn't sound very loud, gently squeeze the sides of the reed at the base, this should open the tip a bit. If the reed is WAY to hard, some gentle sanding on fine glasspaper may help.

These oboes need varying breath pressure through the range, the low notes needing the least, the higher ones the most. Breath must be supported from the diapraghm for proper tone control.

Some Middle eastern players use a lit cigarette or incense stick to burn tiny dots in patterns on the reeds, this is said to adjust the reed, but I have not worked it out consistently. Experimention is the best teacher here.

If a reed works well but the high notes are flat compared to the low notes, carefully cut a very thin sliver off the top end of the reed.

Err on the side of caution-you can remove more, but can't put it back! Some players trim a tiny amount off the sharp corners of the reed.

In many cultures, the shawm player has many reeds and staples tied on a string or chain and hangs from the oboe while playing. Although picturesque and handy, this exposes the reeds to accidental abuse, so I keep my reeds and staples in a small metal box-not airtight, as this invites mold and mildew.

In many cities there are Shrine temples , and many of them have an "Oriental Band" of suonas. They may have acces to reeds, including plastic injection-molded reeds. Many bands are using a "musette" which is a suona body with a single-reed clarinet-like mouthpiece.

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