Vol 2 No 1 Fall/Winter 2004

The Rababah

by Kevin Holmes

“Ismak eh?” (What’s your name?), asked the Dom musician as he sat on the edge of a bed in their sparsely furnished home. He was the father of a musical family and a brother in a family of musicians. With his left hand he held a unique two-stringed musical instrument, somewhat similar to a violin, upright on his lap, and in his right hand he held a bow. The rich, gleaming dark wood of the long-necked instrument complemented the earth tones of his clothing and indeed, the home itself. The unfinished brick wall framing the boarded window accented the earth tones of his flowing jalabaya (a man’s long covering) as he flashed his golden-toothed grin at me. I gave him my name and immediately he stroked the rababah twice with his bow, musically repeating my two-syllable name. Amazingly, within moments, the rababah seemed to be speaking.

The Arab rababah, or rabab, is part of an ancient family of instruments first mentioned in 10th century Arabic writings but may originally date back some 2,000 years to the area of northern Afghanistan. An archaeological excavation in Nangarhar, Afghanistan uncovered the earliest known record of the rabab. Numerous forms of the rabab have appeared throughout the Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian cultural records. The predecessor of the modern violin, the rababah exists in two primary forms, those that are plucked, and those that are played with a bow. Within these two categories are many different designs including the spiked fiddle pictured below. In fact, during the medieval times the word rabab was used for any bowed instrument.

The early Arabic writings describe the rabab as having a long neck, with or without frets, a pyriform body and one or two strings./1/ In a more contemporary definition, the rabab is defined as:

The Rababa has a membrane belly made of animal skin or wood and one, two or three strings. There is normally no fingerboard, the strings being stopped by the player's fingers. Body shapes vary. Pear- and boat-shaped Rababas were particularly common and influenced the rebec. Throughout the 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. It has a easily recognizable rich thick sound - a combination of high and low tones. /2/
The Arabic rabab became popular throughout the Arab world by the spreading of Muslim culture and is commonly believed to have reached Europe via two different routes. A pear-shaped rabab was adopted by the Byzantine Empire in the 9th Century as the lira, which then spread westward as the likely forefather of the Italian fiddle. A boat-shaped rabab, 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.

The Arab rababah player usually sits either cross-legged or on a chair with the rababah standing in a vertical position. The right hand slides the bow across the strings of the rababah while the notes are determined by the pressure exerted upon the strings with the fingers of the left hand. The strings of the rababah are made from either metal or horsehair and are tuned by turning the large wooden knobs on the neck of the rababah. The Arab rababah’s two strings are tuned a fifth apart and resonate fairly deep in the tenor range to produce unique sounds that can resemble the human voice.

The rabab can be played as a solo instrument but more often is utilized as an accompaniment to singing or the famed epic poems of the Near East.

Smiling at my astonishment, he flashed his golden smile once again and broke into a lively tune that displayed his remarkable abilities with this distinctive wooden instrument, the rababah.


/1/ http://www.geocities.com/sydney_sikhi/Music/world.html (Back to Text)
/2/ http://www.aldokkan.com/music/rababa.htm (Back to Text)

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