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Reviewed by:
  • The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun
  • Leslie Hall (bio)
The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun. 2008. One CD (51:26). Performed by the Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble. Produced by George Dimitri Sawa. Ontario Arts Council/Conseil des Arts de l'Ontario. English notes by George Sawa. Distributed by ISBN 978-0-9809661-0-7.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, George Sawa has lived in Toronto since 1970, where he completed his PhD in historical ethnomusicology. He is known for his qanun(78-string zither) performances of Egyptian folk, classical, and dance music, as well as his scholarly publications on Arabic musical practice, including his book Music Performance Practice in the Early Abbasid Era 132-320 AH/750-932 AD(1989). The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanunis one of five recordings nominated for a 2009 Canadian Juno Award in the World Music Album of the Yearcategory. [End Page 215]The accompanying 15-page booklet has photographs of the musicians and their instruments, informative notes about the repertoire and performers, and details of rhythmic patterns and melodic modes. Both the recording and booklet are important resources for musicians, scholars, dancers, and music libraries.

Performing with George Sawa, percussionist Suzanne Meyers-Sawa shows her skill and flexibility on various tambourines and drums, particularly darabukka(goblet-shaped drum), while Raymond Sarweh adds rhythmic embellishment on the riqq(tambourine). The chamber ensemble allows the listener to appreciate the unique timbres of the instruments, and is particularly welcome among numerous recordings by large Middle Eastern ensembles filled with western violins, cellos, and electric guitars.

Originally, the qanun had gut strings and the performer used finger positions to achieve diff erent microtones. In the early 20th century, small metal stops ( mandalsor orabs) were added to create fixed microtones. For this recording, George Sawa, aided by a Canadian harpsichord maker, removed the mandals which had been added to a 19th-century Egyptian qanun. After experimenting with various types of strings, he also decided to re-string the instrument using high-quality harp strings. The lack of mandals means that the tuning is flexible and not limited by a European-inspired tempered quarter-tone tuning system; however, one must then have the skill to produce correct-sounding microtones. Sawa, a versatile performer, teacher, and scholar, has that ability. His unique qanun has a flexibility and warm, mellow sound that is quite different from modern instruments.

Most of the repertoire on the recording is lively dance music, primarily from the late 19th and early 20th century, including "Dance of the Noble Ladies" and "Ceremonial Entrance of the Professional Dancers," both from the early 20th century. Other dance pieces include a group of Egyptian Sufi dances and a set of anonymous dances and improvisations compiled as a "Tribute to Mohammad Ali Street Composers." These latter works are mainly in three modes or makam—Rast, Huzam, and Suznak—partly in keeping with the original concept of the fasil(suite) in a single mode, and partly for ease of tuning and recording, as the instrument needs time to settle between tunings. The focus on three makam allows the listener to gain a better understanding and appreciation of these modes.

The fast dance works contrast with the slower tempos of three instrumental preludes ( peshrevs) from the 1700 collection by Dimitri Cantemir, a Moldavian prince who lived in Istanbul as a royal hostage from 1687 to 1691 and 1693 to 1710. The peshrevs are all in Rast makam, with the third and seventh lowered by one comma. In the recurring refrains of the peshrevs and in several improvisations ( taksim), Sawa shows his skill in ornamentation and variation, highly valued artistic devices in Middle Eastern musical and visual arts. Some of the [End Page 216]taksim are freestyle, whereas others are in rhythmic cycles such as 8/4 or 4/4, the latter inspired by a 1928 recording.

In summary, this recording is both creative and scholarly, with an intriguing mixture of Ottoman and Arabic repertoire and tuning. George Sawa is an exceptional performer with a unique perspective that combines the contemporary and historical. For those wishing to learn about Middle Eastern music, or for those already...


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