I can’t remember the first time I heard the nay flute. Perhaps it was in classical Arab music, or religious chant, or an Egyptian pop song, all of which use the end-blown flute. My first encounter with nay in live performance was sometime in 2009 while studying Arabic in Egypt as a college student. I’m not sure how I found the street in Cairo where nays and other traditional Egyptian instruments are sold, but I do remember the night I left one of the music shops nine years ago with my first nay rolled up in a dusty newspaper.
When I got back home, I slid the instrument out onto my bed. For a few minutes, I admired it from different angles. I played around with ways of holding it and imagined a day when the flute might feel natural in my hands. Having played Western flute and studied music, I assumed I would be working on my nay scales that first night.
It was nearly a month before I could make any sounds resembling musical notes.
The nay is a notoriously difficult instrument, which tends to be a point of pride for Cairo’s nayatiyya, or nay players. It is, very simply, a hollowed-out cane with seven finger holes and a sharpened rim on one end for the “mouthpiece.” Learning how to direct air onto the blowing edge to produce sound, move between registers, and alter the pitch of certain notes can take months or years.
Perhaps this learning curve is what makes the nayatiyya a somewhat insular group. The professional players, their students, and the handful of nay craftsmen all seem to know each other. Many have studied or mentored with the same teachers and hail from the same musical family trees.
My own teacher, Mohammed Antar, studied in both Egypt and Turkey and has a reputation among the nayatiyya as an expert in the traditional Turkish style. Once a week, I take the subway from downtown Cairo to the northernmost station on Line 1 to meet him at his home for a lesson. I spend three or four hours there chatting, drinking tea, reviewing last week’s material, and starting on new material. Although I come for a lesson, the visit is as much social as it is musical, and over the course of my lessons I have gotten to know not only my teacher but also his family and neighbors. This personal element helps create a comfortable atmosphere for playing new material and improvisations.
“I won’t be mad if you make mistakes,” he reminds me. “I’ll be mad if you’re not making mistakes!”
When we start a new piece, my teacher goes through it once, playing the core melody. This is basically the notated score. The second time through he plays the melody with different kinds of zakharif, or “ornamentations”: trills, arpeggios, staccato runs, and other improvisations around the melody. These are crucial to a song’s performance rather than optional additions.
He walks me through different ornamentations, and I play after him. At home, I listen to the audio recording of the lesson and try to imitate his techniques. In this way, I learn the “original” melody while intuiting my teacher’s ornamented version, the song as it is realized in performance. Learning to play what isn’t written while still preserving the melody is where the experienced teacher comes in. While there are textbooks, a student needs a teacher to learn zakharif, special fingerings, and other unwritten secrets of the nay.
I’ve had a few different nay teachers, and they have all acted as repositories of flute lore. They pass down stories about particular songs in the repertoire, stories about the old masters and how they used to play. Sometimes they even use the nay as a means for passing on non-musical nuggets of wisdom.
Not long ago, I had been having a particularly frustrating day with research in Cairo, and the prospect of finishing my project before the summer was daunting. I decided to take a break and visit Hussien Darwish, a friend, mentor, and prominent nay maker. I sat on the couch in his workshop, mindlessly picking up flutes, blowing a few notes, and putting them back. After picking up a large, three-foot-long nay, Hussien turned to me.
“Have you been able to make any sound on that?” he asked.
I told him it was simply too unwieldy.
He quickly scanned the room. In a workshop full of hundreds of flutes, Hussien knows where each of his creations is and moves swiftly along the shelves to find what he’s looking for. He plucked a small nay from the nearby shelf, handed it to me,and asked to me to play a scale. After I finished, he gave me a slightly larger nay and asked for the same scale. Three or four flutes later, I was playing on a large nay without much effort.
“Do you know what size that nay is?” he asked.
I told him I wasn’t sure.
“It’s the same long nay you were holding before.”
What had initially seemed so intimidating wasn’t that difficult when taken in small, gradual steps, Hussien explained. By the time I left his workshop that day, I was already feeling better about my research project.
The nay’s first lesson is usually one in patience. It can take weeks to learn how to blow air onto the flute’s mouthpiece in just the right way to produce a sound. But as with any musical instrument, the learning experience is continuous and oftentimes circular. Whenever you begin to feel you’ve made some progress on the nay, it has a way of bringing you back to the basics. Sometimes, after weeks of playing well, I can’t hit a single note in the upper register. Sometimes my fingers are lazy and stubborn. On those days, I focus on playing one note, long and unornamented, and try to remember how satisfied I was early on just to be breathing sound into a piece of hollow cane.
Nicholas Mangialardi is a PhD candidate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. His research focuses on Egyptian music and literature. He interned previously at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage editing videos for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.