The arghoul (from arabic “urgun” meaning organ or traditional instrument), is a wind instrument. The instrument is interwoven with Egyptian history and can even be traced back to Pharaonic times, as it is exactly depicted on wall paintings of the temples of the third dynasty.
The arghoul has two sounds. One is produced by the main reed pipe, pierced with six finger-holes in a straight line and used to produce melodies and different notes, and is known as baddal (the changer). The second is produced by an unpierced pipe: this is used to produce a single tone, continuous and unchanging. Many times longer than the first, it is known as zannan, or sustained bass.
This instrument requires a great deal of fatiguing effort and painstaking training on the musician’s part to enable him to blow into its long, wide pipes, with circular breathing – alb el nafass – that must remain continuous so as not to break the flow of air or disturb its smooth, unbroken flow through the pipes of the arghoul; it also requires dexterity in fingering to open and close the widely-spaced holes on the front of the baddal pipe.
Due to the high learning curve and the general decline of traditional music in Egypt, the instrument is now only played by a few practitioners. Amin Shahin, who’s considered an arghoul master, performs in Mawawil, and is dedicated to the preservation of this beautiful part of Egypt’s history.
There are 3 different sizes of Arghoul: The small arghoul (alasghar), medium (alsoghayr), and large (alkebir). The largest one posing the greatest challenge to the musician – the distance between the holes can be difficult to reach and the musician has to breath in constantly and blow in a circular fashion. The arghoul’s sizes and the names for them are subject to the same traditions used in naming reed instruments, the smallest of these being called the small or connected arghoul. The same size as a baddal pipe, not usually longer than 80 centimeters, and then graduates in size, going up to a size 24, nearly 210 cm long – the largest of the arghouls and formerly the most widely used.
The arghoul is a complex folk instrument, which means that it is not made of a single piece of raw material but rather constructed of a number of parts of varying shapes and sizes. The construction is subject to the same rules and criteria for instruments made from reeds, with added effort and precision required for this very complex instrument. The maker selects the two main pipes (the baddal and the zannan) from two reeds of similar length and width. The scale of length and width is observed in the remaining pipes that form the body of the arghoul, each according to its function and position in the body of the instrument. The parts of the arghoul are arranged as follows:
The Baddal Pipe, or the Leader. The reed pipe on the musician’s right as he performs. It is composed of the following:
- The Balous (pipe): The pipe from which the sound emanates. It is affixed to the front of a middle pipe known as el-rokba (the knee), or the baddal’s knee. It is a medial pipe, linking the reed [the reed in the mouthpiece, found in wood winds] to the baddal pipe.
- The Baddal Pipe: the main section of the baddal pipe, with six finger-holes on its front in a straight line.
The Zannan, or the Sustained Bass. This is the pipe on the musician’s left as he is performing, and is composed of the following:
- The Balous (pipe): The pipe from which the sound emanates. It is affixed to the front of a middle pipe known as el-rokba (the knee), or the zannan’s knee.
- The Zannan’s Knee: A middle shaft linking the reed and the zannan’s shaft.
- The Zannan’s Body: The main section of the zannan. Longer than the zannan’s knee.
- The Garrar (Tractor): three pipes of differing lengths, each affixed in order to the end of the zannan pipe (from the bottom).