The mizmar is traditionally known as a “horn” because of its trumpet-like sound and shape. Versions of the mizmar can be found throughout the Middle East. In Egypt, mizmars are usually played at either weddings or as an accompaniment to dancers. The breathing technique is special: air is inhaled through the nose and stored in the cheeks before being channeled into the mizmar. The word mizmar can also be used to refer to a group of two or three mizmar musicians who are accompanied by a bass drum ensemble.
As one effect of modernization, the instrument is now often made out of metal and not with the original apricot wood, which has transformed both the sound of music but as well the lives of the few remaining artisans who use traditional techniques to make this instrument. The mizmar is made from a single block of wood with a separate mouth-piece.
As said before, the mizmar is generally made out of apricot wood, although some recent makers have begun to use beech. The instrument is most commonly lathed by a specialized turner; the finger-holes are then pierced with standard sizes and dimensions. Since the mizmar is a complex instrument, the preparation of its component parts requires skill and precision, especially as parts of it are made of materials other than wood. These parts have different shapes, sizes and forms; the details are as follows:
- The Double Reed: The mizmar’s reed is made from a desert plant the Bedouins call Hagna. Collected from the desert and left to dry, it is cut and formed into a double reed.
- The Bocal: A tube of aluminium or copper to which the reed is affixed from above, fitted from below into a wooden pipe that attaches it to the upper opening of the mizmar. This pipe is known as the laseq (bocal).
- The Pirouette: Small cylinder of wood or plastic with a hole in the middle affixed at the bottom of the reed to allow it to touch the tips of the musician’s lips while playing it. It prevents air from escaping from between the lips of the musician outside the tips of the reed, especially important in light of the fact that circular breathing, mentioned above, is used to play the mizmar.
There are four different sizes of mizmar in Egypt, in both length and width. Each produces a sound commensurate with the length and width of its pipe. The role of each of these sizes of mizmar is specific to the degree and nature of the sound made by each.
The sebss is the smallest mizmar. Its sound is the sharpest and most brilliant, and it is used to play main melodies. In contrast, the aba, the largest and deepest-sounding of the mizmars, is used to provide accompaniment to main themes and play melodic passages according to the traditions of mizmar musical ensembles.