Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

I’m looking for any help that can help me penetrate the seemingly impenetrable world of Egyptian Trad Arab bagpipe/piping.

I’m not talking about the massed and screamingly out tune kiech thats rolled out for the tourists below the pyramids etc, I’m after the trad Arab stuff.

In late 2008 I’d just arrived in Cairo about to embark on what would become a 3 year work assignment. Sat in the lobby of the Meridian (Heliopolis) hotel, sampling Egyptian beer and smarting at the wonder that is Cairo, a local wedding party descended the stairs from the function room above, proceeded by a bunch of assorted minstrels clad in what I later discovered was traditional Egyptian wedding minstrel garb.

These guys were mainly drummers and tambourinists, four or five of them who accompanied a couple of trumpeteers, with frenzied bashing and dancing, they playing and dancing in the lower lobby as the wedding party followed the bride and groom as they glided down the stairs towards this lobby reception party. I watched on in wonder, a beer swilling western voyeur if you like.

Once the assembled party were all massing in the lower lobby, their descent from the function room complete, the main body of the minstrels stopped playing and all eyes looked back to the balcony from where they’d come. There on the upper landing was another minstrel, sporting a small set of bagpipes, the bag of which was clad with the most garishly coloured tartan of the type that would give the worst example of the faux Chinese made tartan travel rug a run for it’s money.

The piper struck up and played solo for around 3 or 4 minuets and despite my rather presumptuous first impressions, this piper had his pipes perfectly tuned in preparation, as any professional GHB player performing for wedding or funeral would, the tunes themselves were beautifully played, in short a fantastic professional recital.

After the piping the entire party, guests and minstrels, left and I ordered another beer. But I was so taken with the quality of the playing that it got me thinking that there must be some sort of arab piping tradition that up and to that point, I was completely unaware of. I was going to have to ask someone to put me wise to this stuff when I got the chance.

Despite 3 years living cheek by jowl with local muslim and coptic egyptians, learning a little conversational egyptian arabic, including a masterful grasp of egyptian curses and expletives, learning to count to infinity and being able to read the arabic numerical system, it seems that this type of piping is as much a mystery to the locals as it was to me.

Hardly surprising really as piping out there is rather more fringe than it is in most of the west. You’ll see and hear several types of egyptian pipes playing among the rather eclectic mix of traditional western orchestral and regional instruments, that are a feature in traditional and modern arabic ensemble playing and very popular with the general population. But isolating piping and pipers seemed like an impossible task for a non arabic foreigner (ha’waga) like me.

I once even managed to grab a piper at an event I attended in Alexandria, but he spoke no englazie, my arabic fell too short of the mark for me to even begin to hold a meaningful conversation with him, and my local pals on that occasion were unable to grasp the nuance of my inquiry and convey it for me. Which was, where can I go to hear trad arab piping, where do pipers hang out, can I hire one to give me a recital of a few traditional arabic tunes, etc.

My pals for their part were happy to provide their own interpretations, on CD and mp3, of what they though I was after, great as this music is, it’s not what I was looking for, I was after bare bones renditions sans the western orchestral influence and preferably, in a similar solo piping format in the style I’d heard. I knew it was out there, somewhere, but wherever it was it remained elusive.

I did manage to establish that the type of piping I heard on my first day in Cairo back in 2008 is a sometimes feature of "traditional" weddings in the more secular north, lower egypt. Although like it is with us in the west "traditional" weddings are giving way to the less traditional format and almost everybody I spoke to in my time could elaborate no more than this. Unfortunately due to spending the vast majority of my time in country busy and out in both the eastern and western deserts, I didn’t have much time to look, or arrange a wedding.

Then, just as I felt I was beginning to make inroads on this quest, a pal of a pal actually knew a piper, along came the uprising. I’ve been back since but only for very short visits and I’ve lost touch with most of the wider group of people I worked with or knew, and the up shot is the guy who had a piping contact, is now lost to me.

The plan now is for me to make an enquiry of the hotel management at the Heliopolis Meridian (where I stayed only on my first day in the country), next time I find myself in Cairo, whenever that maybe. I think I should be able to track these mysterious pipers down through the hotel function manager. Although there’ll be an issue of not having a local connection that can get me in under the tourist radar.

In the mean time if any of you guys know anything about this style of arabic piping I’d be very grateful to hear about it.

Many thanks for reading.

Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

The Arabs were much taken with the Highland pipes during the second world war, as were Indians, Ghurkas and others. The " garishly coloured tartan" bag would seem to suggest that the tradition is not so old — but who knows…?


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Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

A great story - the makings of a BBC documentary. I can’t shed any light on the subject, but I look forward to any more informative replies.

Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

If you hit up the Dunsire bagpipe forum, there is a chap (username David) who lives in Israel. He plays GHB but knows a bit about local piping traditions and could probably steer you somewhere more helpful.

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Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

"The Arabs were much taken with the Highland pipes during the second world war, as were Indians, Ghurkas and others. The " garishly coloured tartan" bag would seem to suggest that the tradition is not so old — but who knows…?"

The GHB/warpipes have been adopted in numerous places around the world, including Brittany and Pakistan. But it is well know that there are traditional local varieties of bagpipe and associated music all along the N. Mediterranean coast, from Spain to Turkey - and eastwards into Asia, at least as far as India (where some believe they originated). So it is hardly a stretch of the imagination that there might be, or have been, bagpipe traditions in North Africa as well.

This site http://www.bagpipes.co.uk/types-of-bagpipes.html mentions North African bagpipes and, although there is controversy over whether bagpipes were introduced there from Europe or arrived independently, there is nothing to suggest that they arrived as recently as WWII, or that the varieties of bagpipe played are in any way derived from the GHB.

Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

Thanks for the replies guys.

I’m aware of the military piping connection gam, and once the driver, Oss’am, who drove for the company, told me he’d cracked it when taking me to Alexandria in the company van, fortunately as we stopped at a cafe in Giza on our way through Cairo, Giza is situated just before the main Cairo-Alexandria road, normally we’d just stick to the ring road but some times it’s just as quick to nip through Giza high street, the cafe owner, Oss’am’s cousin, told us we’d missed the band by a few days. Phew, don’t think I’d have had the heart to tell Oss’am that thats not what I was after.

As you suggest Creadur I think this has some local north african traditional element to it, I was aware that there were forms of piping played in the region. The pipes in question looked very much Pakistani built to my eye, but the chanter was most definitely not cut to a western scale.

I have wondered if it were not the case that the idea of the GHB may have been adopted and adapted for local use, some sort of hybrid similar to the GHB-border-small pipe hybrids that have become popular for session piping over here, could these guys not have come up with an adaptation to suit their own ends?

The tunes were certainly rather suited to those pipes, and as well as the standard of playing being good, the pipes sounded in tip top shape and condition too. I’m no piper but I know a few good players, that and I have a couple of pals who build pipes commercially, so I’ve at least a reasonable reference with which to draw comparison. Whatever their origin, this didn’t seem like a haphazard enterprise and, this piper seemed very unlikely to be a lone enthusiast player and pipe tinkerer. There has to be some culture of it, even if it’s a fringe sub branch of mainstream traditional north african/arabian piping thats perhaps borrowed a GHB type instrument and adapted to their own spec. The tenor banjo in ITM would be a good comparison of adapting new instruments into traditional playing, could a similar thing be happening with the pipes?

Tanks for the tip Calum, I’ll look him up. I’m sure that if I had a handle on aramaic script I could nail it pretty fast on the web, but I don’t so it remains an enigma at the moment but perhaps one that’ll crack through a little perseverance.

Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

Solidmahog, that first post of yours could probably be expanded into a whimsical, shaggy-dog novel telling the narrator’s droll adventures as he goes on a long trek round North Africa seeking in vain the elusive piping scene that has always just left wherever he arrives. He sees it in mirages but that isn’t quite enough. He finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant, it just happened to be lying around. Pursued by secret camels, he gets it onto a plane wrapped up in a hijab. As he doesn’t have papers for a foreign companion, he has to disrobe it on landing.

My imagination is unwilling to extend to the matter of how he and the Ark fare at the hands of the Border Police, I’m afraid…

Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

Fair comment nicholas, but do you know anything about arabic piping?

Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

In Anthony Baines collection there are bagpipes from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and hornpipes from Assam and Morocco…


You’d enjoy a visit to The Pitt River Museum in Oxford:
One of their publications would also interest you, by Anthony Baines - "Bagpipes: Occassional Papers on Technology, 9". Baines also has relevant articles written for ‘The Galpin Society Journal’, and has published and still in circulation his work "Woodwind Instruments and their History"… I’ve had an Egyptian hornpipe, a double pipe, one being a drone, made from cane. Here’s a little extract from Anthony’s work on bagpipes, page 36:

"Eastwards along the Berber-Arab belt the typical hornpipes are bagpipes. They are mainly the professional instruments of minstrels, who often travel far with pilgrimages. Yet they show a clear typological gradation. The Tunisian bagpipe could be described as a very neatly made bagpipe version of the crude hornpipe of El Rif. In Egypt, zummara details begin to appear, becoming more marked in the Syrian desert, where also typological contact is made with the Eurasian instruments of the north and east." *

* added footnote: These are the only non-British bagpipes certainly existing in the African continent, though a correspondent of W.A. Cocks reported the rumour of a native bagpipe in Sierra Leone.

Smithsonian Folkways


P.S. ~ It has been some time, but as I remember it Folkways had some recordings that would also interest you, though those pipers would no longer be alive, it would still be a route into tracing those roots. I’ll do a search of their database and see if I can find the recording(s) I’m thinking of. Possibly this? ~


But you could drop them a line and someone there would know for sure…

I’d just remembered someone else I was going to ask for you ~ oh yes. I’d better do that now before I forget. 😏

Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

Sean Folsom has a selection or two of his playing arabic tunes on arabic pipes on his CD "Bagpipes of the World". You can try contacting him through his site—he may be able to provide more in-depth information.


Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

I have the Baines book in front of me and he gives numerous examples of the native bagpipes of various countries in that region.

There is a basic style of instrument which is played both with a bag and directly mouth-blown which has a very wide distribution from the entire south coast of the Mediterranean Sea all the way to India.

This instrument has two parallel cane tubes with fingerholes cut in a dazzling variety of combinations, the two tubes either lashed together, fitted into wood or horn collars at top and bottom, or set into a "yoke" carved of wood, a trough which supports the cane tubes and protects the fragile cane from splitting.

There is often one, or even two, horn "bells" at the bottom.

Each cane tube is fitted at the top with a cane reed.

With different fingerhole setups you can have one tube being a drone, both tubes having all the same matching holes (both tubes being fingered simultaneously with flat straight fingers each covering two holes at once) or with various combinations of the two.

Baines gives, for Egypt, double pipes with equal holes and twin bells.

6. Bagpipe. Egypt. PRM 130. H3. 1890.
A yet more massive instrument, obtained in Egypt where it was said to be Arab. Bag: goatskin, the forelegs closed with leather wads. Turned wooden blowpipe integral with its disc-stock. Chanter: two 18cm canes, obliquely cut at their lowest ends, are held in a disc-stock. The cowhorn bells, without vent holes, are attached with wax. Holes 5:5. (that is, each tube having five fingerholes, the holes of the two tubes matching). The reeds are down-cut but otherwise resemble Zummara reeds, and like Zummara reeds are joinged by a loop of string.

So this, or something similar, would be the native indigenous bagpipe. If what you saw was like a typical Western European bagpipe, that is, having a sewn leather bag, single long thin wooden chanter, long drones on the shoulder, etc etc it would be an import, likely a Pakistani copy of a Scottish bagpipe, with the chanter reeded and tuned to play local music.

Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

Thanks again guys, I’ll chase these links up.

Richard, yep many of the popular ensembles feature the big twin chantered pipes you describe above, the pipes I saw were more like "a Pakistani copy of a Scottish bagpipe, with the chanter reeded and tuned to play local music".

Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

You’ll hear that quite a bit in Jordan, Scottish pipes being used for local music.

They also play Amazing Grace and loads of Scottish tunes! And some of the pipers are very poor musicians.

But sometimes you’ll hear skilled playing, playing indigenous tunes, like here


Was it something like this you heard?

Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

The pipes were smaller than those played by the Jordanians in your link, the music similar to the tune that kicks in @ 00:27 seconds in this link.


Here’s the context but the format is a little different (although the poster of this vid seems to have had a similar experience to me, this being his first stay in egypt so the circumstances are the same, only he managed a little footage) at the wedding I saw the melody was played out on a trumpet during the procession;


And here’s a wedding in the very lobby, only these guys are headed in, the lot I saw were headed out;


Re: Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please

These are not set tunes. More of an acquired language of super noodelery.

Anything predictive would kill the vibe of sporadic and spontaneity that the musician is expected to provide.

That is not to say that there are some who can read between the noodles, and play phrase to phrase with others. I’d say it would take a lot of assimilation and exposure.

Interesting thread.

My dad says Tara has a large stone from Egypt but that is just an old dads tale.

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