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In rediscovered reed flute, a soulful link to Jordanian identity

spirit of humanity

Music speaks to our souls and our individual and collective identities. How much more so when the music comes from the soil under our feet? And how unfortunate, then, would it be to lose it?

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Rabee Zureikat plays a recently handcrafted 'nay,' a traditional Arab reed flute, at Bait al Nay, an organization in Amman, Jordan, devoted to reviving the ancient instrument and helping Jordanians reconnect with their culture and heritage.

Taylor Luck

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The mournful ballads of lost love, an upbeat tune to welcome the harvest, wandering mystical notes contemplating and celebrating God.

For thousands of years these songs came from the ground in the Levant, given voice by the nay, one of the very first reed flutes.

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The nay was made from thick reeds that grew wild in the region stretching from Ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia – at the heart of which lies modern-day Jordan.

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Rabee Zureikat, like many Jordanians, had long been enamored of the nay, whose soulful, ethereal sound is often used as an intro to classical Arabic orchestral music and mournful solos aired by Egyptian and Syrian TV.

But when he wanted to learn to play the nay in 2005, there was one problem: There were none to be found in Jordan.

Despite Jordan being home to the very same reeds used by ancient Egyptians, he discovered, local knowledge of how to make the flute, which was once a common instrument for Bedouin, shepherds, and peasants alike, had apparently been lost.

While the artform continued to flourish in nearby Egypt, Syria, and even further afield in Turkey, in Jordan the craft fell victim some time in the 20th century to increased urbanization. Jordanians even claimed that the reed that had grown locally for thousands of years had died out.

After searching the capital, Amman, to no avail, the only solution was for Mr. Zureikat to order one from Syria. But he remained determined to find the long lost Jordanian nay.

“If there is no nay available, no one can teach it to the next generation,” says Zureikat, a community activist and organizer. “Our number one goal was to make the nay available again to the Jordanian people.”

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“I knew that we must have it somewhere – all it needed was for someone to look for it,” he recounts.

With the help of music experts, Zureikat spent 2015 scouring Jordan, bringing back bundles of reeds to Amman to be tested for their pitch, durability, and quality. Finally, he found the perfect reed growing in the Jordan Valley, near the tomb of the biblical Jethro.

It’s not simply a matter of identifying the correct species or length of reed. For a nay, it has to have not only the right thickness and diameter, but also the exact equidistant notches, horizontal stripes that wrap around the reed, in order to place the correct number of holes – seven for an Arabic nay.

He found it could take a six-hour search through wild patches and agricultural land to come up with seven such reeds.

The next challenge was how to transform the wild reed into a flute. With Syria consumed by war, nearby nay-makers were unavailable to share their expertise, while artisans in other Arab countries and Turkey were less than willing to share a craft passed down through the generations.

Through trial and error, and employing local customs, musical theory, and mathematical equations, Zureikat and others have now mastered the technique of making the traditional nay, one they are now passing on to Jordanians.

Music for the people

Then came their next step: making the nay available to all Jordanians.

In Jordan, the vast majority of public schools do not offer music classes. Music courses, recitals, and concerts are often strictly activities offered by private schools, where tuition can reach $10,000 a year. At many classical and Arabic concerts in Amman, tickets can reach $50 per person, while private music lessons can range between $20 to $30 a session – out of reach for many Jordanians. Music, many say, has become exclusive.

It is a stark contrast to the roots of traditional Jordanian music, where entire villages would dance, drum, and play the nay for celebrations such as weddings.

“Music was a communal, populist art, it was not exclusive, it was always meant to be inclusive,” says Zureikat. “Musical instruments were made from materials from the land. They were never meant to be grand, expensive, and complicated instruments.”

“In order to reconnect people with their heritage and reclaim music as the art of the people, teaching people to make their own nay is a very important step.”

Zureikat and his colleagues founded Bait al Nay, an organization devoted to the promotion and preservation of the local flute.

For the past year, Bait al Nay has been working in communities across Jordan, hosting workshops that include lessons in how to play and construct the instrument. At the end of the workshop, Bait al Nay provides tools and machines needed to cut, drill, and shape a traditional nay whose sound could rival those of the grandparents’ generation.

Bait al Nay also takes part in concerts across the country to raise the profile of the instrument, and reaches out both to Jordanians from marginalized neighborhoods and villages and to Westernized Jordanians from upscale Amman who may feel distanced from their culture.

Even in rural towns and villages where reeds grow and shepherd’s music originated, the instrument is not well known. Young people easily recognize the guitar, the piano, and even the trumpet – but the nay for them is often a mystery.

At a concert in the town of Salt, 15 miles west of Amman, a performance this year by Bait al Nay spurred young members of the audience to stand, clap, dance, and sing – all surprised that such an instrument came from Jordanian soil.

Workshop organizers say young Jordanians are now researching traditional Jordanian folk songs, the singers who wrote them or made them famous, and the stories and oral traditions behind the tunes.

For Zureikat and Bait al Nay, this is the true goal: not the resurgence of millennia-old flute music, but a rekindling of Jordanian identity.

“There is a disconnect between the people and their culture, and we are trying to rebuild that relationship through traditional music,” Zureikat says.

“When people hold an instrument that grew from their land, there becomes a connection, a feeling that ‘this is my identity,’ as if they are fulfilling a longing inside that they never could articulate.”