The kawala is a single reed Egyptian flute that is played by blowing through its end. Though very similar to the ney, a highly popular flute in traditional Middle Eastern music, the kawala does not have a hole in the back as the ney does. The kawala has the fundamental tonal structure customary among the Egyptian folk music community, and the basis for many folk melodies, instrumental or vocal.
The kawala is hollow and has four knots, with six fingerholes in a straight line along it. The instrument has up to nine different sizes, according to the scale required in a musical composition. Most often played today at religious festivals and weddings, it has its origin as a shepherds tool, used to guide their flock. For this reason the seems to assist in any musical composition that contains a “call-and-response” sequence.
Ibrahim Shahin – who plays in Mawawil – is Egypt’s most famous kawala musician. He is an internationally travelled musician and one of the oldest surviving players in Egypt. He also plays regularly at events in his village and at larger shows in Egypt.
Sound is produced from a kawala by blowing into its upper (mouth) opening with a technique known to instrumentalists as circular breathing. With this technique, a musician breathes in through the nose while retaining a reservoir of previously inhaled air in his puffed-out cheeks, controlling its output to achieve an even and continuous flow of air while continuing to inhale regularly through the nose. This technique is similar to that used with the bagpipe, and has the effect of producing a long, continuous, even tone from the instrument.
The kawala is unique among other instruments in that both a scale and a glissando can be produced, which allows the musician the flexibility to play any note and thus any key, granting tonal flexibility. The uses of the kawala have been generally confined to religious chant. However, gradually the instrument has come to be used in other areas of folk music, and has gained a foothold in every corner of Egypt.
The maker of the kawala selects his reeds while they are still in the earth, and scoops out the inside, hollowing them out so that they stop growing taller but instead grow thicker and harder. The reeds are left in the earth until they are ripe for harvest, at which point they are culled and left in the sun to dry out completely. Then comes the stage of dividing each stalk into segments of four knots each, starting at the thinner end, so that a musician gets (in order) a leading pipe and a following pipe in a 1:2 ratio (two follower pipes for each leader). The maker is careful to select the leader and its follower from the same stalk so as to ensure uniformity in the color of the tone. The internal divisions that divide the reed into chambers at each knot from the inside are then removed, resulting in a hollow pipe open at both ends. Any excess is then trimmed away, together with the remainder of the internal divisions, for a smooth, even interior texture.