Also:       qawwāl      

Contextual Associations

The kawala is an end-blown edge aerophone (flute) of Egypt used primarily to accompany (along with other instruments) a genre of Sufi hymnody called madīh in-nabī (‘praise of the prophet Muhammad’). This genre is performed as part of Sufi or family life-cycle rituals by a solo singer (munshid) and an accompanying ensemble of melodic and percussion instruments (Marcus, p. 43). The kawala is related to numerous other Middle Eastern beveled-rim end-blown flutes, including the Egyptian nāy


This kawala is made from a straight open-ended stalk of aged reed with three segments articulated by two nodes, which must be bored out to make a cylindrical bore. In comparison to the Egyptian nāy, the kawala is shorter and has a wider bore. The rim at one end of the stalk is beveled to a sharp edge (see detail image), which serves as the target of the airstream provided by the performer; it is therefore an end-blown flute. The instrument has six fingerholes and, on the reverse side, one thumbhole. A band of wound cotton cord just below the beveled rim discourages the splitting of the reed.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The kawala can be played either standing or seated, the performer holding the flute in front of him at an oblique angle to the right so that the beveled rim rests on his lower lip. The thumb and first three fingertips of the left hand cover the thumbhole and top three fingeholes, respectively; the first three fingers of the right hand cover the bottom three fingerholes. Due to the design of the mouthpiece and how the airstream is directed across the rim, a distinctive, somewhat breathy sound is produced. The kawala is a melodic instrument, its player rendering composed music or improvisations set in melodic modes called maqamat (sing., maqam) in the Arabic tradition. The scales of maqamat utilize intervals not found in the Western equal-temperament system. The pitch of a given flute is determined by its length, which, like the pitch system in which it is performed, is not standardized. A kawala player will always have at hand a number of instruments of varying length to accommodate the selected tonal center for a given performance. That said, the Egyptian kawala pictured here has a fundamental tone of E3. In the hands of an experienced player a three-octave range can be attained and a variety of intervals, including ones outside of the equal-tempered chromatic scale, can be produced through complicated fingerings and careful breath control.


The basic design of the kawala and nāy is very old, often traced back at least to Ancient Egypt in the 3rd millennium BCE. It does not appear that much has changed in regard to the design of the instrument itself, but what it was named and what was done with it musically has most likely evolved over this vast expanse of time as it was introduced to or appropriated by new peoples and their musical practices. These myriad changes have by-and-large not been chronicled. Its current distribution undoubtedly was significantly shaped by the spread of Islam from the 7th century CE on.

Bibliographic Citations

Hassan, Scheherazade Q., and Jean During 1984. “‘Nāy [nai, nāī  nay, ney].” NGDMI v.2: pp. 751-752.

________. 2002. "Musical Instruments in the Arab World." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 6. The Middle East. ed. Virginia Danielson, Scott Marcus, and Dwight Reynolds. New York: Routledge, pp. 401-423.

Marcus, Scott L. 2007. Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, Sibyl. 1975. A Survey of Musical Instruments. New York: Harper and Row.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: North Africa

Nation: Egypt

Formation: Arab

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.111.12 aerophone--single end-blown flute (a narrow stream of air is directed against an edge to excite a column of air in a tube or a body of air in a cavity); with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: beveled rim at end of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


19.5 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - cane
cord - cotton

Entry Author

Roger Vetter