The Magical Magnificent Seven Nays (End-Blown Flutes)
The Magical Magnificent Seven Nays (End-Blown Flutes)
Nays are made from the reed plants, which grow abundantly along the banks of the numerous irrigation canals in the Nile Valley. From this very simple plant, the Egyptians (then and now) were/are able to provide an incredible range of tones. No instrument had/has a more incorporeal sound, a sweeter sostenuto, or a more heartfelt vibrato.
The Egyptian (ancient and present) nay differs from the present-day flute in two main ways:
1. The nay is made only of reed, and the flute is made of wood or metal.
2. The nay is end-blown, and the flute is stopped at one end and is blown over a side hole.
There are also differences between the nay (end-blown flute) and the pipes regarding the length, number, and locations of finger holes, etc., as will be shown later in this chapter.
The sounds of the Egyptian nay are produced by blowing through a very small aperture of the lips against the edge of the orifice of the tube and directing the wind into the tube. By opening and closing the finger holes, the resulting variation changes the length of air in the columns, providing the different pitches. The resulting sounds provide melodies—by steps and by leaps, brisk and longing, staccato, legato, in tender pulsations and foamy cascades.
The Egyptian nay (end-blown flute) changed little in appearance over the course of the Egyptian history. It is one of the most popular instruments in Egypt today.
Nays are produced in seven different lengths, between 14.8” and 26.8” (37½ and 68 cm). The construction and measurement of the finger holes of today’s nays (end-blown flutes) still adhere to the same principles as those of Ancient Egypt, as follows:
1. They are always cut from the upper part of the reed plant.
2. Each nay consists of nine joints/knuckles.
3. Each nay has six holes on the front, and one hole on the back. The typical layout of the finger and thumb holes are shown below:
The Egyptian flute (nay) is considered a vertical flute. The vertical-type flutes have/had greater musical possibilities than the whistle flutes. Being able to vary the angle of blowing against the edge, the player could give more expression to the tone.
Players of the nay (end-blown flute) direct the instrument (to a limited extent) to the right, left, and straight ahead, as shown herein. The players were/are able to accomplish endless intermediate values, through the driving or dropping of the blowing air stream.
By blowing with more or less force, sounds are produced an octave higher or lower. Through the technique of over-blowing, the musician can play a range of more than three octaves.
The player requires a considerable finesse. In order to achieve any desired tone, the player must control, coordinate, and manipulate the strength and direction of his breath; the tension of his lips; the movement of his tongue; and the position of the lip and head, as well as opening or closing the finger holes in diverse combinations.
Since a single nay (end-blown flute) with a certain length can only provide a limited number of musical pitches, the Egyptian musicians (then and now) used/use a set of seven different lengths of nays in order to change the tonality and/or to change the pitch through increasing or decreasing the tones. A set of seven nays complement each other to provide a whole and complete range of very small notes in the compass of several octaves.
The player utilized/utilizes a set of seven lengths, housed in a case, in order to obtain all tonal requirements. The seven lengths of the Egyptian nays (end-blown flutes) are: 26.8, 23.6, 21.3, 20.1, 17.5, 15.9, and 14.8 inches (68, 60, 54, 51, 44½, 40½, and 37½ cm).
From the Middle Kingdom era [20th century BCE], Ancient Egyptian flutes from temples of Armant III give (according to C. Sachs) intervals (in cents) of 248 (11 Egyptian commas), 316 (14 commas), 182 (4 commas), with an overall range of a natural Fifth of 702 cents (31 commas).
The measurements between the examined Ancient Egyptian nays’ fingerholes (not taking into account the various playing techniques) reveals that several tight-stepped scales were known, with intervals of less than ¼ tone (equivalent to two Egyptian musical commas).
Several of these Ancient Egyptian instruments are scattered in museums and private collections throughout the world. Some examples of found and/or depicted nays include:
• A slate palette [ca. 3200 BCE, now at Ashmolean Museum at Oxford] depicts a number of animals. Among them is a jackal, playing the nay (end-blown flute).
• Tomb of Nencheftka, Saqqara [5th Dynasty, now in the Cairo Museum] depicts a nay player.
• Different lengths of nays (end-blown flutes) from Saqqara [now in the Cairo Museum, cat. # 69815 and 69816].
• A relief from the tomb of Nekauhor at Saqqara [2390 BCE, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York].
• Representations in several tombs in Luxor (Thebes), during the 18th Dynasty.
The Egyptian nay was/is important for functions related to rebirth/renewal themes.
The nay (flute) continues to maintain its mystical significance. The most common nay of the modern Egyptians is known as the Dervish nay because it is played by the mystical fellowship of Dervishes to accompany singing and dancing members during their mystical activities.
[More information about all types of Egyptian musical instruments is to be found in Egyptian Musical Instruments and The Enduring Ancient Egyptian Musical System both by Moustafa Gadalla]