The riqq has been my best friend for life. We have been making music and fighting stereotypes together for decades. Of course, a best friend should be diplomatic and sensitive. They will encourage you, support you, and always listen. But a best friend should also disrupt you. They must challenge you and help you examine your ideas and actions.

The riqq surprises people. At first glance, you might simply call it a “tambourine.” But the riqq is not as rudimentary as “tambourine” connotes. The general public—and most musicians—have a preconception of the tambourine as an accessory: the amateur’s instrument, used only for supplemental shaking and accents, played by the person who could not play anything else but still wanted to be included in the band.

However, this tambourine, the riqq, is a classical instrument in Arab musical tradition. Made with a fish-skin head, twenty brass cymbals, often inlayed with mother of pearl and carefully crafted by hand, the riqq is studied in conservatories and is the essential percussion instrument of the takht, or Arabic ensemble. The word “riqq” is derived from the Arabic word “raqiq,” meaning “fine,” referring to its thin fish-skin as well as its high value. Utilizing elaborate technique, including finger maneuvering, muting, and multiple hand positions, the riqq is capable of a multitude of filigreed sounds: dum tak tik tok sak kisssshhhhhhh.

The riqq is my favorite tool for the craft of music, and music has become my tool for diplomacy and disruption. Through music, I bring visibility to and advocate for my people and the culture of the Arab world: those twenty-plus countries where Arabic is the official primary language. Like the riqq, Arabs are frequently misunderstood, stereotyped, and oversimplified. Moreover, we are often vilified—satirically portrayed as farcical sultan-ic fantasies in film, and repeatedly characterized as dangerous and irrational fanatics in the news.

These two-dimensional characterizations support a geopolitical narrative of the “West” as civilized and the Arab world as inferior, in need of guidance or rescue. This narrative is based in “Orientalism,” as first described by Edward W. Said in 1978:

“The Orient is watched, since its almost (but never quite) offensive behavior issues out of a reservoir of infinite peculiarity; the European, whose sensibility tours the Orient, is a watcher, never involved, always detached, always ready for new examples of what the Description de l’Egypte called ‘bizarre jouissance.’ The Orient becomes a living tableau of queerness.”
(Said, Orientalism, Pantheon Books 1978)

This depiction of non-Western-European peoples reduced them to the “Other,” a conveniently malleable object, robbed of multidimensional humanity. Political and cultural powers have at various times depicted this “Other” as primitive, villainous, or bizarre. This view of the world served as justification for imperialism, by which Eurocentric ideas and values spread throughout the world, and, of course, colonialism, in which European (and later American) forces occupied and exploited resources in distant regions.

By stripping people of their humanity, Orientalism robbed Arabs of their voice—the ability to proclaim their perspectives and garner empathy. This foundation has helped support institutional and systemic bias. A prime example is how racial profiling was widely sanctioned following 9/11. A more recent example is the Trump Administration’s “Muslim ban” (Executive Order 13769, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”) passed in 2017, which barred people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from traveling to the US. 

In order to disrupt these oversimplified and habitually biased depictions, we need diplomacy.

"We need a way to create dialogue, to encourage the human exchange that will enable Arabs to reclaim our humanity. We need a way to invite others into our experience."

The riqq makes people curious. Initially, audiences are intrigued by the technique. Some people become captured, even enraptured, by the music. Others still become propelled by the rhythm that dances through the body, so that they physically participate with Arab culture. By becoming involved with the culture, people gain familiarity. They feel the music and movement and begin to relate to and identify with the performer. If the Arab performer becomes relatable, then they are no longer “Other.” They become human.

"The diplomacy of the riqq lies in its ability to create dialogue. By disrupting expectations, it interrupts the existing, stereotyped monologue."

The riqq is bold and startling. Jostled by its combination of sounds, a person must stop the narrative and listen. Rhetoric must be paused. Audiences take note of the riqq’s statement, which creates a moment in which they might reassess their previous biases and better evaluate the stereotypes to which they are repeatedly exposed by entertainment and news media: the genie, the extremist, the Other.

This is how the riqq became a tool for me to advocate for my culture—a way to create positive visibility for a vilified people. Since 9/11, I have performed hundreds of cultural assemblies in schools across the US. I have conducted music and dance seminars and workshops, recorded albums across musical genres, and created instructional videos. With my riqq in hand, I have lectured at colleges and universities around the world. In 2018, I wrote and performed in a play featuring my original music, and, just this past October, I gave a TEDxChicago Talk on this very subject. All of this has been part of my effort to disrupt stereotypes and diplomatically confront xenophobia, in order to recruit allies and advocates for Arab culture.

This extends to my work with Chamber Music America. Two decades ago, this organization recognized that limiting the definition of “chamber music” to Western classical music did not accurately reflect what was happening in the field. In recent years, many influential arts organizations have come to realize that perceptions of “high art” and “classical tradition” as defined by a Western European aesthetic are in fact remnants of Orientalism: part of a long history of non-Western traditions were seen as primitive, lacking rigor or refinement by Eurocentric standards. In fact, Arabic small ensemble music is highly complex, challenging, and diverse, requiring rigorous study and great skill. One need only look to the works of Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Marcel Khalife, or the performances of Al-Kindi Ensemble. 

For most of my career, I did not realize that the Arabic traditional music which I perform is indeed “chamber music.” CMA defines chamber music as “music composed for small ensembles, between two and ten members, with one musician per part, generally performed without a conductor.” Arabic small ensemble music meets every one of these criteria. This is why I joined CMA’s Board of Directors in 2018. I hope to not only bring attention to the work of more Arabic ensembles in the US, but also to bring visibility to my Arab people. I am proud to be the first Arab and Muslim member of the CMA Board, and I am excited for both the visibility and the potential impact. While CMA has taken an important step in the right direction, there is still more work to be done. It is well-known now that we all have unconscious biases. What institutional biases still exist in the world of chamber music? I have joined CMA in order to be part of the dialogue.

Thanks to the riqq, I have learned this art of diplomacy and disruption. Truly, this is the greatest virtue and power of art: to create curiosity and foster dialogue; to disrupt rhetoric, forcing people to stop and reconsider their opinions. The riqq enchants the ears; it resounds through the dancing body. It encourages audiences to hear past their preconceptions of an instrument and to in turn reach past their preconceptions of the performer and their ethnic or racial group. It prompts them to listen for the details, the diversity, the uniqueness of the fingers making the music. It invokes humanity and, with it, creates the potential for friendship.

About the Author
Karim Nagi is a native Egyptian drummer, composer, folk dancer, and public speaker. He leads the Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble and has taught and lectured extensively on Arabic music, dance, and culture. This article is adapted from a 2020 TEDxChicago presentation, entitled “The Tambourine, my partner in diplomacy and disruption”; Indrany Datta-Barua assisted in writing.