Musical culture and instruments are usually shared between cultures, especially those that live close to each other. And Moroccan instruments are no exception—while there are unique names and specific qualities to Moroccan instruments, you will find they have many similarities to Turkish and Arab instruments from different countries.
So let’s dive into the most well-known Moroccan musical instruments and find out what makes them unique!
1. Rhaita (Ghaita)
The Rhaita, also called the Ghaita, is a Moroccan folk instrument similar to the Western oboe. The instrument is often called an Arabic oboe for this reason.
It is made of wood (usually apricot) and produces sound through the vibration of a double reed. The sound travels through a tube with a series of holes and exits through a bell at the end.
The instrument itself comes from the northern regions of Morocco, and its sound is thought to have a spiritual element to it, making it popular in Sufi music.
But its spirituality is not to say that the ghaita is purely serious—Moroccans also use it in dances and ceremonial music like weddings.
The ghaita was also featured a few times on Howard Shore’s soundtrack to Lord of the Rings.
The Bendir is a circular percussion instrument that is hand-made and played with the hands.
They make the drum’s frame out of wood, and the top is then covered with goatskin that is stretched over it. In addition to the drum sound, it also has gut strings along the backside of the drum head that produces a snare/rattling sound.
The sound of the bendir is traditional at Moroccan weddings because it produces both a deep sound and a celebratory buzzing snare at the same time.
Besides weddings and other ceremonies, you can hear the unique sound of the bendir in street folk music while walking through a town or city.
The Mijwiz is a traditional wind instrument that is one of the oldest instruments in Moroccan culture.
Despite its age, the mijwiz has barely changed throughout its history. They make it with two parallel bamboo pipes, creating something that ends up looking like a double flute.
Each pipe has a separate reed mouthpiece along with 5 or 6 finger holes to alter the pitch.
The sound of the Mijwiz is loud and nasally, especially because the player can make two sounds at once.
In addition to the difficulties of sound production, one of the most difficult aspects of playing the Mijwiz is that the player must use circular breathing to keep air constantly flowing through the pipes.
Circular breathing takes years to master because it requires one to breathe in and out at the same time. You push air out of the mouth with the cheek and neck muscles while also breathing in through the nose.
4. Gimbri (Lotar)
The Gimbri, also known as the Lotar, is a traditional Moroccan instrument that most resembles the modern guitar.
Like a guitar, the body of the instrument is made of wood and the strings are tied into pegs that allow you to adjust the tuning. But unlike a modern guitar, there are only three strings and they are made of goat’s gut instead of steel.
The strings are usually plucked with a long and curved pick. The gimbri’s strings resonate best with lower tones, and as such the music played on the gimbri is usually repetitive sounds meant to put the listener into a trance-like state.
In addition to the sound from the strings, there are also rings along the gimbri’s neck. They produce a jingling sound while playing. These rings add a nice percussive element to the instrument.
Qraqebs are small percussion instruments that you could describe as hand cymbals. With two metal sides that each make a sound, the qraqeb can make an interlocking rhythm pattern similar to clackers in Europe.
By placing a qraqeb in each hand, the player has a lot of flexibility in what rhythms they can make. With the right rhythm, they can also mimic the sound of horses walking.
The qraqeb itself is not a solo instrument and is more often used to add an energetic percussive element to other musicians. The material for qraqebs is iron or steel so that the clapping sound can be loud.
This percussion instrument, popular in the Sufi music tradition, particularly captures Moroccan culture and musical tradition.
The Tarija is another Moroccan percussion instrument in the shape of an hourglass. They make the drum’s body from glazed pottery and the drumhead with stretched goatskin.
The smaller ones are as short as 12 centimeters, allowing children to play with them. And like the bendir, the Tarija has snares on the inside. They add a buzzing sound to the rhythm of banging the drum.
Players will often snap their fingers onto the drum to create a popping sound that adds variety to the rhythms capable of the instrument.
And besides the sound, it is also customary to make the Tarija beautiful to look at by painting colorful patterns and Moroccan artwork on the sides.
7. Derbouka (Doumbek)
Although the Derbouka is a traditional instrument used in folk music, it has been modernized and remains a popular percussion instrument in Moroccan culture.
It is a goblet-shaped drum with a single head, and you can think of it as a larger and fancier version of the Tarija with the snare sound.
The original derboukas were made of wood, clay, and stretched goatskin for the drum head. But like many modern percussion instruments, the modern derbouka is now made with a steel body and a synthetic drum head.
While this newer version cannot have the same sound quality as the original, steel bodies and synthetic heads are much more stable over time.
To play the derbouka, one holds the drum under their arm or rests it sideways on their lap, allowing the opposite hand to make a sound on the drum head.
8. Nai (Ney)
The Nai, also called the Nay or Ney, with its simple construction, is one of the oldest instruments dating back even to ancient Egypt.
It has fingers holes along a small bored body which is why it is in the flute family. Depending on the style of music, the nai can make upbeat and uplifting sounds or dark and haunting sounds.
You can make a modern version of the nai with metal—which would be more durable and accurate for tuning—but they make the traditional version out of reed or wood.
The Kamenjah is an important Moroccan instrument because, like the derbouka, it has stayed in the Moroccan culture over the years, and people modernized it along the way.
The kamenjah is essentially the Moroccan violin or cello, that also uses a bow to make a sound. But the traditional kamenjah only has three strings. Modern versions of the instrument, though, often use four strings.
More important than the physical difference between kamenjah and violin is the extremely different playing position and style in traditional kamenjah performances.
A classically trained violinist places the instrument horizontally under their chin. But a Moroccan kamenjah player holds it vertically on their knee and moves the bow sideways across their body.
Almost all Moroccan musical styles—including contemporary ones—make use of the kamenjah.
The Sintir, another stringed instrument used in traditional music, is a bass guitar-like instrument that has a small body and a long neck.
But, the way that they’re played involves hitting the top of the body so it has a very percussive element to its playing too.
Like the gimbri, it is made of wood and uses gut strings. But compared to the gimbri, it has a much smaller head/body and a much longer neck.
The Tar is another type of frame drum with small metal cymbals called zills attached to the rim, much in the same way that a modern tambourine does.
The drumhead itself makes a normal percussive sound, while the metal discs all the outside are played to add another texture to the instrument. They can be played themselves or they will naturally resonate when the musician hits the drumhead.
This jingling sound, along with how easy it is to hold, makes it especially convenient for social gatherings, dancing, celebrations, and street performances.
And finally, the Oud is another guitar-like stringed instrument, and it is visually similar to the European lute.
It probably came from lute-like instruments in Arabia thousands of years ago, which would explain the popularity of similar instruments throughout Middle Eastern cultures, like the baglama in Turkish music.
The Oud is made with a wooden soundbox and has a short neck with anywhere from five to ten strings. Because it does not have frets, the player has lots of flexibility with melodic style and tuning.
Unlike many of the instruments in this article which you can see played in the streets and at informal performances by common people, the oud is a more serious instrument, usually relegated to ceremonies or more professional music ensembles.
Traditional music plays a crucial role in Moroccan culture, both in small mountain villages and modern cities.
There are so many percussion, string, and wind instruments that leave you with no shortage of fascinating music to study.
And hopefully, you now have a much clearer idea of the most common Moroccan musical instruments.