Nine-year-old A.J. Racy would often make small flutes out of the reeds growing a short distance away from his family’s home. He would cut suitable reeds from the garden and dry them, turning them from green to a light brown. The nay, a reed flute popular in Arab music, is created in precisely the same manner.
Racy is now a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA and has received international awards for his performance and work with Middle Eastern music. He said he’s able to directly communicate emotional messages to his audience through the nay.
“The aesthetic of the (nay) is what makes it very special in different parts of the Middle East,” said Racy. “You get a beautiful sound from the instrument because it has a mellow, almost reedy,
According to Racy, the tone of the nay (pronounced like “my”) allows it to communicate emotions like sadness, longing and loss on a more spiritual level than most other instruments. He cited the Sufi poet Rumi’s description of it as “lamenting,” expressing emotions that Racy described as “piercing the heart.” The nay’s ability to convey these feelings is part of what attracted Racy to the instrument.
Before Racy studied the nay, he was constantly exposed to music. He grew up in a small rural village surrounded by mountains in southern Lebanon. He said his village, Ibl al-Saqi, was musical, with many people making string instruments for personal use. Racy performed with other young people, who formed groups to perform and entertain.
Parents would pass down the musical tradition by teaching their children to play. Racy’s entire family was also musically and artistically inclined. His mother first exposed him to her instrument of choice, the violin, when he was 7 years old.
“It happened that my parents were convinced that I was incurable. I’m a musician, I just can’t give it up,” Racy said.
To Racy, the nay’s popularity in Arab music stems from its ability to transport the listener to a state called tarab, which means musical ecstasy. The musician must find a state called saltana, however, in order to truly inspire their audience.
Many Middle Eastern cultures, Racy said, symbolize breath as a sign of life – without it, there is an absence of life. Racy said this symbolism manifests in the airy sound of the nay. He said the nay’s slow, haunting vibratos and flowing melodies allow the musician and the listener to build from each other’s appreciation of the music.
“If you remember the homeland, if you remember family, if you remember a place where you loved, people hear the instrument and they feel very transformed,” Racy said.