Mimi’s kanun gets a new life

Muzaffer Okumus

Over twenty years ago, I purchased a kanun from an artist named Mimi Spencer. She was a fantastic person, very giving of her talent and time to musicians. I dont remember when or how I met her, but it was before the Internet and I am sure I was referred to her by another Middle Eastern folk musicians. We corresponded and talked on the phone for many years. She owned several kanuns during her career, but she had to part with a few of them. One in particular was a kanun made by Muzaffer Okumuş in 1993. Up until this point, the kanuns I had purchased and played on were inferior instruments and as this was before the Internet – finding a kanun was not only difficult, it was Russian Roulette if you bought it site-unseen. I know of musicians that would travel thousands of miles just to look and play a few notes on potential kanun purchases. I didn’t have the funds to take such luxurious trips so I had to trust musicians when it came to finding great instruments. There are only a handful of these musicians I trust today, and Mimi was one of them.  Not only was she trust worthy, she went the extra mile and would provide photo prints (via snail mail!) and would play over the phone to give you an idea of the instrument. Still not an ideal way to purchase any kanun, she would ship the instrument and if I wasn’t happy with it, I just need to send it back to her.

A little about Mimi…she started to play kanun in the late 1970s and was very well known in the West coast area and was a great musician – very dedicated to the art of the kanun and performing Middle Eastern music. She performed in an ensemble called Jazayer with other notable musicians. Well known in the Balkan and Middle Eastern camp “scenes”, she was a good promoter of music and it was through her that I first became familiar with the late Turkish kanun player, Halil Karaduman. Sadly, she passed away in 2004 at a young age of 57.

For many years I played on the Okumuş with great delight but just as children and whenever they get a new toy, the old one goes on a shelf – so was the case with me and other kanuns. Until now. The older I have become, the more respectful I am of my instruments. Facebook helps too. I have had the great pleasure of meeting some of the most famous kanun players from around the world. Armenian, Turkish, Greek, Syrian musicians that have been equally giving of their time and talents.

The kanun maker wrote his name under the bridge, didn’t know it was there until I removed all the strings. Pretty neat!

Recently, I located a new pick up (microphone for amplification of the instrument) specifically made for the kanun. I had been searching for this particular model for several years and finally was able to locate one and purchased it. It is a very popular pickup and I have heard the quality and wanted to try it myself. Now that I have the pick up the big question was – which kanun should I put this on. The answer was simple.

You should know that I have several kanuns, all have a very special meaning to me (hey, that would make for a blog itself – right, Mark Gavoor?!) and the Okumuş was the perfect instrument to try out this pickup. Previously I used only pick-ups which were inferior and stuck to the face of the kanun. It was a makeshift pick-up at best and when I showed the kanun at performances, it didn’t give the best appearance.

As I loosen each string and hear a click or other noise I cringe for the unexpected

In order to install this pickup, I need to carefully undo all seventy-six (yes, thats what I said) strings in order to remove the bridge where the strings rest on. The pickup goes underneath two of the feet on the bridge. I had not touched the strings of this instrument since I purchased it from Mimi. (As a matter of fact, these were the last strings she placed on this kanun – she even had steel wound bass strings which I have never seen on other kanuns but had a great sound.)

Now you have to understand, unlike other string instruments that need to have their strings replaced due to use, the kanun doesn’t always need to have its strings replaced as often. This kanun, believe it or not, was not far off its tuning for not being played for several years. A sign of a well made instrument.

Labeling and keeping the old strings so I will be able to properly measure the new strings as they come in spools, not pre-cut!

You can not just unwind the string from the pegs in any order – there is a methodical way to do so in order not to shock the instrument and create an uneven amount of pressure on the instrument. Trust me…the little noises I heard along the way made this task a bit of a nail biter. Once the strings were removed and a towel to wipe my brow, I proceeded to clean the instrument and bring it back to the luster it once was.

The next step is to clean the instrument without the strings. The wood..that is pretty easy. It was in great shape and only needed a light polishing. The mandals (the levers used to change notes) were dirty and each mandal deserved its own cleaning. Time intensive goes without saying but as I watched kanun friend Jerry Bezdikian document the repairs on his instrument, I figured I have no reason to feel rushed for just cleaning my instrument!

Almost done…

Instrument cleaned. Now the fun part. The strings. There are a few types of kanun strings used today. Years and even centuries ago, they used gut strings. Now, obviously the most common is nylon. However, many of the Turkish kanun players use PVF (a thinner, carbon string) which is known for a brighter and crisper, louder tone. Not cheap..these strings can warp a kanun if not built properly. (Thanks again Jerry – great advice!) So, not knowing if my kanun would handle these higher tension strings (I think it would have) I went with the normal nylon strings. They are ordered. Part two coming soon!


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1 Response to Mimi’s kanun gets a new life


    Nice work…..didn’t even think that loosening the strings had to be in a specific pattern so as to not break anything.

    Then again what do you expect from an old dumbegji.


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