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This tube-like instrument gradually broadens towards the lower end. It usually has between six and nine holes. It employs two sets of double reeds, making it a quadruple reed woodwind. By controlling the breath, various tunes can be played on it.
Ustad (Master) Bismillah Khan was a well-known shehnai player. Another player of the shehnai is the Ahmadi Black American jazz musician, Yusef Lateef. Dave Mason played shehnai on the Rolling Stones' 1968 hit song "Street Fighting Man".
Origin of the shehnai
The shehnai is believed to have originated in the Kashmir Valley, where people use the instrument in band-i-pather. The shehnai is thought to have been created by improving upon the pungi (a woodwind folk instrument used primarily for snake charming).
There are varying legends of the shehnai's origin. In one of these, a Shah initially banned the playing of the pungi in his court due to its shrill sound. A barber, belonging to a family of musicians, improved on it and created the shehnai. As it was played in the Shah's court and giving due reference to the nai or barber, the new instrument was called shehnai.
In other variants of the legend, the shehnai was
- named after a shehnai player called Saina,
- derived from sheh (breath) and nai (flute), or
- derived from the combination of the Persian words shah (king), and nai (flute) to give the meaning "the king's flute".
Another theory of the origin of the shehnai is that the name is a modification of the word "sur-nal". The word nal/nali/nad is used in many Indian languages to mean pipe or reed. The word "sur" means tone or tune—musical note or simply music—and is used as a prefix to the names of many Indian instruments. The "sur-nal" is said to have given its name to the "surna/zurna" which is the name by which the reed-pipe is known throughout the Middle East and eastern Europe. Shenhnai is usually played in Traditional North Indian Marriages and is associated with the Bride leaving her parental house for her Husband's house. Sometimes, two shehnais can be tied together, making it a double shawm similar to the ancient Greek aulos.