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Arab music

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Arab music

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Arab music is the music of Arabic-speaking people or countries, especially those centered around the Arabian Peninsula.The world of Arab music has long been dominated by Cairo, a cultural center, though musical innovation and regional styles abound from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. Beirut has, in recent years, also become a major center of Arabic music. Classical Arab music is extremely popular across the population, especially a small number of superstars known throughout the Arab world. Regional styles of popular music include Algerian raï, Moroccan gnawa, Kuwaiti sawt, Egyptian el gil and Turkish Arabesque-pop music.

"The common style that developed is usually called 'Islamic' or 'Arab', though in fact it transcends religious, ethnic, geographical, and linguistic boundaries" and it is suggested that it be called the Near East (from Morrocco to India) style (van der Merwe 1989, p.9).

Habib Hassan Touma (1996, p.xix-xx) lists "five components" which "characterize the music of the Arabs:

  1. The Arab tone system (a musical tuning system) with specific interval structures, invented by al-Farabi in the tenth century (p.170).
  2. Rhythmic-temporal structures that produce a rich variety of rhythmic patterns, awzan, used to accompany the metered vocal and instrumental genres and give them form.
  3. Musical instruments that are found throughout the Arabian world and that represent a standardized tone system, are played with standardized performance techniques, and exhibit similar details in construction and design.
  4. Specific social contexts for the making of music, whereby musical genres can be classified as urban (music of the city inhabitants), rural (music of the country inhabitants), or Bedouin (music of the desert inhabitants)....
  5. A musical mentality that is responsible for the aesthetic homogeneity of the tonal-spatial and rhythmic-temporal structures in Arabian music, whether composed or improvised, instrumental or vocal, secular or sacred. The Arab's musical mentality is defined by:
    1. The maqām phenomenon....
    2. The predominance of vocal music...
    3. The prediliction for small instrumental ensembles...
    4. The mosaiclike stringing together of musical form elements, that is, the arrangement in a sequence of small and smallest melodic elements, and their repetition, combination, and permutation within the framework of the tonal-spatial model.
    5. The absence of polyphony, polyrhythm, and motivic development. Arabian music is, however, very familiar with the ostinato, as well as with a more instinctive heterophonic way of making music.
    6. The alternation between a free rhythmic-temporal and fixed tonal-spatial organization on the one hand and a fixed rhythmic-temporal and free tonal-spatial structure on the other. This alternation...results in exciting contrasts."

Much Arab music is characterized by an emphasis on melody and rhythm rather than harmony. Thus much Arabic music is homophonic in nature. Some genres of Arab music are polyphonic—as the instrument Qanoun is based upon the idea of playing two-note chords—but quintessentially, Arabic music is melodic.

It would be incorrect though to call it modal, for the Arabic system is more complex than that of the Greek modes. The basis of the Arabic music is the maqam (pl. maqamat), which looks like the mode, but is not quite the same. The maqam has a "tonal" note on which the piece must end (unless modulation occurs).

The maqam consists of at least two jins, or scale segments. "Jins" in Arabic comes from the ancient Greek word "genus," meaning type. In practice, a jins (pl. ajnas) is either a trichord, a tetrachord, or a pentachord. The trichord is three notes, the tetrachord four, and the pentachord five. The maqam usually covers only one octave (two jins), but sometimes it covers more than one octave. Like the melodic minor scale and Indian ragas, some maqamat have different ajnas, and thus notes, while descending or ascending. Because of the continuous innovation of jins and because most music scholars don't agree on the existing number anyway, it's hard to give an accurate number of the jins. Nonetheless, in practice most musicians would agree on the 8 most frequently used ajnas: Rast, Bayat, Sikah, Hijaz, Saba, Kurd, Nahawand, and Ajam--and a few of the most commonly used variants of those: Nakriz, Athar Kurd, Sikah Beladi, Saba Zamzama. Mukhalif is a rare jins used exclusively in Iraq, and it does not occur in combination with other ajnas.

The main difference between the western chromatic scale and the Arabic scales is the existence of many in-between notes, which are sometimes referred to as quarter tones for the sake of practicality. However, while in some treatments of theory the quarter tone scale or all twenty four tones should exist, according to Yūsuf Shawqī (1969) in practice there are many fewer tones (Touma 1996, p.170).

In fact, the situation is much more complicated than that. In 1932, at International Convention on Arabic music held in Cairo, Egypt (attended by such Western luminaries as Bela Bartok and Henry George Farmer), experiments were done which determined conclusively that the notes in actual use differ substantially from an even-tempered 24-tone scale, and furthermore that the intonation of many of those notes differ slightly from region to region (Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq). The commission's recommendation is as follows: "The tempered scale and the natural scale should be rejected. In Egypt, the Egyptian scale is to be kept with the values, which were measured with all possible precision. The Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi scales should remain what they are..." (translated in Maalouf 2002, p. 220). Both in modern practice, and based on the evidence from recorded music over the course of the last century, there are several differently-tuned "E"s in between the E-flat and E-natural of the Western Chromatic scale, depending on the maqam or jins in use, and depending on the region.

Musicians and teachers refer to these in-between notes as "quarter-tones" ("half-flat" or "half-sharp") for ease of nomenclature, put perform and teach the exact values of intonation in each jins or maqam by ear. It should also be added, in reference to Touma's comment above, that these "quarter-tones" are not used everywhere in the maqamat: in practice, Arabic music does not modulate to 12 different tonic areas like the Well-Tempered Klavier, and so the most commonly used "quarter tones" are on E (between E-flat and E-natural), A, B, D, F (between F-natural and F-sharp) and C.

The prototypical Arab ensemble in Egypt and Syria is known as the takht, which includes, (or included at different time periods) instruments such as the 'oud, qanún, rabab, nay, violin (which was introduced in the 1840s or 50s), riq and dumbek. In Iraq, the traditional ensemble, known as the chalghi, includes only two melodic instruments--the jowza (similar to the rabab but with four strings) and santur--with riq and dumbek.

Arab classical music is known for its famed virtuoso singers, who sing long, elaborately ornamented, melismatic tunes, and who are known for driving audiences into ecstasy. Its traditions come from pre-Islam days, when female singing slaves entertained the wealthy, and inspired warriors on the battlefield with their rajaz poetry; the also performed at weddings and later, for the hajj. Male performers were limited to mukhanathin, or transvestite slaves, who were scorned by most Muslims. Early Islam largely looked down upon music, and considered it sinful and vile. Music in most of the Arab countries is entirely secular in nature.

In the 20th century, Egypt was the first in a series of Arab countries to see a sudden emergence of nationalism, as it became independent after 2000 years of foreign rule. Turkish music was replaced by national music, and Cairo became a center for musical innovation, hosting a 1932 conference of musicians from across the Arab world.

Soon, the Arab world was inundated with new instruments from the west, including the electric guitar, cello, double bass and oboe, and adding influences from jazz and other foreign musical styles. The singers remained the stars, however, especially after the development of the recording and film industry in the 1920s in Cairo. These singing celebrities include Abd el-Halim Hafez, Farid el-Atrache, Asmahan, Sayed Darweesh, Mohammed Abd el-Wahaab, Warda Al-Jazairia, and possibly the biggest star of modern Arab classical music, Umm Kalthum.



Secular art music

Secular genres include maqam al-iraqi, andalusi nubah, muwashshah, Fjiri songs, qasidah, layali, mawwal, taqsim, bashraf, sama'i, tashmilah, dulab, and sawt. (Touma 1996, p.55-108)

Sacred music

Arab religious music includes Christian and Islamic music. However, Islamic music, including sung Qur'an reading, is structurally equivalent to Arabic secular music, while Christian Arab music is influenced by Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Angilican, Coptic, and Maronite church music. (ibid, p.152)


Early years

By the 11th century, Moorish Spain was a centre for the manufacture of instruments. These spread gradually through France, influencing French troubadours and reaching the rest of Europe. The English words lute, rebec, guitar, organ and naker are derived from Arabic oud, rabab, qitara, urghun and nagqara'. al-Ghazali (1059 - 1111) wrote a treatise on music in Persia, including the words "Ecstasy means the state that comes from listening to music". The oud was popular between the tenth and sixteenth centuries then fell into disuse, but re-emerged in the nineteenth century. The Persians invented the Ghazal (love song).

The sixteenth century

Bartol Gyurgieuvits (1506 - 1566) spent 14 years as a slave in the Turkish empire. After escaping, he published "De Turvarum ritu et caermoniis" in Amsterdam in 1544. It is one of the first European books to describe music in Islamic society. In India the Islamic Mughal emperors ruled both Muslims and Hindus. The greatest of these, Akhbar (1542 - 1605) had a team of at least 50 musicians. 36 of these are known to us by name. Akhbar was not a strict Muslim, and even started a new faith called Din-i-Ilahi, a mixture of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Jainism. The origins of the "belly dance" are very obscure as depictions and descriptions are rare. It may have originated in Persia or Turkey, possibly developed with the harems. Essential elements of belly dancing are the zills (finger cymbals). Examples have been found from 200 BC, suggesting a possible pre-Islamic origin.

Female slaves

Slavery was widespread in early Islam. Just as in the Roman empire, they were often brought from Africa. The Qu'ran specifically allows them to earn money. Black slaves from Zanzibar were noted in the eleventh century for the quality of their song and dance. The "Epistle on Singing Girls", written in Baghdad in the ninth century satirises the excessive money that can be made by singers. The author mentioned an Abyssinian girl who fetches 120,000 dinars at an auction - far more than an ordinary slave. A festival in the eighth century mentions fifty singing slave-girls with lutes who acted as backing musicians for a singer called Jamilia. In 1893, "Little Egypt", a belly-dancer from Syria, appeared at the Chicago world's fair and caused a sensation.

Male instrumentalists

Male instrumentalists were condemned in a treatise in the ninth century. They were associated with vices such as chess, love poetry, wine drinking and homosexuality. Many Persian treatises on music were burned by zealots. Following the invasion of Egypt, Napoleon commissioned reports on the state of Ottoman culture. Villoteau's account reveals that there were guilds of male instrumentalists, who played to male audiences and "learned females" who sang and played for women. The instruments included the oud, the zither and the ney (flute). By 1800 several instruments that were first encountered in Turkish military bands had been adopted into European classical orchestras: the piccolo, the cymbal and the kettle drum. The Santur or hammered dulcimer was cultivated within Persian classical schools of music that can be traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century. There was no written notation for the santur until the 1970s. Everything was learned face-to-face (to chest-to-chest as the Persian language has it).

The Twentieth century

The first Conference of Arab Music was held in Cairo in 1932. Umm Kalthum (1904 - 1975) was by far the most popular singer of the Arab world. There are many spellings of her name, including "Oom Kalsoum". More recent popular artists are Cheb Khaled, Elissa, Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram, Ehab Tawfik, Hisham Abbass, Haifa Wahbi, and Natacha Atlas. Radio Tarifa play a mixture of electric guitars and antique instruments. Their music consists of historical styles from Moorish Spain and the Maghreb countries of Northern Africa. Traditionally Arab music has no chords but over the past 40 years they have been used more frequently. Islam has an obligation called Tajwid or Tajweed - to recite every letter correctly. Records broadcast in Islamic countries often have to pass a test of clarity. Compared to the rest of the world, the diction of singers is of very high quality.

Middle Eastern music
Andalusian - Arabic

External links


  • Habib Hassan Touma (1996). The Music of the Arabs, trans. Laurie Schwartz. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0931340888.
  • van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0193161214.

Further reading

  • Lodge, David and Bill Badley. "Partner of Poetry". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 323-331. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

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