About Middle Eastern Music
Music of the Arab world dates back into antiquity; back to the very beginning of time. The music has its own history, treatises, genres and instruments. The music developed from the philosophies, attitudes and social experiences of the people then and in present day. The music of the Arab people covers a vast geographic area ranging from the Atlas Mountains in Northwest Africa to parts of the Sahara desert to the Arabian Gulf region and the banks of the Euphrates in present day Iraq. The music shows the strong unifying forces of these people and within the music, as within the culture, there are definite differences that show the “flavor” of the region.
The music gained this unity across regions during the height of the Islamic Empire between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. Arabic became the common language, caravan routes connected peoples and helped with the exchange of culture and the religion of Islam was a unifying force.
From the seventh century to present day, Arabic music has been shaped by five principal processes. Some are intellectual, cultural and others are political.
Contact with Assimilated Cultures
During the early centuries of Islam, the cosmopolitan cultural center in Syria under the Umayyads (661-750) and in Iraq under the Abbasids (750-909) began to grow. These folks began to trade with each other and marry. Along with the influx of people from the Arabia into the cities the cultures and musical traditions of Syria, Mesopotamia, Byzantium and Persia began to blend. This created a new Arabic music. Some of the original elements remained such as the singing of poetical lyrics in Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and the linguafranca of the Islamic Empire. What evolved though, was new performance techniques, new aspects of intonation and new musical instruments. These new ideas included Persian influence and others from non –Arabian backgrounds.
The rulers began to enjoy poetry and musicians and performers became common place. The Abbasid caliphs al-Mahdi (reigned 775-85) and al-Amin (reigned 809-13) were fond of music. The artists they hired were often well-educated and from distinguished backgrounds. Among such artists were the singers ands scholars Prince Ibrahim al-Mahde (779-839) and Ishaq alMawsili)767-850) and the ‘ud (lute virtuoso, Zalzal (died 791), who was Ishaq’s uncle.
Contact with the Classical Past
The second process that shaped Arabic music was the introduction to the Arabic scholars of the ancient Greek treatises. These treatises were probably influenced by the legacies of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. This contact occurred during the ninth century under the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun (reigned 813-33). He established the Bayt al-Hikmah, “the House of Wisdom,” a school responsible for translating vast numbers of Greek classics and the wisdom of other cultures such as India. They translated musical treatises by major Pythagorean scholars and works by Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus.
The outcome of this exposure to the classical past was huge! Music, or al-musiqa, a term that came from Greek became one of al-ulum al-riyadiyyah or “the mathematical sciences”. It became part of the Quatrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy) in the Latin West. Greek treatises created an extensive musical nomenclature which was translated into Arabic and for the most part is still in use today.
The Arabs wrote their own theoretical treatises between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. An early contributor was Ibn al Munajjim (died 812). He left us a description of eight melodic modes. Each mode had its own diatonic scale, namely an octave span of Pythagorean half and whole steps. The Kitab al-Aghani or Book of Songs by Abu al-Faraj al Isfahani (died 967) includes songs that commonly use these modes.
Another notable contributor to the science of music was Abu Nasr al Farabi (dies 950). He wrote Kitab al Musiqa al Kabir, or the Grand Treatise on Music. He presented various systems of pitch including “certain microtones” which is one of the distinctive differences between eastern and western music. Microtones were probably being used prior to this time but he documented them. Other theorists that documented microtones included Ibn Sina, or Avicenna (died 1037) and Safi ad-Din al-Urmawi (died 1291). He described the melodic modes used during his time with a detailed systematic scale that incorporated small subdivisions (microtones) within the Pythargorian scale.
Contact with the Medieval West
The Crusades occurred in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteen centuries. The Moors occupied Spain (713-1492). This contact had a widespread impact on both Islamic and European peoples. Scholars such as Julian Ribera, Alouis R. Nyki, and Henry George Farmer have argued that substantial influence existed in areas ranging from rhythm and song forms to music theory, nomenclature, and musical instruments. Example: the lute and perhaps the guitar from the al’ud; the nakers or kettle drums from the naqqarat; the rebec from the rabab and eventually the violin and the anafil or natural trupet from the al-nafir. Flamenco music and dance forms have Moorish roots.
Moorish Spain developed a literary musical form that is still in use today. It is acalled the muwashshah. It has a continuous flow of lines or couplets using a single poetical meter and a single rhyme ending. This musical form exists in the Levant, which is an area that consists of greater Syria and Palestine. It is particularly popular in Aleppo, Syria.
While not Arabic, the music of the Turks has many similarities to Arabic music. The fourth major factor influencing Arabic music occurred during the dominance of Syria, Palestine, Iraq and the coast of Arabia and much of North Africa (1517-1917) by the Ottoman Empire. During this four-century span, the center of power in the Sunni Muslim world shifted to the Ottoman court in Turkey. Iran emerged as a separate political, cultural and religious entity and instituted Shi’ism as the state religion. Turkish music had already absorbed musical elements of Central Asia, Anatolia, Persia. During this period, the music of Turkey blended with Arabic music of the day. This interaction was the most obvious in larger cities, particularly Aleppo, Damascus and Cairo.
The sama’i (or Turkish saz semai) and the bashraf (or pesrev), both instrumental genres used in Turkish courts and religious Sufi music were introduced into the Arab world in the late ninetheenth century. These forms are still common today and are considered classical forms.
Instrumental and maybe dance and vocal forms were introduced by the Mevlevis, a mystical order established in Konya, Turkey, in the thirteenth century. They were known for cultivating music and including composers and theorists. This order spread into parts of Syria, Iraq and North Africa. Arab and Turkish musical systems overlap considerably, while retaining distinct differences.
Contact with the Modern West
The fifth and most recent influence is the contact between Arab music and the modern West following the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt (1798-1801). One of the earliest manifestations of Westernization in the Arab world of music as Muhammad ‘Ali’s introduction of the European military band concept in Egypt in the early nineteenth century in which Western instruments and musical notation were used.
Later in the century, at the opening of the Suez Canal, Khedive Isma’il (reigned 1863-1876) built the Cairo Opera House. Rigoletto was performed by Verdi in November 1869 followed by Aida in December, 1871.
The twentieth century experienced an increase in the role of Western theory, notation, instruments, and overall musical attitudes. The musical theater was very popular. Dramas by European authors were Arabized and presented as combinations of acting, singing and sometimes dancing. Syrian-born Abu Khalil alQabbani (1841-1902), performed at the Columbian World Fair in Chicago in 1893. Egyptian, Shaykh Salalmah Hijazi (1852-1917), a Sufi-trained singer and stage actor recorded songs that were heard on early recordings throughout the entire Arab world.
Between World War 1 and the late 1920’s, Cairo developed a type of musical play that combined comedy and vaudeville and was comparable to the European operetta. One of the celebrated composers was Shaykh Sayyid Darwish (died 1923), who is now considered the father of modern Egyptian music.
Now there are traditional Arab music and Western music taught in government institutions called conservatories.
Unifying Traits of Arab Music
Still today, traits that unify Arabic music are the intimate relationship between the music and the Arabic language. The emphasis is placed upon the vocal part of the music. Examples are the Sha’ir, literally “poet,” in Upper Egypt and among the Syrian-Desert Bedouins and the qawwal, literally “one who says,” in the Lebanese tradition of zajal, or sung folk-poetry. It is also common practice to set the literary forms of the qasidah and the muwashshah to music.
Another important feature of Arabic music is the lack of harmony. The melody is supreme. What you find instead is subtle and intricate ornamentation and nuances. Melody in Arab music also incorporates micro-tonality, namely intervals that do not conform to the half-step and whole-step divisions of traditional Western art music.
Melodies are connected with modality, called maqam (plural maqamat). Each of the maqamat is based on a theoretical scale, specific notes of emphasis, and a typical pattern of melodic movement, in many instances beginning around the tonic note of the scale, gradually ascending, and finally descending to the tonic. Even though the melodies are built using the maqam system, a good way of illustrating the form of the maqam is through a nonmetric improvisatory genre known as the taqasim. Vocal forms are known as the layali, the mawwal, Qur’anic chanting and the Sufi qasidah.
In Egypt and the Levant, theorists divide the octave scale into small microtones comparable to those discussed earlier by al-Farabi and Safi ad-Din. A microtone may be described as a comma division (roughly one-ninth of a whole step), which is found in some Syrian Theories. It is usually accepted that the maqamat are based on a octave scale consisting of twenty-four equal quarter tones. Western notation has become fully established with extra symbols to represent the quarter tones.
Arabic rhythm is also significantly different from Western expressions. Metric modes are employed in various metric compositions and are known by the name of iqa’at (singular iqa’). They influence the nature of phrasing and patterns of accentuation that are very different than Western music. The Arabic rhythm is very important in the musical expression. The tablah( avase-shaped hand drum) and the riqq (a small tambourine also called a daff) are common. Each iqa’ has a specific name and pattern of beats ranging in number from two to twenty four or more.
Another feature of unity in the Arabic world lies in area of their musical instruments. Instruments such as the qanun (a trapezoidal plucked zither), ‘ud (a fretless plucked lute), nay (a reed flute) and the western violin are found in most urban Arab orchestras. The tablah and riqq as described above are also very important.
Aspects of unity are also found in traditional musical content of Arab social and religious life. The Qur’anic chanting is quintessential to the religious expression. Of comparable prevalence is the adhan, or Islamic call to prayer, which is heard from the minaret at times of prayer throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Sufi performances of music and dance have been held in private and public for centuries throughout North Africa and the Levant.
Finally, modern electronic media has influenced unity in the Arabic world. The rise of wide-scale commercial recording around 1904, the appearance of the musical film industry in Egypt in 1932, and the establishment of public radio stations created a large pan-Arab audience. Today the word ughniyyah refers to a solo singer with an elaborate orchestra utilizing Western and tradition Arab instruments. Muhammad “Abd al-Wahhab and the late female singer, Um Kulthum, are famous for this style of music and currently enjoy a huge audience from Morocco to Iraq.
While there are many factors that unify the music of the Near and Middle East, regional and cultural differences between people still exist and create a glowing fabric of individuality and subtle flavor. This music is complex and eternal. It is a living testimony to the history and rich, multi-faceted cultural background of its people.
Acknowledgement for much of the information shared in this article must be given to A. J. Racy Ph.D, Professor of Ethnomusicology, UCLA. You can gather more information from his website, www.turath.org.