Essay History Of Arabic Music

Paul Bowles, the American author and composer who recorded the double LP collection ''Music of Morocco'' some years ago (Library of Congress Archive of Folksong L63-L64), believes he has found in certain Moroccan traditions the roots of the sonata form. And certainly the early Arab composers were adept at the development of melodic material through theme-and-variation techniques. It seems likely that without the impact of Arabic musical thought and practice, European classical music as we now know it simply would not exist.

The term ''Arab'' in this context is somewhat misleading. The music that emerged from the opulent courts of Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, Cairo, Cordoba and other urban centers between the 9th and 13th centuries mixed traditions from the Arabian peninsula with influences originating in Persia, Syria, Byzantium and Central Asia. In addition, Arab rulers instituted ambitious translation projects, giving their court musicians and composers access to ancient musical treatises.

But what did this early Arab classical music actually sound like? Although many early works have been preserved and are studied and performed in musical conservatories throughout the Islamic world, they have remained the province of a select group of scholars and devotees, and have rarely been recorded.

Even the examples that have been issued on record, such as the splendid excerpt from an Andalusian nouba in ''Music of Morocco,'' have been fragmentary. One could get a sense of the sound of the music and of performing styles. But the ''anthology'' approach common to album releases of ethnomusicological field recordings tends to mix classical, folk and popular selections on one disk; it was impossible to hear an Andalus nouba or a Syrian wasla in its entirety.

Recently, with the advent of the compact disk and the dedication of a small group of French scholars, this situation has been changing. In 1985, the French Ocora label issued a recording of two complete Andalusian noubas on CD, performed by the orchestra of Abdelkrim Rais of Fez, Morocco (''Maroc: Musique Classique Andalou-Maghrebine,'' Ocora C559016). This disk, enchanting as it is, documents Andalusian music as it is performed today, almost 500 years after its transplantation to North Africa following the Christian reconquest of Spain.

A new companion CD, ''Ustad Massano Tazi: Musique Classique on Andalouse de Fes'' (Ocora C559035) is a recording of a different sort. Here, a group of performers who are also Sufi mystics and have preserved early musical traditions for metaphysical as well as esthetic reasons, set out to re-create as accurately as possible the sound and performing style of Ciryab, the celebrated court musician who left Baghdad in the ninth century to found the first Spanish musical conservatory, at Granada.

Ciryab's musical theories were linked with alchemical studies; the balance of timbres within the orchestra was thought to be crucial to the music's spiritual effect. Mr. Tazi and his ensemble here perform two complete noubas (one runs almost 53 minutes) on copies of instruments in use in Ciryab's time, with the gut strings of that era replacing the steel strings introduced into the music during the 18th century. This is an endlessly fascinating recording, with frequent shifts in rhythm and complex routines alternating solo and group vocals with perpetually shifting groupings of stringed and percussion instruments.

''Wasla D'Alep: Chants Traditionnels de Syrie,'' by Sabri Moudallal and the Traditional Music Ensemble of Aleppo (Inedit MCM 26007; CD only) again presents a complete performance of a long-form orchestral composition from Arab music's golden age, a wasla being roughly equivalent to the Andalus nouba in terms of both antiquity and formal structure. These nouba and wasla recordings are a singular event in modern musical scholarship. For the first time, nonspecialist Western listeners can hear complete performances of highly developed orchestral - one is tempted to say symphonic - compositions from the Arab world of 1,000 years ago.

''Archives de la Musique Arabe, Vol. 1'' (Ocora 558678; CD only) is the first release in a new series in which some of the earliest recordings of Arabic music are being reissued. The selections on this disk were transferred from cylinders recorded between 1908 and 1920; some of the performers were already professional musicians as early as the 1870's. Because cylinders did not impose time strictures quite as stringent as the later 78-rpm disk, some of these performances run as long as 15 minutes.

The performers include Sufi sheiks, former muezzins (religious cantors) who left their mosques to go on the road with secular theater troupes; and a remarkable dervish flutist whose angular phrasing and novel tonal effects suggest that in the Arab world as in the West there were idiosyncratic progressives as well as traditionalists. Considering the age of the recordings, they are astonishingly clear, with only minimal distortion.

There is no better introductory sampler to the classical, folk and popular idioms of the Islamic world than ''Music in the World of Islam,'' a series of six LP's devoted, respectively, to ''The Human Voice,'' ''Lutes,'' ''Strings,'' ''Flutes and Trumpets,'' ''Reeds and Bagpipes'' and ''Drums and Rhythms'' (Tangent TGS 131 through 136; LP only). Another welcome event for students of non-Western music is the recent reissue of many of the original UNESCO World Music recordings compiled by Alain Danielou in the 1960's.

The outstanding ''Turkey I'' (Barenreiter Musicaphon No. BM 30L2019; LP only) is devoted to the ritual music of the Mezlevi or whirling dervishes, the Sufi order founded by the poet Rumi. Additional volumes relating to Arab music are devoted to Turkey and other parts of the Islamic world. In addition, several of the later UNESCO recordings that were originally issued by EMI/Odeon are beginning to be reissued on CD by the French Auvidis label. Among the highlights of these CD/cassette reissues are ''North Yemen'' (Auvidis D8004) and ''Syria: Islamic Ritual Zikr in Aleppo'' (D8013).

Two reliable mail-order sources for these and other recordings of non-Western music are the World Music Institute (109 West 27th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001) and Down Home Music (10341 San Pablo Avenue, El Cerrito, Calif. 94530). Robert Browning of the World Music Institute has edited and published ''Maqam: Music of the Islamic World and Its Influences,'' a collection of essays by various authorities that includes both broad historical surveys and specialized studies of local traditions. ''Maqam'' is available for $10, plus $2 postage, from the World Music Institute.

Continue reading the main story

Arabic music is my favorite musical styling.  Although I have come to enjoy classical and contemporary styling as well, Arabic music has almost an innate quality of enjoyment for me.  Its songs speak of the life and culture of Arabic countries and its melody is not commonly heard on American radio stations.  Its songs tell the story of the Arabic people, people who are similar to Americans but also different in many ways.  The songs are a romantic and wonderful inspiration to me while living and studying in America.

The tradition of Arabic music has been cultivated throughout Arab regions for thousands of years. Although it has undergone many changes over the centuries, it has retained certain distinctive traits.

The Arabic music tradition developed in the courts of dynasties in the Islamic empire from the 7th century to the 13th century.  It flourished during the Umayyad dynasty in the 7th century and 8th century in Syria. Great performers were drawn to Baghdad, now the capital of Iraq, under such rulers as Harun ar-Rashid, who was a patron of the musical arts during the late 700s.3

The cities of the Islamic empire, from Spain across North Africa and throughout the Middle East, boasted many fine musicians. These early musicians were often composers and poets as well as performers. Although the major writings on Arab music appeared after the spread of Islam in the beginning of the 7th century, the music tradition had already begun. Before the spread of Islam, Arab music incorporated music traditions of the Sassanid dynasty (224-641) in Persia and the early Byzantine empire (4th century to 6th century) and of sung poetry from the Arabian Peninsula.3 Arabic-speaking scholars also studied the treatises of ancient Greek philosophers on music. Music theorists of the 10th century and 11th century, such as al-Farabi and Avicenna, produced their own theories of music based on what they had learned from the Greeks and on the music of their own times. Greek works translated by the Arab scholars were later studied by European scientists and philosophers.

Melody and Rhythm
Arabic music is created using unharmonized melodic and rhythmic systems. Arabic melodies draw from a vast array of models, or melodic modes, known as maqamat. Arabic books on music include as many as 52 melodic modes, of which at least 12 are commonly used.3 These modes feature more tones than are present in the Western musical system, including notably smaller intervals that are sometimes called microtones, or half-flats and half-sharps. Arabic melodies frequently use the augmented second interval, an interval larger than those of most Western melodies.3  The sound of Arabic music is richly melodic and offers opportunity for subtle nuance and creative variation.

The rhythmic structure of Arabic music is similarly complex. Rhythmic patterns have up to 48 beats and typically include several downbeats (called dums) as well as upbeats (called taks) and silences, or rests.3 To grasp a rhythmic mode, the listener must hear a relatively long pattern. Moreover, the performers do not simply play the pattern; they elaborate upon and ornament it. Often the pattern is recognizable by the arrangement of downbeats.

In Arab tradition, good musicians offer something new in each performance by varying and improvising on known pieces or models in a fashion similar to that of jazz musicians. The inventions of musicians can be lengthy, extending ten-minute compositions into hour-long performances that bear only a skeletal resemblance to the models. The inventions of the musician traditionally depend upon the response of the audience. Listeners are expected to react during the performance, either verbally or with applause. Quiet is interpreted as disinterest or dislike. The audience members, in this tradition, are active participants in determining the length of the performance and in shaping the piece of music by encouraging musicians to either repeat a section of the piece or to move to the next section.

Modern Era
Born of the cultures of the Arab World stretching from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, Arabic music is becoming popular world-wide.  It is made up of an astonishing variety of folk, classical, and popular musical traditions. Many of these have survived for centuries, reflecting the musical sensibilities of the ancient world as well as the Middle Ages.

While each region within the Arab World has its distinctive styles, commonalities of instrumentation, modal structure, rhythmic patterns, performance techniques, and lyric content extend across the area, forming a fascinating weaving of artistic tradition that changes and evolves while remaining true to its ancient heritage.  In the last decades a growing global audience has come to appreciate the richness of this music.

The global audience is hungry for information about these traditions, their history, the playing techniques and theories behind them, as well as news about performances, recordings, and concerts.  Listeners, performers and students rely on word of mouth to keep current on Arabic music news.  This is due to the fact that it is primarily distributed through smaller recording labels, and since performances occur outside the mainstream concert circuits.

Arabic Song and its English Translation1
Sawah (Vagabond)
What follows  is a translation into English of the song lyrics for Sawah. Also, there is a transliteration into the Roman alphabet of the original Arabic lyrics. This song was first popularized by Abdel Halim Hafez.
Arabic Lyrics1
English Translation2

Sawah, wei mashee feil beilaad, sawah
Vagabond, and walking between countries, vagabond
Weil khatwa beinee wei bein habibee barah
And the step between me and my beloved [is] big
Meish war bei-eed, wana feeh gareeh
A long journey, and I’m wounded from it
Weil leil yei-arab, weil nahar rawah
And the night approaches, and the day goes

Wein laakom habibee, saleimulee alei
And if you see my beloved, say “Hello” to him [her]
Tameinuneel asmaranee, amla eil el ghorba fee
Reassure me: how is my brown-looking girl doing so far away
Sawah, wana mashee layalee
Vagabond, I’m walking all night
Sawah, walla daree bhalee
Vagabond, not knowing what I’m doing
Sawah, meil for-a ya ghalee
Vagabond, and the separation, oh my dear
Sawah, eih elee garalee
Vagabond, what has happened to me?
Weisneen, weisneen wana dayeib bsho’ wei haneen
And years, years, and I’m melting in loneliness and tenderness
Ayeiz a-araf bass taree-u meinein
I want to know just where is his [her] road

Repeat Chorus:
Ya eounee, ah ya eounee,
My eyes, oh my eyes
Eih garalak fein enta, wei bta-meil eih
What has happened to you and what are you doing?
Ya znounee, ah ya znounee mat seibounee
My worries, oh my worries, leave me alone
Meish naaeis ana heer aleil
I’m worried enough about him [her]
Lana areif ar-taah, wana ta-yeih sawaah
Neither can I rest, and I’m lost like a vagabond

Repeat Chorus:
Ya amar ya naseenee
Oh moon, who is forgetting me?
Raseenee alee ghayeib
Take me to the absent one
Nawarlee, wareenee, seikeit el habayeib
Enlighten me, show me the road to the beloved
Waseitak, weiseiya, ya shaheid alaya
I’ve made you promise, you who witnessed
Teikeelu alei beiya
To tell him [her] of my state
Weilee aseito blayaleiya
And what I’ve suffered during my nights.


1. Goodyear, Amina.  Sawah – song compositional elements.  1996.

2. Ibrahim, Nicole.  Sawah – song translation, transliteration. 1996.

3. Nassen, Abdul.  Arabic Music and Its Cultural Influences. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Filed Under: Art, Film and Music, Islam, Middle East, Music

Categories: 1

0 Replies to “Essay History Of Arabic Music”

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *