Ali Jihad Racy, Ph.D.
Reprinted here from the original chapter in The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, John Hayes, editor, in the second edition (1983) by Eurabia (Publishing) Ltd. and in the third edition (1992) by New York University Press with the kind permission of the author, Professor Ali Jihad Racy, Ph.D.
The html code, hyperlinks, and linked knowledge webs associated with this chapter are not part of the original chapter cited above, and are authored by Jack Logan, Ph.D.
The fifth and most recent process is the contact between Arab music and the modern West following the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt (1798-1801) and the subsequent cultural and political interaction during the nineteenth centuries. One of the earliest manifestations of Westernization in the Arab world was Muhammad 'Ali's importation of the European military-band concept into Egypt in the early nineteenth century and the establishment of military schools in which Western instruments and musical notation were employed.
Later in the century, on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal, Khedive Isma'il (reigned 1863-1876) built the Cairo Opera House, which became an historical landmark and a symbol of Westernization in the Near Eastern Muslim world. The Opera House was inaugurated with the performance of Rigoletto by Verdi, in November 1869, followed by Aida in December, 1871. Isma'il, who sought to Europeanize Egypt, patronized and promoted the fame and social status of Egyptian artists, such as the female singer Almaz (1860-1896) and the male singer 'Abduh al-Hamuli (1843-1901).
Westernization was further promoted by nineteenth-century American and European Protestant missionaries in the Levant. The Protestant hymnal introduced was based on contra facta, or the setting of newly written religious poems to various well-known tunes, mostly European. These tunes appeared in standard Western musical notation.
The twentieth century is marked by an increase in the role of Western theory, notation, instruments, and overall musical attitudes. In his Kitab al-Musiqa al-Sharqi, written around 1904, the Egyptian theorist and composer Kamil al-Khula'i mentioned that the piano, the accordion, and the mouth organ were becoming common household instruments in Egypt. The twentieth century also marked the continuation and growth of a medium that had begun in the nineteenth century and flourished in Egypt: the musical theater. Dramas mainly by European authors were Arabized and presented as combinations of acting, singing, and sometimes dancing. Among the theatrical artists were the Syrian-born Abu Khalil al-Qabbani (1841-1902), who also performed at the Columbian World Fair in Chicago in 1893, and the Egyptian Shaykh Salamah Hijazi (1852-1917), a Sufi-trained singer and stage actor whose theatrical songs were heard on early recordings throughout the entire Arab world.
Between World War I and the late 1920s, Cairo witnessed the rise of a new theatrical form, a type of musical play that typically combined comedy and vaudeville and was comparable to the European operetta. Among the prime contributors to this form was the celebrated composer Shaykh Sayyid Darwish (died 1923), who is now considered the father of modern Egyptian music. By the early 1930s, the impact of Westernization on Egyptian music was considerable, as testified to in the reports issued by the Congress of Arab Music held in Cairo in 1932.
With the emergence of independent Arab states following European domination, many Arab governments accepted Western music as a fine art and as a component in formal music education. In many Arab capitals today, traditional Arab music and Western music are taught in government institutions organized in the Western conservatory tradition.
Today, traits contributing to unity in Arab music are numerous. These traits may not be universally applicable, however, and their orientation and detailed features may differ from one community to another. Furthermore, because of common historical backgrounds and geographical and cultural proximity, many non-Arabs - particularly Turks and Persians - share many of these traits, a fact that enables scholars to study the Near East as one broad musical area.
One aspect of unity in Arab music is the intimate connection between the music and the Arabic language. This is demonstrated by the emphasis placed upon the vocal idiom and by the often central role played by the poet-singer. 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. This link is also exemplified in the common practice of setting to music various literary forms, including the qasidah and the muwashshah.
Another salient trait is the principal position of Arab melody in Arab music and the absence of complex polyphony, a phenomenon distinguishing music of this part of the world, and a good portion of Asia, from the music of Europe and certain areas in Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, Arab music exhibits refinement and complexity in the melody marked by subtle and intricate ornaments and nuances. Melody in Arab music also incorporates microtonality, namely intervals that do not conform to the half-step and whole-step divisions of traditional Western art music.
The concept of melody is commonly connected with modality, a conceptual organizational framework widely known under the name maqâm; plural, maqâmât). Each of the maqâmât 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. Although it is the basis for various musical compositions, the maqâm scheme may be best illustrated through such nonmetric improvisatory genres as the instrumental solo known in Egypt and the Levant as taqâsîm, vocal forms such as the layali and the mawwal, and religious genres such as 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. Several types of micro-intervals have been advocated, including the comma division (roughly one-ninth of a whole step), which is found in some Syrian theories. Yet, it is generally conceived that the maqâmât are based on a referential octave scale consisting of twenty-four equal quarter-tones. Despite the essentially aural nature of Arab music, Western notation has become fully established, and extra symbols are widely used. In addition to the regular flat and sharp signs, the symbol lowers a note by approximately a quarter tone while the symbol raises a note by roughly a quarter tone.
Following is a list of the scales of maqâmât most often used in Egypt and the Levant:
The modal conception and organization of melody is paralleled by a modal treatment of Arab rhythm. In Arab music, metric modes are employed in various metric compositions and are widely known by the name iqa'at (singular iqa'). Influencing the nature of phrasing and the patterns of accentuation of a musical composition, these modes are rendered on percussion instruments within the ensemble, including the tablah (a vase-shaped hand-drum) and the riqq (a small tambourine). Each iqa' has a specific name and a pattern of beats ranging in number from two to twenty-four or more.
As presented in contemporary music theory, an iqa' consists primarily of rests and beats distinguished by timbre. In the Egyptian tradition, the dumm (represented by a note with a downward stem) indicates a deep sound produced by hitting closer to the central position of the drum or tambourine head. The takk (represented by a note with an upward stem) is a high pitched crisp sound produced by beating or tapping near the rim of the instrument. Although the theoretical representation of a metric mode is essentially simple, the interpretation can be highly complex and varied. While maintaining the essential features of organization and emphasis within the pattern, percussion players usually improvise further rhythmic subdivisions and create numerous variants using a vast vocabulary of timbral effects.
Following is a list of the beat patterns of iqa'at most commonly heard in the contemporary music of Egypt and the Levant:
In Arab music, and in Near Eastern music in general, compound forms predominate. Such forms are based on the assembling together of instrumental and vocal pieces that share the same melodic mode. Within a compound form, the individual pieces may vary in style, improvised or precomposed, featuring a solo singer or chorus, metric or nonmetric. A compound form is usually known by its local generic name and by the name of the melodic mode it belongs to. Examples include an established Iraqi repertoire typical of the cities and known generically by the name maqâm. Other examples are the Syrian fasil and the North African Nawbah.
In Egypt, the late nineteenth early twentieth-century waslah, customarily incorporated a precomposed ensemble prelude, either a dulab or the more elaborate sama'i; a number of solo instrumental improvisations; a muwashshah sung by a small chorus; and vocal improvisations, namely the layali, which is a vocalization using the syllables ya layl, and the mawwal, which uses a poetical text in colloquial Arabic. The Egyptian waslah culminated in the dawr, which although basically precomposed allowed considerable freedom of interpretation by the mutrib, or main male vocalist, especially in passages based on call and response between him and the accompanying chorus.
Another feature of musical unity in the contemporary Arab world lies in the area of musical instruments. Instruments such as the qanun, 'ud, nay and the Western violin are found in most urban Arab orchestras. Furthermore, certain types of instruments are frequently associated with specific social functions. Bowed instruments often accompany the solo voice. In this case, the singer and the accompanist are typically the same person. The Bedouin sha'ir uses the rababah to accompany the love song genre known as the 'ataba and the heroic poems known as shruqi or qasid. Similarly, the Egyptian sha'ir uses the rababah to accompany his recitation of the medieval Arab epic known after its hero, Abu Zayd al-Hilali. In folk life, wind instruments are generally played outdoors; for example, the mizmar of Egypt and the tabl baladi (a large double-sided drum) are used at weddings and similarly festive events, mostly for the accompaniment of dance. At Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian weddings, the mijwiz is an adjunct to the dabkah or line dance.
Aspects of unity are also found in the traditional musical content of Arab social and religious life. Since Islam is the prevalent religion of the Arab world, Qur'anic chanting is the quintessential religious expression, transcending ethnic and national boundaries. This form is nonmetric, solo-performed, and based upon the established rules of tajwid, the Islamic principles of recitation. Of comparable prevalence is the adhan, or Islamic call to prayer, which is heard from the minaret at the times of prayer throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Sufi performances of music and dance have been held in private and in public for centuries throughout North Africa and the Levant. Exhibiting considerable unity in song genres and in style of performance, Sufi music has been influenced by, and in turn influenced, the various secular vocal traditions.
Finally, a more recent contributor to musical unity has been the modern electronic media. The rise of wide-scale commercial recording around 1904, the appearance of the musical film in Egypt in 1932, and the establishment of public radio stations in later years promoted the creation of a large pan-Arab audience. Today the word ughniyyah generally refers to a prevalent song category featuring a solo singer and an elaborate orchestra equipped with both Western and traditional Arab instruments. Presented by such celebrities as Egypt's Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahhab and the late female singer Um Kulthum, these songs are now enjoyed by a huge audience extending from Morocco to Iraq.
Despite such unity, the Arab world is also a land of musical contrasts. In a sense, Arab music is the summation of musical traditions, each of which has its own cultural and aesthetic substance and integrity. From a broader perspective, diversity exists among larger geographical areas. For example, the music of North Africa, primarily Morocco and Algeria, differs from the music of Egypt and the Levant in matters of intonation, modality, preference for certain musical instruments, and degree of exposure and retention of Andalusian musical influence.Similarly, the music of Egypt differs in matters of rhythm and intonation from the overall musical traditions of the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq.
From a closer perspective, individuality can be seen in various smaller areas and repertoires. The Ginnawa ethnic group of Morocco has a musical style that is closely associated with West Africa; similarities include the use of syncopated rhythm and emphasis on percussion. In Nubia and Sudan, the music employs pentatonicism, the use of five-tone scales. In Kuwait and Bahrain, pearl fishermen's songs utilize a high pitched male voice accompanied by distinct low-pitched drones, complex polyrhythmic clapping, and percussion instruments including a clay pot comparable in construction and playing technique to the ghatam of South India. In the Baghdadi chalghi ensemble accompanying maqâm singing, the instruments usually include the santur, a type of hammer dulcimer, and the jawzah, a spike-fiddle, both having close counterparts in the musical traditions of Persia and Central Asia. Similarly, individual musical features can be found in the liturgies of various non-Muslim religious groups of the Arab world, including the Maronites of the Levant and the Copts of Egypt.