Genres of Music and the Types of Ensembles that Perform Them
In this section we will look at specific genres of music, and at the different groups of vocalists and instrumentalists that perform these genres. While focusing mainly on the Arab world, we will also examine some important North African and Turkish examples.
Oral Tradition and Improvisation
Historically, Middle Eastern music was taught in an oral tradition. Students learned new pieces by ear and techniques from master singers and instrumentalists. By studying with an acknowledged master, a student would not only be learning traditional repertoire, they would also be absorbing that master’s style and approach, carrying on traditions and specific methods of playing or singing over succeeding generations.
This is still a favored method of instruction, even though it is now common to utilize Western notation to preserve songs, to compose new music, and to teach. However, the introduction of teaching music by notation in Western-style class settings has perhaps diminished some of the special aspects of learning by memorization. Becoming dependent on musical notation can, for example, diminish the capacity to commit repertoire to memory.
Connected to this learning-by-memorization method is the importance of improvisation in Middle Eastern music, as seen in the taqāsīm, which frequently begin a song or a suite of pieces. Here, though guided by certain rules concerning the maqām and the emphasis on certain notes, the performer has the freedom to express the emotional content of the maqām by improvising a melody that will never be repeated in the exact same way; it exists only for that moment.
Even if such an improvisation is recorded or filmed, the performer will not repeat it again, or it would not be a true improvisation. Improvisations are also frequently found in the middle of musical pieces, where a soloist may take the central role, improvising a melody in the maqām to show off musical skill and technique.
Learning to improvise is a different skill than learning to read or compose music; indeed, musicians who have been trained only in reading music (such as at a Western conservatory) often find improvising to be difficult, though they can easily read complex music in notation. Like many abilities, it is best perfected through attempting it, such as riding a bike or cooking. Improvisation is very much a “hands-on” skill that only improves through doing it repeatedly.
Improvisation in Western Classical Music
In the West, improvisation in classical music was known through the 18th century; Bach and Mozart were both said to have been very skilled at inventing new melodies and compositions on the spot; Mozart would often play the repeated sections of his piano concertos differently than the first time through. The practice diminished in the 19th century, with the rise of large orchestras and the increasing importance of complex musical notation that detailed the composer’s wishes exactly.
Improvisation was revived again with the advent of jazz in the early 20th century and has remained an important component of many Western genres since then. As with some Middle Eastern music, jazz places an emphasis on solos, whether by the piano, saxophone, bass, or whichever instruments are featured in the ensemble.
Middle Eastern Genres and Music Ensembles
There are a large number of different types of Middle Eastern ensembles and groups, many devoted to certain genres of music, much as a Western string quartet plays music written for its combination of two violins, viola and cello, or a jazz piano trio consists of piano, drum, and bass. These vary widely by region and genre, and we will look at some of the more important ones in this section, by looking at the types of music most often associated with them.
Historically, what we would term as “art music” (structured, with composed and improvised sections, often with a vocalist) dates back to the Middle Ages and was centered in urban locations, such as Cairo, Aleppo, and Damascus. Such music was performed by small ensembles or a few instrumentalists and perhaps a singer. Performances were often private, for those with wealth or in positions of power. These settings were ideal for the expression of ṭarab, which we will examine below.
More public performances might include weddings and religious festivals, or even taverns and coffee houses, though the latter were considered low-brow. The instruments an ensemble used included the ‘ud, the rababa (later replaced by the Western violin), the qanun, and the nay, as well as certain types of percussion, most often the riqq.
By the 19th century and into the 20th, this type of ensemble had become known as takht (Arabic for “bed,” “seat,” or “podium”)¹ and consisted of a small group comprised only of male musicians, often with a singer. A separate ensemble, the takht al-‘awālim, was made up exclusively of female musicians who performed for female audiences, with different repertoire, and often with different instruments.²
The main repertoire of the takht was a suite known as a waṣla, which incorporated songs, taqāsīm, and forms of vocal improvisation (layāli and mawwāl, which we will examine below), as well as musical forms borrowed from Ottoman Turkish music.
New Genres Gained Favor
By the 1930s, this suite form began to fall out of favor, as new genres became more popular, but it is still regarded “by many to be a beloved and valued aspect of Arab cultural heritage (called turāth).”³ Further, as Marcus notes, “The very experience of seeing and hearing a takht performance, performed now by respected conservatory-trained government employees, has elements of reveling in the glories of a past age.”⁴
By the 1930s, the takht ensembles (particularly in Egypt) began to expand, in imitation of Western orchestras, to include multiple violins, as well as the cello, and perhaps the double bass.
Traditional instruments still featured, but the sound had grown dramatically, and there was no longer room for heterophonic playing, as the sheer number of violins would have made such a practice little more than noise. Thus, the music changed from heterophonic to monophonic, and later some harmonic elements would also be introduced. This type of orchestra is known as a firqa (Arabic for “ensemble”).
The Concept of Ṭarab
Ṭarab is an important, though not exactly translatable concept in Arabic music. Broadly, it refers to the deep emotions that well-played music invokes in its listeners. Music scholar Ali Jihad Racy has devoted a whole book to the concept, Making Music in the Arab World.⁶ Ṭarab, he notes, encompasses interrelated concepts:
It refers to the secular music of urban Arabic culture in the Middle East, specifically that which is considered “art music,” with its complex structure and theory; essentially it is the music of professional musicians. It has its own culture, the ‘alam al-ṭarab, or the “world of ṭarab,” which “encompasses artist, repertoires, and music related ideologies, attitudes, and behaviors, including ways of listening and reacting to music.” ⁷
Effect on the Listener
Ṭarab also refers to the effect that said music has on its listener, particularly the emotional state that the music creates. This designation dates back to the Middle Ages, when theorists noted that music played properly could bring about feelings of ecstasy in the listener, an idea still very much at the heart of the modern notions of ṭarab.
Indeed, Racy notes that ṭarab, “can be described as a musically induced state of ecstasy… [implying] experiences of emotional excitement, pain or other similarly intense emotions, exaltation, a sense of yearning or absorption, feeling of timelessness, elation or rapturous delight.” Further, it can denote “a transformative state, for example those connected with intoxication, empowerment, inspiration, and creativity.” ⁸
Arabic art music is thus seen to have tremendous power and a direct connection to the listener. Indeed, members of the audience are participants in the performance. Informed connoisseurs of the art stress the importance of the music’s emotional component and may be moved to utter exclamations and make gestures at key points in the song, a tradition that Racy notes, may date back to early medieval Baghdad and the Abbasid era.⁹
This response can approach a kind of mystical state and brings to mind the similar states of the Sufis and their rituals, even though the music of ṭarab is secular. Such emotive displays are less commonly a part of general public performance; true ṭarab experiences occur more often in specialized contexts, such as private performances for interested listeners. This level of discretion avoids undue public scandal and even religious criticism of ecstatic experiences.
Nevertheless, ṭarab is an essential component of urban Arabic art music and describes how the direct, emotive qualities of the music can deeply affect those who hear it.
This genre is unique to North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya), with its roots in medieval Spain. This region is known as the Maghrib, or “place of the sunset,” as opposed to the Mashriq (encompassing Egypt and the Gulf and Levantine nations), “place of the sunrise.” In southern Spain during the Middle Ages, cities such as Granada, Córdoba, and Seville were great centers of learning and culture, and the repertoire that would become the nūba (sometimes transliterated as “nouba”) genre there. The region was known as Al-Andalus (the meaning of which is disputed), and thus the music is often known as the Andalusian nūba repertoire. Ziryab perfected the genre, and gave it its characteristic sounds, that were different from eastern Arabic song.
Today, the nūba is an essential component of the art music in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. It consists of a suite of pieces, both vocal and instrumental, linked by a common musical mode known as tab‘, very similar to a maqām.
The word nūba translates as “turn,” and refers to a time in the 9th century when a musician waited to perform for the caliph. When his turn or nūba came, he would perform his song. Eventually, the term came to denote the performances themselves, and then the suite of pieces. Originally, such pieces were performed mainly by a soloist.
Today, the nūba performance is given by a group, the instruments usually consisting of the ‘ud, the North African rabab and/or the violin, the qanun, the nay, the tar (a tambourine in the Maghrib), and the tabla/darbuka. A solo singer features prominently, and he is at times accompanied by the instrumentalists, who also sing as a monophonic choir.
There are different versions of the nūba in different countries. The Moroccan style of nūba derives from the traditions of Granada and Valencia, the Tunisian nouba originates in Seville, and the Algerian nouba comes from Córdoba. Originally, there were 24 nūba a suites, one for each hour of the day, though some have been lost over the centuries, and today, there are fewer in use.¹⁰
Literally translated as “to crochet” or “to weave,” this term refers both to poetry written in medieval Spain and used in the nūba repertoire, as well as to that which is sung in the east from a later period. The difference between them, as Touma notes, is that “Whereas in North Africa the term refers to the purely linguistic side of a musical presentation, in Mashriq it designates a poetic-musical product in its entirety.” ¹¹
The form is particularly popular in Syria (from the 18th century) and is also known in Egypt. In the East, its structure is similar to that of its North African cousin, being a suite of pieces in a specific maqām (with some changes to other maqāmāt allowed). A similar group of musicians comprises the ensemble, and again, the instrumentalists sing in support of a soloist.¹² Dancers are often familiar with the song “Lamma Bada Yata Thana,” a muwashshah song to the samā‘ī thaqīl rhythm in 10/8.
The Layāli and the Mawwāl
The layāli is a form of solo singing, usually by a singer who also accompanies himself on the ‘ud, though other instruments may also accompany him. The text he sings in Arabic is ya layli ya ‘aynī, “Oh, my night! Oh my eye!” or some variation thereof, in reference to his beloved. It is a form that is suited to exploring a given maqām and its emotional impact, and a skilled singer can make such pieces very moving. It can either be in a set rhythm (most often with a slow tempo) or a free rhythm, and can go on for as long as the musicians see fit.
Usually this is followed by the mawwāl, a genre of vocal music that precedes a song. The mawwāl is similar to the layāli, though it can have a variety of different texts and verse-forms.
The dūr (or dawr) developed in Egypt in the 19th century. It was an important genre consisting of a solo singer and a chorus, backed by instrumentalists including the ‘ud, spike fiddle (kamanjah), the nay, the qanun, the riqq, and the darbuka/tabla. It consists of specialized poetry and a unique relationship between the singer and the composed melody.
The solo singer does not need to duplicate the set melody or even attempt variations on it. Rather, he or she will “paraphrase the composition. In some cases, one might even speak of a metamorphosis of the composition.” The singer thus assumes an important creative role in the musical performance, effectively re-composing the melody according to the maqām, and emphasizing key words in the text.
The dūr faded in popularity in the 1920s, as larger orchestras began to take its place.
Jalghi Baghdadi (al-Iraqi)
Considered to be among the most perfect forms of the maqām, this tradition began, as the name implies, in Iraq, and has been passed down in oral tradition for some 400 years. It consists of a vocalist, a tabla, a juzah (a kind of long-neck spike fiddle), often a riqq, and a santur, a hammer dulcimer.
The santur was once far more wide-spread and also used in classical Ottoman music, but now survives in Arabic music only in Iraq; it is more commonly known in classical Persian and classical Indian music, where it thrives and is highly regarded.¹³
The structure of this music begins with vocal passages, sometimes with Arabic, Turkish, or Persian words, and sometimes no text at all. This section introduces the maqām that will follow, and the instruments then improvise free melodic lines on that maqām, alternating with the signer.
Depending on the maqām, the rhythmic instruments will join in (in certain maqām, the ensemble does not make use of percussion). A complete performance of a maqām, known as a faṣl (pl. faṣūl), is part of a larger presentation of five faṣūl of different maqamāt in succession that can take several hours to perform. Traditionally, they were performed for more private gatherings rather than public concerts, and alcohol was sometimes served clandestinely.
Sa‘idi Mizmar groups
In Upper Egypt (rather confusingly, the southern portion of the country, since it is at a higher elevation than the region nearer to the Mediterranean Sea), the mizmar ensemble is a very important part of the folk music tradition. This area, known as the Sa‘id is culturally different from its northern counterpart, with its own folk traditions, language variants, and history.¹⁴
The mizmar groups are especially popular for weddings and other celebrations where dance is prevalent. Such festivities may begin in the evening and last all night. The groups typically consist of three mizmar players (often one lead and two secondary players) and a percussionist playing either the darbuka or the tabla baladi; sometimes there is more than one drummer for emphasis. The ensembles often have at least vocalist, but often times more than one singer will perform with the group, taking turns.
Folk and Popular Songs
Dressed in traditional clothing (long robes and white turbans), they perform a variety of folk songs, both Sa‘idi and from greater Egypt, religious songs, and more recently, popular songs (including those by Umm Kulthum). There is less of an attempt to classify and codify the repertoire, given the nature of these performances, and it is not uncommon for genres to become mixed and adapted over time (assuming an art song is actually a folk tune, for example).
Fijri (“Pearl Diver”) Songs of the Gulf
These songs belong to a tradition of music making among sea-farers and divers for pearls in the Arabian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman. It is a vocal tradition accompanied by hand-clapping and some percussion instruments.
Different types of songs are associated with different tasks on a ship and often feature a soloist alternating with a group of singers in a verse-chorus format. Song subjects also cover the hardship of a life at sea, the dangers associated with it, the longing for family, and prayers for a safe return.
They are strongly rhythmic, an essential component for group singing, and various kinds of drums, such as the tabla, frame drum, riqq, cymbals, double-headed cylinder drums, and even water urns, accompany the songs.
These songs are also sung on land, when the sailors meet at a designated home (dār) to socialize, drink tea, smoke, sing, and dance. Such dār were once plentiful all along the coast, but their numbers have diminished significantly in recent decades.
Fijri is a very old tradition with numerous origin stories. One of the more popular tales says that three young friends in Bahrain heard strange singing coming from a mosque. There, they encountered demons in the mosque courtyard who were human on their upper halves and donkeys on their lower halves. The demons agreed to leave them alone, as the men wished to listen to the music. The men learned these fijri songs and kept them secret, until the last survivor taught them to his friends and family as an old man, thus beginning the fijri song tradition.
The Islamic call to prayer is an iconic sound, often used in Western movies and television to evoke the “feel” of being in an Islamic country, as the camera pans over a cityscape and its mosques. Such chanting is part of a larger grouping of religious chants relating to Islam and the Qur’an. It is crucial to understand, however, that such chant is not considered “music,” but rather handasa al-ṣawt, or “the art of sound.”
Secular music and instruments are forbidden in places of worship because of their secular connections, and religious chant is more properly thought of as “recitation.” Indeed, the word Qur’an is a cognate of qirā’a, meaning “he read” or “recited.” The recitation of Qur’anic texts is either the name qirā’a, or a more general term, tilāwa, meaning both “to recite” and “to follow.” ¹⁵
Thus, Qur’anic chant, though having a clear melodic component and being produced in various maqāmāt, is not thought of as music and is not associated with secular music in any way. More importantly, it is never danced to or accompanied by instruments.
There are three types of Islamic chant: the call to prayer, or adhān; recitations of the Qur’an; and songs and hymns for religious festivals. It is believed that these traditions date back to the time of Muhammad, who personally gave his sanction to the call to prayer, a way of differentiating Islam from Judaism (which used the shofar, or ram’s horn) and Christianity (which used church bells to summon worshippers).
The profession of the muezzin, the one who chants the call to prayer, became highly honored from an early age and has remained so throughout Islamic history. Indeed, an entire guild of muezzins developed in the Ottoman Empire. The call to prayer is recited five times a day. Traditionally, it is chanted from the minaret (though most mosques in cities now make use of loudspeakers to amplify the voice).
A number of chants appear during festivals, holidays, and other special occasions, such as the Prophet’s birthday, as well as pilgrim songs, which can have group singing and choral elements. It is a practice during Ramadan (the month of fasting), to recite the entire Qur’an over the course of the month. The text is marked into thirty increments to aid the reciter in this task.
Important Life Events
In addition to normal religious occasions, such as Friday gatherings at mosques, Qur’anic chant is used to commemorate important events in human life. Rites of passage, such as birth, marriage, and death are usually marked with Qur’anic recitation. Some secular events, both political and social, may include chant, as well.
Such events require skilled reciters, many of whom have spent years practicing and developing their art. On a daily basis, however, most Muslims engage in some form of simple recitation, especially during the five daily prayers (salāt), where Muslims will recite the fātiḥah, the opening short chapter of the Qur’an that is a simple prayer.
Learning the art of recitation is time-consuming and difficult, and requires a mastery of the rules of tajwīd, the proper forms for recitation. This is an oral tradition, and chants are never written down, unlike those in the Christian world.
Each reciter will create his or her own forms of chant, based on a rigid adherence to the rules. Thus no two reciters will sound exactly the same, but all with be bound by the formulas of chant creation. This has been the method since the earliest days of Islam, and it represents a remarkable living oral tradition.
Two Recitation Types
Recitation is generally divided into two types: murāttal and mujāwwad. Murāttal is a more reserved and straightforward method used by individuals for private prayer. Mujāwwad defines the ornate, elaborate types of chant often heard in the call to prayer and in the public recitations by master cantors. Such reciters often have large followings of devoted listeners who come to their public recitations.
The sound of Qur’anic chant, while not considered music, is structurally similar to the taqsīm. The ornate melodic structures have an affinity with the concept that God cannot be associated with any earthly image or object, including sound. Chant lines are constructed on the idea of “infinite patterns,” that have no identifiable beginning or end.
What one sees in the floral and geometric patterns that adorn a mosque, for example, is a sense of the infinite, with no beginning or ending to the design. The “free rhythm” in Qur’anic chant expresses this, as well; it has no beginning or end, and so is like God, who has no constraints or boundaries.
Related to this is the concept of the waqfa, or “stop,” the pause between phrases that corresponds with the logical progression of the text. Such pauses have a similarity with those in a taqsīm, but for different reasons. At the end of important phrases (and during a pause), an attentive and knowledgeable audience will respond with enthusiastic exclamations to show their devotion and appreciation.
This alternating between chanted verse and pause serves to emphasize the limitless nature of God, as each section is a kind of “slice” of infinity. Each verse is autonomous and has its own life. The potential for thematic development, with an opening and a conclusion as one would find in Western music (and in some Western chant), is essentially eliminated.
Successive segments of chant may grow more complex, but they are not deliberately built on their predecessors in an obvious thematic way. Therefore, such recitations cannot be reduced to recognizable musical themes. The complexity and ornateness of a given section is not just ornamentation of simpler lines, but rather the very substance of the melody.
Thus, tilāwa is composed of sound, emotion, and thought, and tajwīd seeks to produce a synthesis of these three elements. Qur’anic chant is an interactive phenomenon, engaging both the reciter and the audience, reminiscent of ṭarab, though in a completely different context. It is both deliberately non-representative and reflective of the infinite nature of the divine.
¹ Touma, Habib Hassan. The Music of the Arabs, translated by Laurie Schwarts. Portland, OR and Cambridge, UK: Amadeus Press, 1996, pp. 140.
² For more on takht and its repertoire, see Marcus, Scott L. Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 96-101. See also the example of a full takht suite at 102-114, with examples on the CD that accompanies the book.
³ Ibid., 101.
⁴ Ibid., 114.
⁵ Ibid., 100.
⁶ Racy, Ali Jihad. Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. See also Lueg, Maren. “Ecstasy and Trance in Tarab Performance,” http://arabicmusicband.com/articles/tarab, accessed July 16, 2014.
⁷ Racy, Making Music, 15.
⁸ Ibid., 6.
⁹ Ibid., 5.
¹⁰ For a thorough examination of the nūba and its repertoire, see Touma, Music of the Arabs, 68-83.
¹¹ Ibid., 83.
¹² For more details and musical analysis, see ibid., 83-86.
¹³ For a detailed analysis of this form, see Touma, Music of the Arabs, 55-67.
¹⁴ For a detailed look at this repertoire, see Marcus, Music in Egypt, 71-88, which includes many musical examples on the accompanying CD.
¹⁵ For a more detailed discussion of Qur’anic chant, see Faruqi, Isma’il Rajial, and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi. The Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York: MacMillan, 1986, pp. 441-77. See also Touma, Music of the Arabs, 152-67. For further discussion about Islam and music in general, see Marcus, Music in Egypt, 89-95.
The content from this post is excerpted from Middle Eastern Music: History & Study Guide. A Salimpour School Learning Tool published by Suhaila International in 2018. This Music Book is an introduction to the music theory and main music exponents in the history of belly dance.
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