Musics of the Middle East

(in two parts, the second for a Public Lecture...)

Music is in many times and places an outsider specialty: consider the case of Egyptian Gypsies, via the Jeremy Marre DVD The Romany Trail [ML3534 .R65 2002 pt.1] ...and put that together with other fragments, like

...[said to be] 'bad people' who lie, cheat, make excessive demands for money, who do not care about religion, whose wives are prostitutes and whose sons are dancing boys. Their behavior is regarded as deviating from the expressed ideals of Muslim society.
(John Baily 1979, writing about professional musicians in Afghanistan)
Consider also the case of the Algerian pop genre called raï, starting from the example of N'Sel fik ("You are all mine"), a raï song by a husband-wife duo --but even so, highly suspect...
Sahraoui: Oh Lord, I was speechless, your look stunned me, my love.
Refrain: I love you, apple of my eye, I adore you my love.
Fadela: Oh Lord, I was taken aback by his beauty and my heart fell for him.
Refrain: I love you...
Sahraoui: Oh Lord, without the suffering caused by your love, none of this would have happened to me, my beauty.
Refrain: I love you...
Fadela: Only God can appease my pain, humane only to silence my suffering.
Refrain: I love you...
Sahraoui: Part of you belongs to me, no... All of you belongs to me.
Fadela: I love you...
Raï singers have been murdered in Algeria --see MIXING POP AND POLITICS: The Role of Ra in Algerian Political Discourse by Rod Skilbeck
By the mid-80s the position of Algerian Islamists had become more extreme, rejecting the notion that Muslim civilisation, "had room for music, philosophy [or] poetry"[26]. The Islamist party formed in 1988, the FIS, considered "ra not merely 'noise', but 'illicit' and 'immoral'. Oliver Roy has noted that paradoxically Islamist movements, "waged war [against]...the music of their own culture...such as the Algerian ra", but when Islamists such as Radio Teheran produce music, "it is composed according to the rules of Western music"[27]...
The 'war' against ra reached its peak in late September 1994, as Cheb Hasni, the Prince of Ra, the most prominent ra singer residing in Algeria was gunned down at a cafe in Oran. Islamists were immediately blamed, an assertion strengthened by the kidnapping of the Berber singer Maatoub by the GIA (Armed Islamic Group, the more violent guerilla offshoot of the outlawed FIS)...
See also Running with the rebels: politics, identity, and sexual narrative in Algerian Rai ...and an update:, rai is no longer seen as a pariah art form back in Algeria. In 1999, [Cheb] Mami performed there for the first time in over eight years. During that period of bloody political and religious turmoil, writers, journalists, and rai artists, including singer Cheb Hasni and producer Rachid Baba, were brutally murdered by extremists. Mami simply refused to go there and sing amid an atmosphere of death, despite many invitations from concert promoters. Now, attitudes are changing. "It's a little like rock music here," says Mami. "Rock music spoke directly and that upset people. But it became popular because young people liked it, and people ended up accepting it. That's the way it was with rai. Now it has changed to the point where the president and his ministers say that rai is Algerian culture."

There is also great popular fame connected with music, and there have been a number of superstars in the Middle Eastern firmament --among singers, Umm Koulthum (Egypt), Fairuz (Lebanon), Ofra Haza (Yemen/Israel); and among instrumentalists, Farid el Atrache (Syria/Lebanon) and Munir Bashir (Iraq). Their charms are not all that accessible to outsiders, those not immersed in the nuances of Middle Eastern music, but it's worth trying a few on for size, with the understanding that there must be something behind the popularity they enjoy(ed).

The technical quality of this recording of Farid el Atrache isn't very good, but it does allow us to appreciate audience response to his taxim. They applaud, they call out comments at the end of phrases, and clearly they hang on every virtuosic note, and appreciate the ornaments and flourishes.

Fard al-Atrash (1905-1974) found a way to create his own personal niche, his own claim to fame, in terms of taqsm performance. A movie star, singer and composer of phenomenal fame, as well as a virtuosic `d player, Fard would commonly sing only his own compositions. When composing his songs, he would compose the instrumental introduction (muqaddima) in such a way that he would give himself a lengthy `d taqsm within the muqaddima. After the taqsm, his ensemble would finish the muqaddima and he would then sing the vocal sections of his compositions. This format proved so successful that Fard al-Atrash soon came to be the single-most famous `d player in the Arab world, and more specifically, the most famous performer of `d taqsm. In time he came to be referred to as malik al-`d, i.e., "the king of the `d." ...One of the most interesting aspects of taqsm performance is the dynamic relationship that often exists between the performer and members of the audience. When someone in the audience likes a specific moment in a performance, he might call out any of a number of cliched words or phrases with which to show his appreciation ("Allah," "y habb," "y 'ayn" or simply the performer's name: "y Fard," i.e., Fard al-Atrash). The performer is thus encouraged and, ideally, moved to greater heights of creativity. Recordings of Fard al-Atrash's public performances are excellent examples of enthusiastic audience response. The above cited recording is no exception: wild cheers erupt with the initial phrase of his taqsm and reoccur frequently throughout the improvisation.

There are many much better oud players than el Atrache --among them the recently deceased Munir Bashir --but Farid el Atrache was a pop icon of almost the stature of Umm Koulthum or Fairuz.

The Yemenite Israeli singer Ofra Haza is an interesting case, and her death 5 years ago was a tragedy of national proportions in Israel. Her Yemenite Songs is reviewed interestingly on a Dartmouth Website, which notes that the opening track 'Im Nin Alu' "spent nine weeks at the top of German pop charts and two weeks as the number one song in Europe." Ofra Haza died of AIDS --and the 25 February entry of the blog Sha!


Music (as ideas and instruments) is a commodity that moves easily and adapts readily to new surroundings. Just why this is so isn't well understood, but surely has a lot to do with what musicians are all about: they're compulsive tinkerers and experimenters with sound, with their ears tuned to hear novelties. Musicians are cultural specialists, much in demand for certain events and ceremonies, but their powers are often viewed with suspicion and in many societies they are viewed as declass and disreputable: you wouldn't want your daughter to marry one.

Furthermore, we're dealing with a very large but rather indistinctly defined geographical area when we attempt to talk about "Middle Eastern Music". And the problem begins with the question: what's "the Middle East"? A map (of the world of Islam in 1500) is surely a help, but quickly gets us into controversies over boundaries, and into questions about identities within the lines.

There's a lot of variety within any of the component societies, always including minority peoples, and encapsulating a long and glorious history of waxing and waning of civilizations. Even for "Arabic" music, it's hazardous to make generalizations... and ever so much more so when we include Turkish and Persian (absolutely NOT "Arab") musical strains. But we have to leap in anyway. And it might be tempting to try for "Muslim music", but that too is fraught with difficulties: in some senses there is no "Islamic music"... there are no parallels to the liturgical music that is found pretty much throughout Christianity, and the cantillations of the Muslim Call to Prayer and Koranic recitation are explicitly not considered by Muslims to be 'music'. Indeed, music and musicians are regarded with considerable suspicion by Muslim orthodoxies; on the other hand, music has often thrived at Muslim courts, and certainly music plays a very important part in some of the woolier corners of Islamic heterodoxy --notably in many of the Sufi orders.

So there are many local folk traditions, entirely "oral" in their development and passage from generation to generation... and there are modern commercial music industries in each country. And each specific classical tradition has its own very sophisticated development of theory (Turkish and Persian and Arabic are quite different), and the details are pretty much beyond the sophistication and even the perception of the casual listener. We simply aren't attuned to the nuances that Middle Eastern musicians work with and Middle Eastern audiences appreciate.

So our practical qestion is: how to listen, and what to listen for, in Middle Eastern music? Simon Shaheen offers some advice:

some advice for those listening to Arab music for the first time: "Think with your voice when you listen to Arab music. It has a linear quality like the voice. Concentrate on its melodies, and listen to how they interact with the rhythm. Arab music is characterized by the use of quarter-tones, which lie between the half-steps of western music. They have a quality that you may not be able to hear at first. Don't think of them as out-of-tune notes. They are deliberate. The more you listen, the more you will begin to hear them and come to love them, for it is the quarter-tones which distinguish many beautiful maqams in Arabic music."
So we need some basic facts/generalizations about musics of the Middle East:

We need to think about the place of music in Middle Eastern societies. A primary function of music is as secular entertainment--always ambiguous. See the diatribe A Topic of Dispute in Islam: Music by Mustafa Sabri (1910)

Our religion has an exceptionally good view in any case, in discovering the hidden dangers which might be inherent in the sweetest and most pleasurable things... Firstly, music is a useless activity which in fact, is a state of passiveness... Secondly, the benefit and pleasure taken from music involves a meaning of deep slavery in passion. Since Islam is the only enemy of passiveness and slavery in passion, an important duty of Islam is to search their traces in unexpected hide-outs...
The acts of pure entertainment are considered low-level professions in the eyes of unpolluted human nature. You should not take seriously the applause and respect and perhaps requests given to the famous of these kinds of artists. Those who pay respects and make requests do not mind doing so, since they do it, in a way, taking away a crumb of honour from the artist, by hiding this loss from him. Likewise, a lot of respect is usually paid to some ladies in order to take sexual advantage of them...
During listening to music, people would not be doing anything for the good of humanity. They would cause, instead, a lot of money to change hands. And, in return for the money, what do these people get? Nothing!...
Before we finish the topic of music, let us add that, if the effect of music on feelings must indeed be an important need for the soul, the recitation of the Quran serves that need in a much more dignified way. This is also shown by the fact that harmonious recitation of the Quran is recommended in Islam. However, it should also be noted that a musical tune accompanying the recitation is not proper. In other words, a harmonious recitation is recommended in some hadiths of the prophet (pbuh), yet the scholars are against the musical recitation of the Quran.

There is also great popular fame connected with music, and there have been a number of superstars in the Middle Eastern firmament --among singers, Umm Koulthum (Egypt), Fairuz (Lebanon), Ofra Haza (Yemen/Israel); and among instrumentalists, Farid el Atrache (Syria/Lebanon) and Munir Bashir (Iraq). Their charms are not all that accessible to outsiders, those not immersed in the nuances of Middle Eastern music, but it's worth trying a few on for size, with the understanding that there must be something behind the popularity they enjoy(ed).

A lot of the texts of Middle Eastern music are poetic, and mostly pretty high-flown. There is an interesting tradition of social criticism, and sometimes it's even pretty topical, as in Nixon in Egypt (composed at the time of Nixon's 1974 visit). The tune seems to be that in the Umm Kulthm example! My translation (from the French version of the Arabic) is pretty ragged, but you can get a sense of its satiric favor from listening to the Arabic:
You've come, Papa Nixon
the Watergate Kid
They've given you heaps of honors
the exploiters of the people
They've paved the biggest road
from Ras El Tine to Mecca
So you can get to Acre
and make a pilgrimage
It's really a walking circus
Your benediction Parents of the Prophet.

The day of your arrival, your agents will prepare
A fine exorcism ceremony
With much wiggling of the whores, pederasts and creeps
and the chief demon in person
will possess the priestess
there will be a grand procession
following the cortege of spiders
creeping in order of importance
to be sure

Those who are invited have been told
come and eat bonbons and soft stuff
And because you're a bit naive
you're easy prey for us
you'll be bowed to and feted
Oh undesirable partner
I spit in your face
In the guise of benediction


How did I get into this Middle Eastern stuff? In 1949, for my 6th birthday, one of my brothers gave me a radio. I woke up early (stil do...) and, exploring the dial, found the Armenian Radio Hour at 6AM, on the low end of the dial. Loved it. This is THE music I listened to: Cifte Telli, Saba Taksim, Adalar, Nazli ...discovered again via a CD of radio transcriptions from the 40s and 50s (Armenians on 8th Avenue).