The Oud
The Arabic Tonal System
The Maqam, the Modes of Arabic Expression
Musical Forms
The Taqasim
The Drum
The Rhythm
Cultural Assimilation
The Birth of the Contemporary age
About the Dance

The Oud:

OudAncestor and inspiration for such instruments as the European Lute and the Modern Guitar, the Oud is a magical instrument who’s roots can be traced back to ancient times. It’s design has gone through many evolutionary changes throughout the ages, and continues to evolve to this day. There are many types of Oud, the styles, designs and sound may vary from region to region, but essentially, it is a pear-shaped Lute consisting of generally anywhere from 11 to 13 strings. Either 5 or 6 courses of doubled strings and most often 1 bass string. The Oud can be found throughout the entire Middle-East and is popular even in such countries as Greece and Armenia as well.

For most Arabs and many Türks, the Oud is considered the King of the Instruments, for essentially all forms of musical styles and concepts may be expressed through the sound. He may sound soothing and gentle, or bold and dynamic. As the word Oud (m) suggests (wood) the wood used in his construction is an essential part to the sound. Many types of woods are used for the Ouds construction, commonly 2-3 different types of wood per instrument, but more types may be used depending on the builder. In the Arab world, you may generally find the bowl, neck and pegs made of one or more of the following, Balsander (Rosewood) Joz (Walnut) or Maple. Cedar is most common for the top of his surface, but both Spruce and Mahogany have also been used. The marking differences among Arabic and Türk Ouds, aside from the shape of the bowl, would be tuning preferences and string length.

To achieve a specific desired tone for the player requires not only a knowledge of the characteristics of each wood, but also the level of skill and artistry of the builder. Other factors essential to the Ouds sound include the age of the wood, how many or how few different types of woods are used and the consistency of each woods grain, and certainly the bracing and finishing processes as well. It is also disputed among some that the amount of ‘decorations’ such as fancy designs of mother of pearl and/or any other elements that are not wood change or effect his sound sound. Today, more and more Ouds are being made with little or no mother of pearl or abalone designs in order to achieve a more “pure” and natural sound of the wood. Let’s not forget, the players technique also accounts for a large portion of how the sound is perceived.

The Strings of the Oud today are most commonly made of nylon or fluorocarbon with the larger strings being either silver or copper wound. In past centuries, Oud strings have been found to be made of either an animal gut (for lower quality strings) and silver, copper or nickel infused on finely weaved silk threads for the professional. Originally, the Oud came with only four strings, each string representing the four body humors of ancient medicine, blood, the two biles and phlegm. Ziryab added a fifth string in the center and referred it to the soul, therefore completing the essence of the human being within the instrument. Today, these five courses are doubled and most often a single sixth ‘bass’ string is added. There are also players who prefer today’s seven course Ouds. The scale and string length of the instrument may vary, and although in the past these characteristics may have been attributed more to regional differences, some cultural assimilation may be seen in the works of builders all over the Middle-East.

The Arabic Tonal System:

Because the Oud is a fretless instrument, the player has access to a much larger number of notes and tonal qualities rarely used in musical forms found outside the middle-east. The Occidental musical scale, or Western chromatic scale has developed through the dividing of an octave into twelve notes, each of equal distance from one another. (C-C#-D-Eb-E-F-F#-G-Ab-A-Bb-B) For this reason, Occidental instruments such as the Piano or fretted Guitar are commonly referred to as “equally tempered” instruments. The Arab scholar Al Farabi (ca.950) developed a unique tonal system, similar to that of the Persians which divided the octave into 24 intervals, but with uniquely Arabic qualities. (C-(C- ¼ sharp)(C-½ sharp) -C#-(D-½ flat)-D-Eb-(E-¾ flat)(E-½ flat)-E-F-(F ¼ sharp)(F-½ sharp)-F#-(G-½ flat)-G-Ab-(A ¾ flat)(A-½ flat)-A-Bb-(B-¾ flat)(B-½ flat)-B) However modern pragmatic usage of the ¾ tones is generally left to the players discretion, unlike the Arabic Quarter tones, half-flats and half-sharps) which are treated with relatively the same value as the sharps and flats, meaning that they are just as essential to the music as any other note. Within the Arabic modal scales (Maqam) your commonly occurring quarter-tones are E ½ flat, B ½ flat, A ½ flat, C ½ sharp and F ½ sharp. G and D half flat occur in the common scales primarily upon transposition and the ¾ micro-tones are generally left to the players discretion, but in some cases may be used to replace entire notes all together. An example of this can be seen in the Hijaz scale, and it’s related family members. The Eb should be raised a bit while the F# is lowered, squeezing the two notes closer to one another.

Approximately 1000 years prior to Al Farabi, the Chinese scholar, Ching Feng had developed a system which divided the octave into fifty-three total intervals. The value of such concept is applied to Arabic and Turkish Koma theory, which also represents the octave in three-three parts. You may think of a Koma as one of either 9 or 4 small intervals groupings between each note. Whole steps are given 9 intervals while half steps are given 4. So within the octave you have five whole steps and two half steps, 9 x 5 = 45 + 4 + 4 = 53. One of the benefits of having these micro-intervals allows the player to either raise or lower a note by one or more Coma to “heighten” the ecstatic mood of a passage at particular moment. In some cases, as mentioned in the case of Hijaz, or better yet, the case of Maqam Aqd Al Mukhlalaf, a peculiar pentachord scale that, according to 8th century scholar, Ibrahim Al Mahdi, is a scale unique to Iraq, the final note is lowered by a Koma. On some occasions, an entire scale may be raised or lowered by one or more Koma. I find this to be especially common in the sort of lively folkloric stylings defined by the split and/or double-reed instruments such as Mizmar, Argoul, Zurna, Mizoud and Mijwiz. With many of these more folkloric stylings, such as the Belede1 styles of the Saiid2, it is common to feature usually a single melodic instrument, commonly the Mizmar or Rebaba (2-stringed upright folk violin of Egypt tuned D-G, not to be confused with ‘Zither-like’ Afghan Rebab2.5) with the percussion to accompany the singer. It is not uncommon for musicians of other instruments like the Oud or Violin, when performing some folkloric pieces common to those instruments, to raise and lower tones in this way in order to give the music it’s familiar feel. This is one of the many special characteristics of Arabic music that makes it so unique.

The Maqam, the Modes of Arabic Expression:

As mentioned, the Arabic scale can be expressed in virtually hundreds of different modes. This sort of mode is called a Maqam (Maqamat; Arabic Pluralization and Makamlari plural in Turkish) It is the Maqam which sets the mood for the music. Studies have been conducted in the Middle-East regarding how the sound of each Maqam when played effects the listener emotionally. Some Maqamat may be used to express feelings of joy or love while others for longing or sadness. Some Maqamat have even been known to invoke visions of landscapes or exotic places. While the different Maqamat may invoke or express entirely different moods from each other, many often contain similar intervals, allowing for smooth transitions when modulating (transitioning from one Maqam to another) in order to take the listener on a journey both imaginative and emotional. A classic example is the usage of Maqam Bayati with Maqam Saba, which depending on their usage and development, could possibly take the listener on an emotional ride parallel to the ever changing elements of life and nature within a single breath.

*There are different viewpoints about modulation in Arabic music, primarily when concerning the subject of Taqasim. (see next section on Taqasim)

Musical Forms:

There exist within the Middle-East many different musical forms. Some of the classic forms may date back beyond the 9th and 10th centuries and are still common to this day, such as Muwashah and its associates, the Semaii and the Bashraf. Prior to these periods very little is known. There are texts, as by scholars like Ziryab, Ibrahim al Mahdi, Ishaq al Mawsili, Al Kindi and Al Farbi, that give us an idea of the music, but because conventional notation was unknown to Arab culture at the time, the vast majority of music of these times did not survive through oral tradition as did many of the later styles. Aside from the more classical forms, the music of the Middle-East contains an extraordinarily large number of folkloric styles, remembering that each country has within itself a number of regions, each with it’s own respective series of cultures. Each culture with it’s own set of traditions, beliefs and rituals, many of which have a corresponding musical style used for a specific function. From harvest ceremonies to weddings, coming of age celebrations to burial rituals and even exorcisms, each tradition having it’s own musical design. A considerable number of which have found their way into mainstream urban pop culture, or have evolved into other styles entirely.

The Taqasim:

3Taqasim is essentially an improvised piece of music performed by a soloist. The word “Ertejal” in Arabic or “Ertegal” in Egyptian and Yemeni dialects, means improvisation, so maybe we could think of the word Taqasim as “the Art of Improvisation.” It is within the Taqsim that the player has the liberty to express themselves in the manor that they choose, speaking directly to the listener simply with melody. The effect is meditative and trance-inducing, therefore it is essential for the listener to respond only by stillness and listening. Comments (including those of praise), chatter and otherwise distracting activities are considered disrespectful to the artist and the other listeners and break the “trance”.

Taqasim, like all other musical forms is a precise art. The effectiveness of the Taqasim depends on the players ability to convey a mood or moods not only with the use of the Maqam or Maqamat, but also and equally important are such dynamics as intensity and volume control, pitch and technique. The notes of a Taqasim are presented in groupings known as the Qaflat (pl.) A Qafla may consist of as few as 3 to 4 notes and up to as many as the player needs to finish the musical phrase, followed by a brief pause before introducing the next Qafla. The word Qafl would denote the players ‘cadencing’.

The structure of the Taqasim is centered around the Maqam and may be summarized in three basic stages. The first stage the soloist reveals to the listener what Maqam is being used. The soloist then must develop the Maqam, give it shape and character. The final stage is where the soloist brings the Maqam to it’s climax, heightening the mood of the piece to it’s fullest potential. In the instance the player chooses to modulate from one Maqam to another during a Taqasim, they must do so very gracefully so as to not break the listener from trance. Many of the old masters have frowned on modulation all together for this very reason, regardless of the players elegance. It has been quoted by some that if the player must modulate, then they must only expose the new Maqam briefly without developing it, and returning tactfully soon to the original Maqam of the piece.

On a few occasions, a Taqsim may be accompanied by one or more additional instruments, this generally would take place within a segment of a song. In this instance, melodic instruments may either maintain a sort of “drone” sound by holding simply a single note such as the “Qarar” or Tonic note, or repeat a small number of notes in a rhythmic format, generally on the Qarar and “Ghammaz” (sub-dominant) allowing the Taqasim to move about freely within the key of the Maqam.

An effective Taqasim is a form of “sanctuary” in which the player may achieve total peace, decorating the silence and stillness of the environment with colours and imagery. For the Oud, Taqasim starts with the purity of nature in the form of sound. We hear the breath of life swell within the wood of the instrument which takes shape and forms speech through tonality, deep within the smallest grain of the wood and gaining vibratic momentum as it travels the body of the instrument until projecting itself outward, all within the first note. It is from there, the players soul is carried out into the air on a magic carpet of sound flowing in waves, inducing the listener in meditative trance.

The Drum

drumThere are many different types of percussion instruments common throughout the Middle-East. Perhaps the oldest being any one of a number of different frame drums, commonly referred to as Doff, Daff, Bendir and Tar. (Tar is not to be confused with the Iranian stringed instrument of the same name) Within the frame drum family also is what Arabs call Riqq and Türks call Tef, which is generally a smaller sort of frame drum with many little metal cymbals on it’s edge, much like a Tambourine. In more recent history, we have seen the development of a few different “goblet-shaped” drums as well. (recent meaning within the past 900-1000 years, which may not seem recent to some, but considering how long humans have been playing drums, its pretty recent.) The oldest known of this family is thought by many to be the Persian Tonbak, which has been traced as far back as the Sessemid period. The Tonbak is a wooden goblet-shaped drum with a hyde skin that sits horizontal on the players lap, and seems to be the apparent ancestor to the modern Arabic and Türkish goblet-shaped drums. (modern meaning perhaps within the past 3 or 4 centuries)

The modern Arabic and Türkish drums, which many in North America refer to for some reason as “Doumbek” like most instruments, has mysterious origins. Originally made of ceramics with animal skins, the drum became known in much of the Arab world as Darbekke or in Türkey, Darbuka. Such names for this drum stem from the Persian root word “Darb” which basically means “to strike” something…In Egypt, the Drum is referred to as Tabla (f). Again, believed to be a word of Persian origin pertaining to the nature of a surface, (like the world Table in English perhaps?) This of course not to be confused with the Indian Tablas, an instrument stated to be developed in India by Iranian Percussionist Amir Khusrau Delhavi some 300 years ago.

The Darbuka, Derbake or Egyptian Tabla4 (the name depending basically on your preference or culture) has seen her share of evolutionary advancements in both design and playing technique. As stated before, she is a goblet-shaped drum which sits horizontal on the players lap. The early drums were all of ceramic or fired clay with animal skins for the playing surface. Lesser quality drums would use Goat or Mule skins. The higher quality drums often used fish skin, most commonly being either Sting-Ray or Nile Sturgeon, due to the smooth nature of these fishes skins. The skins were soaked after cured to make them soft, then fastened around the wider extremity of the drums mouth with an epoxy resin along with an intricate lacing technique then allowed to dry. The drum then could be tuned by applying heat to the surface. A heating pad could be made to sit on the drum head to absorb moisture and combat humidity in order to maintain the drums character. These Ceramic drums are still popular today, and generally a light bulb is inserted inside the drum to maintain the tone as opposed to or in addition to the heating pad. Within very recent times, the rise of aluminum casted drums with tunable plastic heads have gained extraordinary popularity due to their durability and convenience for the professional musician, but many still prefer the classic sound of fish skin and clay.

The enigmatic Egyptian Tabla is unique to any other drum in the world, for she is simple in design, yet rich with a seemingly endless range of tones and sounds. The Egyptian approach to this instrument is as delicate as it is strong, passionate and emotional, yet defined by finesse and grace. As once stated by Egyptian percussion master, Gamal Goma, One does not “beat” her, instead, the concept is to “make love” to her. Virtually any professional Tabbal (Tabla Player) would concur, for the Tabla should be treated always as a precision instrument comparable to that of a violin rather than a mere “hand-drum”. The Egyptian Tabla has known many masters over the ages and has given light to many techniques and approaches in terms of how it fits with the music. Within just the past few decades we have even seen a rise in popularity in the art form of Tabla Solo, or essentially, a drum solo designed primarily for a dancers movement. A Tabla Solo may be improvised or pre-orchestrated. If it is improvised, both Tabbal and Dancer must be aware of the provisions for this art form so that the dancer may represent the sounds accurately and within time, and that the Tabbal can play appropriate passages for the dancer to follow.

The Rhythm:

Rhythmic structures throughout the Middle-East are vast and diverse. Almost every region of the Middle-East has its own array of rhythms which define not only the music and culture of the region, but the entire shape and quality of the sound and feel of the music as well. There are a multitude of rhythms that are shared throughout the Arab World and a few of these extend as far as the Oriental parts of Türkey, Armenia and Greece as well, just as there are rhythmic concepts of Anatolia and other Oriental cultures that have through time, found a home in the Arab world. It would be difficult to try and estimate an accurate number of total rhythms within the Middle-East. Throughout the ages, the regions have seen multiple rhythmic concepts evolve, change shape and even go extinct. During the Arab middle-ages, theorists such as Al Farabi wrote extensively on rhythmic concepts, many of the designs can be identified readily for they are still in use to this day, but there are still a great number where modern age scholars can only speculate their design, only to draw the conclusion that such patterns are no longer in use and have become lost in time. Much of the music of the Arab classic period followed either long or short cycles, shorter patterns counted on 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, 5’s, 6’s, 7’s, 8’s, 9’s and 10’s, and longer patterns extending anywhere from 11’s to 36’s and beyond. There’s even mention of a Syrian 93 beat cycle.

A great deal of these classical rhythms have survived and are still in use today, but the most popular seem to be the shorter cycle patterns, generally the sort seen in the Arabic folk cultures. Many of the folkloric rhythmic styles within the Middle-East, for the most part remained in their respective place of origin. However, Middle-Eastern music is no stranger to cultural assimilation.

Cultural Assimilation:

During the Arabic Classic Periods and Middle-Ages, cultural assimilation of musical ideology can be largely attributed to the expansion of dynasties such as the Umayyad, Abbasid, Sessimid and Fatimid and the construction of musical conservatories, where artists traveled great distances to go and study. When the Abbasid drove the Umayyad from Damascus (ca.700) the Umayyad settled in present day Spain, which later gave light to the Ziryab musical conservatory, not long after the artists expulsion from Baghdad by his master, Ishaq al Mawsili. The expulsion was due largely in part to Ziryab’s fondness for cultural assimilation of music and the inclusion of foreign modes, as those seen in Persian and Türkish culture. Cultural assimilations popularized mainly by Ibrahim al Mahdi, Mawsili’s rival. Recent cultural assimilations as well can be attributed to such Artists as 20th century Egyptian Composers and Arrangers Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Baligh Hamdi, Ryad Al Sounbaty and Ahmed Fouad Hassan, just to name a few. During this time period, it was becoming common to construct music using multiple rhythmic concepts and to great length and complexity even. Much of these rhythms stemmed from the folk and/or traditional rhythmic structures of Egypt, but were not limited to include even some rhythmic concepts from such regions as Türkey, Iran, Morocco the Levant and the Khalig (Persian Gulf).

The Birth of the Contemporary age:

In addition to such cultural rhythmic fusions, even western musical concepts would sneak their way into the compositions. During a music convention of 1932 in Cairo, Arab scholars met with western composers and scholars to address issues such as tonality, intonation and the nature of instruments, for there was a considerable number of Arab music scholars who felt that Arabic music was behind the Occidental styles in these ways. Yet for some Arab scholars, the Westernization was seen as a “corruption” of Arab music and that many of these Arab composers with a fondness to Western orchestration were loosing touch with their Arab identity and cultural heritage. Nevertheless, Arab Music soon began to include such foreign ideals as Western stringed instruments and their arrangements, harmony in terms of occasional usage of “accordage” on such instruments as Organs, Accordions and even Guitars. One instrument in particular, the Accordion, had been modified to play the Arabic quarter tones, but still considered an equal-tempered instrument for its inability to raise and lower the tones to accurately represent the Arabic tonal system. Because of this, the entire orchestration of the music had to adapt to this limitation, further distancing Arab music from its unique identity and causing much unrest with a great deal of scholars. There were however ways around this, as seen in the individual performances of the soloist. Although orchestrations may have seen a share of limitations, such artists as the legendary icon of Egyptian voice, Oum Kalthoum, possessed a profound knowledge of the Arabic Maqamat and its respective tonal system. She was able to execute the traditional manor on the voice and maintaining power, emotion and musical virtuosity during entire performances, many of which to a single piece of music with a duration somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour or more. The composers I had mentioned before, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Baligh Hamdi, Ryad Al Sounbaty and Ahmed Fouad Hassan were a few of the common masterminds behind her music, which was complex yet pure. These songs were rich with a varied number of Maqamat, rhythmic combinations and time signature changes. It goes without saying that vocal legends like Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez, as well as their brilliant composers, arrangers and musicians, have made an enormous and indispensable contribution to the evolution of Arabic and Middle-Eastern Music as we know it today.

About the Dance

Just as there are many different rhythms and musical forms within the Middle-East, there are many forms of dance as well. A multitude of traditional and folkloric dances are seen in virtually every region, but perhaps when most of the world thinks of Middle-Eastern dance culture, the general consensus seems to be “Belly Dance”, but what is Belly Dance and where exactly does it come from? This is a very common question and the topic is commonly debated amongst many to this day. Granted, there are many valid and informative essays on the topic, yet none are able to provide a precise or simple answer. This is due to the fact that “Belly Dance” as we know it, is a result of a multitude of diverse cultural dance styles in evolution over the span of countless ages. It is also important for one to realize that the term itself can be vague and “generalizing” as is the manor in which the dance is occasionally portrayed. The term “Belly Dance” is a literal translation of the French “Dans Du Ventre”, a term coined in recent centuries used to generalize the overall appearance of many of the dance forms of the Middle-East in order to simplify such in way that is readily presentable to the Occidental world. Essentially, it is believed that a large portion of what the Occident was limited and/or privilege to was already a result of certain “cultural fusions” in addition to the occasional traditional and folkloric dances. This of course depended on when and where exactly the Occidental viewer happened to be upon such demonstrations.

As previously stated, there are a multitude of dance styles, not just amongst the different individual folkloric styles, but also within the “Belly Dance” genre as well. Many of which are in fact an offshoot and/or representation of traditional folkloric styles. A common expression used amongst these forms within the Arab World is Raqs Sharqi, literally meaning Oriental Dance, however other more definitive terms may be used as well in order to denote a more specific style, for example, Raqs Beledi, Raqs Saiidi and Raqs Khaligi just to name a few. The art is also very popular in Turkey, where it is commonly referred to as “Gobek Havasi” literally meaning “Belly Dance”.

It has become common for many professional dancers today to have a knowledge of various styles of “Raqs Sharqi” for the purpose of ‘Belly Dance’. Stylistic diversity is generally thought of as a desirable trait for many dancers, provided that she pays careful attention to detail within each style and does not mis-represent any culture or category. An experienced dancer may choose a repertoire consisting of any one or more of the following exemplary styles, Folkloric, Cabaret, Classical, Taqsim, and even Drum Solo. Such may be used to give the presentation as a whole a more diverse and dynamic appeal.

Despite however the dancers diversity or stylistic preference, it is essential that she represent only the music and nothing else. This is fundamental for the dancer of a “higher-class” of standards. A common mis-conception of Belly Dance for many is that it is an outward display of a woman’s sexuality. This mis-conception may be attributed to a number of factors non-conducive to the art, one being perhaps an onslaught of uneducated dancers, primarily within the Occident. Let’s not forget as well, that even within certain traditional settings, the evolution of this dance form has seen its share of polemical debate, not just amongst certain religious communities, but within it’s social standing as well. The idea of a woman performing an art professionally is not always readily acceptable, even female singers and musicians have been met with strong discouragement in many cases. Perhaps this could be attributed to the role associated with some female performance artists throughout history, stretching as far back as the Jahiliya period and somehow carrying on to more recent times. Another example of this mis-conception may stem from the spectator and their viewpoint of the art itself. Perhaps the most detrimental to the art is the unfortunate combination of a poorly educated and/or ostentatious dance artist before an audience member with an already pre-conceived and derogatory notion of the art.

By today’s standard, the general consensus of professional dance artists is that the true essence of the woman is most accurately portrayed through artistic representation of the music. More personal attributes of the individual dancer such as charm and charisma will radiate freely and naturally within this design, and should never be “forced”. It is within this that music and dancer are as one, to stray from this can create division between the music and the dancer. Any form of sensuality generated is consequential, bearing in mind the profound difference between sensuality and sexuality. If by chance this sort of “higher-class” performance be mistaken for a display of outright sexuality, then it is the fault of the spectator and not the artist.

The unity amongst Music and Dancer is fundamental. Just as the music may take many forms and express many moods and ideals, the dancers role is to exemplify these moods by giving “shape” and dimension to the sound. The environment is her canvas, her familiarity with the music and the components in which the music is structured upon are her tools, the style is her medium and the notes are her colours. With these elements, her skill, creativity and passion paint us a picture of how the music “looks” and “feels”. Therefore, to put it simply, if both the music and dancer are good, there is substance, which is an essential element for defining any art. It is with this element that the nature of the soul becomes less abstract, expanding it to its natural, more universal state. A state which dissolves all barriers, boundaries and material elements that divide us as a species.