There is a great tradition of cultivating the arts in Arabic culture, particularly music, with its complex rhythmic and melodic modes. Traditional Arabic music engages the emotions of the Middle East with the same intensity that the great symphonies and string quartets engage Western musicians and audiences. And while at first it may seem overwhelming to those new to it, its spontaneous nature comes from a sense of inclusion and enjoyment.
It is, of course, impossible to talk about a single Arabic culture. It isn’t easy to characterise because it covers a wide range of lands, periods and genres. And of course, the traditional music of the Middle East has been influenced by all of these different cultures.
But what do ‘first-timers’ need to know to really start to appreciate this unique art form?
First of all, much Arabic music is based on scales or modes, and is characterised by an emphasis on melody and rhythm, as opposed to harmony as in the Western world. Furthermore, while there are some polyphonic genres of Arabic music, typically it is homophonic – one sound or line of melody that is played by multiple instruments at the same time.
The four main fundamentals of Arabic music can be defined as Scales, Intervals, Rhythm, and Texture.
Arabic music is played in scales called maqamat, which translates as ‘places’. It’s a term that comes from the singer’s place on the stage when singing for the ruler. Yet it is more than a scale: it has prefixed main notes, register, and the different motifs are emphasised. Sometimes, a particular tempo or metre is required too, as a result of the choice of maqamat.
In Arabic music, sound intervals are quarter-tones, as opposed to Western music, where a semitone is the smallest interval. This differentiation is why those not used to the music often think that the musicians are playing ‘off-key’.
Rhythm is highly developed in Arabic music, with some percussionists, for instance, combining different rhythms at the same time, creating variety and an impressive level of refinement.
Whereas Western music favours the development of harmony, Arabic music focuses on homophonic, playing of the same tune by all of the instruments, while ornamenting the original melody from time to time, independently.
Art, Pop, Rock and Jazz
Unlike the folk image that some people outside of the region have of Middle Eastern music, many works can be termed pure art music. Composers such as Abdel Wahab and Farid El Atrache have written pieces that are classics in their field: art music in every way, performed by large orchestras.
Popular music in the region derives from traditional music, using the same scales and rhythms of art music. Nowadays, though, many ensembles incorporate electronic instruments, such as synthesisers and keyboards, which can be tuned for performing in quarter-tones and traditional Middle Eastern rhythms. Within this sphere, there has been an increase in the popularity of Arabic R&B, reggae and hip-hop, which often features a rapper such as Ishtar in her song ‘Habibi Sawah’. However, some artists have taken to using full R&B and reggae beats, an approach that has enjoyed a mixed response. There are also a growing number of Arabic rock bands that fuse hard rock with traditional Arabic instruments, with bands such as Meen, Dabke and Jadal gaining a lot of media attention.
East meets West in Arabic Jazz, with early influences beginning with the use of saxophones by musicians like Samir Suroor in the ‘local’ style. The first mainstream jazz elements were incorporated into Arabic music by the Rahbani brothers; Lebanese composers, musicians, songwriters, authors and playwrights who are best known for their work with Lebanese singer Fairuz. They also launched the careers of artists who first worked as backup singers for Fairuz or acted in their musicals; many of them became major forces in the Arab music industry.
Yes, Arabic music is diverse, and those new to it may find it challenging to begin with. But repeated listening really does pay huge dividends. And once you’re hooked, you may consider visiting the leading music festival of the Arab world, which takes place every August (Covid-19 permitting) in the ancient city of Jaresh in Jordan, where it is possible to hear the greatest Arab musicians live on stage. If you get the chance, it’s an event not to be missed!