Feb 232011

By Mark D.

Because the Arabic world embodies such a broad collection of lands, languages and ethnic groups, Arabic sacred music has drawn on many diverse religious cultures, including the Jewish Pizmonim and Bagashot, as well as Coptic Christianity, and the Maronite, Greek and Syriac orthodox Christian orders.

Arabic Music and Islam

While each of the previously mentioned religious traditions has made an important contribution to Arabic religious music, it is fair to say that the dominant force in marking out appropriate ways of expressing the relationship to God has been Islamic worship.

Whirling dervish

The famous whirling dervishes of Turkey were banned for 30 years.

From Sufi invocations of the names of God (part of a series of worship customs known collectively as dhikr, though¬†distinct from Muslim Sunni dhikr, which is performed in silence), to strictly controlled recitations of Qur’anic passages and modern worship songs, the sacred in Arabic music takes many forms and represents a rich tapestry of devotional practices.

Firstly, and vitally, is the role of the human voice in musically interpreting core sacred texts. For many Muslims, as for the Christian Gregorians, the chanting Tibetan Buddhists, aboriginal Australian nations and, indeed, pervading cultures across the globe over millennia, the voice is considered a particularly direct channel for communicating with God.

Some Islamic traditions consider all music to be forbidden, while others restrict it to the use of certain instruments – and the human voice is the greatest of these. The human voice represents the unadorned expression of the soul in worship of God. As such, a large body of Islamic music is built around lyrical constructions of passages from the Qur’an.

Arabic Music for Private Worship

There is also an important distinction to be made between music that is performed in public, and that reserved for private worship.

Sufic Mevlevi ceremonies – the famous “Whirling Dervishes” – were banned by the Turkish government for thirty years from 1925, ¬†pushing them underground and encouraging the musical and dance traditions to be taught covertly at the expense of the traditional ethical teachings. In fact, the ecstatic dancing of the Mevlevi Sufis was considered a Turkish secular heritage, to be performed only publicly, until as recently as the 1990s.

Today, Sufis, Mevlevi and otherwise, sometimes perform ceremonial songs and other devotional music (and dance) in public, but while the atmosphere at these events might be called pious, the audience is not strictly participating in any formal service.

Conflicting renditions of the Prophet Muhammad’s position on music continue to encourage a varied, and often tense, cultural landscape, and while on the one hand this presents difficulties to establishing any meaningful sense of unity, it is also responsible for one of the world’s most kaleidoscopic artistic cultures.

Nov 162010

By Mark D.

Arabic music, like much of the world’s music, owes much to poetic tradition.

While little is known with certainty about the music of the pre-Islamic period (that is, before about 1,500 years ago), it is generally accepted that it developed from poetry that was recited with deliberate rhythmic meter, and with certain syllables and phrases emphasized by the pitch of the voice. These earliest songs were most likely stories adapted from the local oral traditions.

A Bedouin poetry recital in Egypt. Arabic music has its origins in traditional poetry.

A Bedouin poetry recital in Egypt. Arabic music has its origins in traditional poetry.

Origins of Arabic Music

By the ninth century, the Arabic world had entered what has come to be known as a cultural golden age. Political, economic and philosophical thought flourished, and the relatively stable peace helped to foster many important innovations in the arts as well. Much of the most important Arabic musical thought can be traced back to this period, and it was in this golden age that many of the stylistic qualities that still define Arabic music today were first described.

Despite the surging enlightenment of the times, singing was considered to be too undignified for the great intellectual poets of the era, and so it fell to slave girls to interpret their works in a musical way. Often playing simple instrumental accompaniments, these girls would entertain the wealthy, perform at wedding celebrations and motivate troops on the battlefield.

Although singing was deemed to be beneath the poets, music was highly valued in this time. Musically talented slaves are known to have fetched far higher prices than their less gifted peers, and professional musicians could earn a great deal of money during this period.

Exposure to Western Music

From about the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, sadly, written history about Arabic music in general, and singing in particular, is scarce. The main structures and forms had already been established, and the refinements made since then were been relatively minor. It was not until exposure to the Western world became more common, in the last 200 years, that the styles and techniques of Arabic song underwent any more drastic changes.

From classical through to jazz and, more recently, popular musics including rock and hip hop, the impact of Western vocal styles on Arabic music has been striking. The more mathematically consistent tuning system used in the west made harmonies possible.

As pioneering Arabic musicians began to absorb – and transform – more and more of these new ideas, the musical output of the Arabic world experienced a great groundswell of new and hybridized vocal styles – which continue to develop (and, increasingly, feed back into the West) to this day.

Oct 192008

By Mark D.

If there is one figure who has been vital to the development of Arabic music, it is ninth century scholar Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad Farabi – better known as Alpharabius or Al-Farabi.

While Al-Farabi is best known as a philosopher (he is remembered as The Second Teacher; the first was Aristotle), as well as a logician and political scientist, his contribution to musical thought is unrivalled in Arabic history. From his extensions of early Greek musical cosmology to the pure Arabian tone system that has remained dominant for a thousand years, Al-Farabi’s perspectives and teachings have heralded some of the most important developments in the entire history of Arabic music.

Abu Nasr Al-Farabi depicted on Kazakhstan currency.

Abu Nasr Al-Farabi depicted on Kazakhstan currency. His image can be found on currency of several nations.

Book of Great Music

Born in Faral, in what is now known as Othrar in Turkistan, in 872, Al-Farabi’s most notable treatise on music, called Kitab al-Musiqi al-Kabir (Book of Great Music), explores ideas such as the effect of music on the soul.

The Book of Great Music also established a number of philosophical principles and technical details that have helped to shape the way Arabic music is understood, performed and engaged with, ever since. In fact, it’s not fair to call the Kitab a book on Arabic music, as it is often considered in the modern Western world; it was intended primarily as a study of contemporary Persian music, but its insight was so penetrating, and its scope so comprehensive, that it has come to be considered the seminal text on Arabic music to this day.

Inventor of Musical Instruments

Al-Farabi is credited, perhaps apocryphally, with the invention of a number of important musical instruments including the five-stringed oud, the qanun and the rebab, an ancestor of the modern violin.

He believed that “(only) the maker of a musical instrument is greater than music itself because his work is an art of a higher level.” He was a master performer himself, although few reliable records remain to testify to just what he played, much less how.

In his technical writings he explored such fundamental, though by no means obvious, concepts as tunings, modes, rhythms, tetrachords and octave species.

Contributions to Music Philosophy

Despite his immense impact on the nuts and bolts of music theory and practice, though, Al-Farabi’s most influential legacies may have been his contributions to music philosophy. He laid the foundations for music as a therapeutic tool, and he described music in emotional, and psychological, terms in ways that had never been attempted before.

Al-Farabi’s perspectives on the relationship between music and the intangible human spirit were revolutionary, and have continued to inform the way we think about music for a thousand years since his death.