Jun 152011

By Mark D.

The word ‘maqam’ (the plural is ‘maqamat’) means place or location in Arabic, but the word is also used to describe a set of characteristics about how a piece of music should be played. Important notes, common musical phrases and the way a piece develops over time are all defined by the traditions embedded in the maqam chosen. Like the major and minor modes in Western classical music, for instance, each maqam tends to be associated with a certain mood or feeling.


Maqamat are built of smaller scale segments called ajnas (the singular, ‘jins,’ comes from the same Greek root as the English ‘genus,’ and has much the same meaning). Ajnas are recognisable sequences of three, four or five notes, and a maqam is built by combining a lower and an upper jins.

Sabah Fakhri, a renowned Syrian singer, known for his powerful voice, impeccable execution of Maqamat and harmony, and charismatic performances. Photo by Khalid Al-Masoud, at the Qurain Cultural Festival in Kuwait.

Sabah Fakhri, a renowned Syrian singer, known for his powerful voice, impeccable execution of Maqamat and harmony, and charismatic performances. Photo by Khalid Al-Masoud, at the Qurain Cultural Festival in Kuwait.

Maqamat are classified into families called fasilah according to the lower jins. As such, the most important note in a maqam will be the root note of the lower jins; the second most important, called the dominant note, is the root of the upper jins.

Sometimes the ajnas hinge at a common note, sometimes there is a small tonal gap, and sometimes they even overlap.

Modulation and Melody

As well as these two defining ajnas, a musician may also invoke one of several other compatible ajnas as the melody is developed. This process is called modulation, and it is a vital part of the improvisation that can make Arabic music so famously ecstatic to its audiences.

Melody is especially important in Arabic music, because the nuanced tonal system makes it difficult to utilise the kinds of pleasing harmonies so common in Western music.

Origin of the Maqamat

Maqamat have developed independently in various different parts of the Arabic world over many centuries. They are first mentioned in important fourteenth century writings by al-Sheikh al-Safadi and Abdulqadir al-Maraghi.

Because of this diverse heritage, and because individual notes in Arabic music may be made to sound subtly different depending on the context in which they are played, there is no agreed standard for understanding, or even defining, the maqamat.

As well as this, the challenges of notating pitches that don’t necessarily sound the same each time they are played, have helped ensure that, to this day, learning the intricacies of the maqamat means becoming familiar with a great body of traditional Arabic music.

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.

Sep 102007

I grew up in Davis, California, where my parents were graduate students recently arrived from Egypt. There was a large community of Egyptian students at U.C. Davis in those days, all doing graduate studies in agricultural sciences of some kind. Most were on scholarship from the Egyptian government and had very little money, and we were no exception.

We lived in the university housing for married students, near Putah Creek. I remember it as a place with immense green lawns and playgrounds, and huge deciduous trees that dropped piles of orange and red leaves in winter.

Listening to Arabic music on a reel to reel player

My parents had a Sony reel-to-reel player much like the one in the photograph above. They ordered it from Japan and it was designed to run on 110 or 220 electricity, so that they could take it with them when they went back to Egypt.

There was a radio station in Sacramento, about 30 minutes away across the river delta, that broadcast Arabic music once a week. My parents used to record those broadcasts on the reel-to-reel player.

I remember our small apartment often being filled with the sounds of Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, Farid Al-Atrash and Umm Kulthum. All the legendary singers of the day. To me that music was not “Arabic music,” it was just music.

Later, as I grew up and entered my teens, I got caught up in the American music scene. I began exploring the world of rock n’ roll in earnest, becoming a real fan of Led Zeppelin (who wasn’t?), Rush, Boston and others. As I got older my tastes broadened to include blues, jazz, and even some techno.

A curious thing happened as I hit my mid-thirties, however. I began to reconnect with my roots, and I realized that I deeply missed the rhythms and flavors of Arabic music. Whenever I’d be in a restaurant or shop and happened to hear Arabic music playing, my hands would immediately start drumming, and my soul would stand up and dance.

So I returned to my roots, delving back into Arabic music in all its permutations, and starting this blog to explore Arabic music in more detail.

My parents still have that reel-to-reel player in some corner of the garage, but now they get their Arabic music fix from Arabic satellite TV, along with news, films and plays. The means of delivery might change, but the essence of our culture stays with us, no matter where we go.

What about you? Did you grow up listening to Arabic music, or come to it later in life? Do you have any fond childhood memories of listening to Arabic music? Feel free to share your thoughts.

Jul 272007

A traditional Arab wedding

Music and Songs for Arabic Weddings

Arabic weddings are often accompanied by very traditional or religious style music, often with dancing as well, such as the dabkah, a typical Arab folk dance that is practiced in many countries, with only slight variations. In the dabkah, the men generally drape their arms over one another’s shoulders and dance in a pattern.

Wedding songs and dances are often accompanied by the women’s “Zaghareet” or ululations, the cries of joy that Arab women make during weddings and other happy occasions. A Zaghroutah (the singular of Zaghareet) is a sharp and crisp sound, which expresses loudly a happy wish for an individual or groups. Each Arab country and indeed each region has its own style of zaghroutah.

A Traditional Palestinian Wedding Song

One type of traditional wedding song is al-zaffeh, in which the friends and family of the bride and groom clap and chant various phrases which praise the character of the bride and groom. The singers speak directly to the groom and bride. They tell the groom how lucky he is to be wedding this particular bride, and they tell the bride how happy she will be with this groom. At some point, those participating in al-zaffeh sing in two groups where one group sings a phrase and the other answers by repeating the phrase or starts a new phrase.

In one Palestinian zaffah, the singers chant the following phrases:

  1. First stanza:
    “Areesna zein el-shabab, zein el-shabab areesna.”
    Our bridegroom is the best of youth, the best of youth is our bridegroom.
  2. Second stanza:
    “Areesna ‘Antar ‘Abs, ‘Antar ‘Abs Areesna.”
    Our bridegroom is ‘Antar ‘Abs, ‘Antar ‘Abs is our bridegroom.
    (‘Antar ‘Abs is the tribal hero of Arab folklore love story, who falls madly in love with his maiden Leila and saves her from the brink of disaster when she is kidnapped from her desert tent palace by a raiding enemy party).
  3. Third stanza (translation only):
    The sun which is in the sky, know that we have a bridegroom on our earth today.
  4. Fourth stanza (translation only):
    Our bridegroom is the sun of the dawn, he asked the bride’s hand and wasn’t shy.

Popular Arabic Wedding Songs

Some popular contemporary Arabic wedding songs are:

  • “Amarain (Two Moons)” by Hasan el-Asmar.
  • “Bader” by Rashid Al Majed – This song starts out with a lot of celebratory ululating, then calls for peace and blessings on the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), then follows with a cheerfully dramatic religious harmony. While the content is admirable, I find the song to be a little too overwrought, and at almost twelve minutes in length, a bit wearying.
  • “Hab il sa3ad” by Fatooma – Fatooma is a popular Kuwaiti singer.
  • “Alzaffah” by Rashid Al Majed.
  • “Mabrook” by Yousef.
  • “Etmakhtari Ya Helwa Ya Zena (Walk With A Graceful Swinging Gait, O Beautiful, O Pretty One)”. This song is a zaffeh, which is a song used for a wedding procession.
  • I also found a clip on Salmiya.net. It’s an Arabic wedding song sung to the tune of a traditional English-language wedding march. I don’t really care for this kind of thing, but I know for some it might be just what you’re looking for. You can listen to it by clicking here.
  • On Anasheed.com I found this page of Arabic wedding nasheeds, which are Islamic-style songs, sung without musical accompaniment (except sometimes a drum). These come from all over the Arab world. See them here.
  • Someone on the Maroko forums posted this list of forty Arabic wedding songs, unfortunately without links, but you may be able to find them by searching the individual artists:01- Cliff Richards – Congratulations
    02 Mohamad Hejazy – Zefou El3arous Zefouha
    03 Rami Ayash – Mabrouk
    04 Nohad Tarabay – Zaffet El 3arouss
    05 Zaffeh – Wedding Music
    06 Jalal El Hamdaoui – Mabrouk 3aleik Ya 3ariss
    07 Shafik Kabah – Jina w Jina
    08 Samir Hanna – El Layil Ya Weily
    09 Fares Karam – El 3eres
    10 Assi El Hellany – Far7etna El Kbire
    11 Rabih El Khawly – Nwena 3al Jazy
    12 Samir Hanna – Ya Emmy Khalast Drousi
    13 Shik Shak Shok – Belly Dancing
    14 Maya Yazbeck – Habibe Ya 3einy
    15 Darbouka Remix 2omi Ta Nor2os
    16 Fares Karam – Megamix
    17 Mohamad Hejazy – 7obak Ya Wala
    18 Tony Kiwan – Lebanese Dabkeh Mixed
    19 Tony Kiwan – Badik Badik Ma Badik
    20 Hasna – Bein El 3aser
    21 Nancy Ajram – Ah w Noss
    22 Fares Karam – El Tanoura
    23 Nourhan – Habibi Ya 3einy
    24 Wael Kfoury – Ma W3adtik Be Njoum El Leil
    25 Fares Karam – Ma Be23od Balaky
    26 Sami Clarck – 2omi Ta Nor2os
    27 Toni Kiwan – Habibi Ya Mama
    28 Zein El Omr – 3ayel Many 3ayel
    29 Fares Karam – Mahdoumeh
    30 Fadi – Zeina Remix
    31 Samir Hanna – Haysa w Dabke
    32 Zafet El Iskandarany
    33 Dabkat Beqa3iya – Laq3adlak
    34 Assi El Hellany – El Hawara
    35 Assi El Hellany – Haddeli
    36 Assi El Hellany – Hawara_3
    37 Fahed Akiki – Meli Be Khasrek
    38 Dabkeh – Wa3adtina
    39 Dabkeh – Zeyanol Sa7a
    40 Dabkeh – Zaffet El 3ariss

Arabic Wedding Music Online

Smithsonian Global Sound (http://www.smithsonianglobalsound.org) offers a CD titled “Arab Wedding Music”, by unknown artists. It’s very traditional, catchy stuff, sounding like Bedouin music with its simple beats and melodies. They have another album, titled “Arabic and Druse Music,” that features a wedding song as well. Once again, it’s very traditional, with an active, reedy-sounding flute accompanied by men clapping and singing.

Amazon.com carries an album called, “Zaghareed: Music From The Palestinian Holy Land.” This is the only album composed purely of traditional Arab wedding music that I have found available online. The Amazon editorial review says about this album,

“Zaghareed is a concept album based on the music played during a traditional wedding ceremony. It subtly challenges the traditions of arranged marriages and of the woman’s place in society, within a context of beautifully played Arabic music. Instrumental pieces feature qanun, oud, buzuq, flutes, and reed instruments, and various percussion. The vocal songs join the voices of women and men, at times singing in contrast to one another, at others raising their voices in unity, celebration, and perseverance.”

One blogger describes this album as, “Probably the best reproduction of traditional mediterranean arab wedding music to be released commercially. Yep, the palestinians have taken the cake/hareeseh. Gorgeous vocal and musical arrangements. I’ve read too many accounts that say Arabic music contains no harmony. Oh my children, how wrong you are.”

After reading the glowing reviews of this compilation of traditional Arabic wedding music, I ordered the CD. I’ll write my own review after I’ve listened to it.