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.

Apr 032008

Amr DiabCharismatic, striking, and immensely talented, Amr Diab is considered one of the Arab world’s most popular singer-songwriters of all time. Diab has been producing albums since 1983, and achieved worldwide fame in 1988 with his wildly successful album Mayaal (Susceptible).

Since that time, his fame and artistic output has continued unabated, enchanting fans throughout the Middle East, Europe, and South America. His music blends Western rhythms with Middle Eastern styles, and is often referred to as “Mediterranean Music.”

Amr Diab’s Early Life and Career

Diab was born Amr Abdel Basset Abdel Azeez on October 11, 1961 in Port Said, Egypt. He inherited his singing ability from his father, a porter for the Suez Canal Corporation, who also possessed a notable singing voice. He encouraged his son to dance and sing at street festivals at a very young age.

Diab’s first performance took place on July 23, 1967 at the Festival of Port Said, where he visited the local broadcasting station and sang the Egyptian national anthem, “Biladi, Biladi, Biladi.” His efforts were noted by the Governor of Port Said, who awarded him a guitar.

After Diab graduated from primary school in 1982, he is admitted to the High College for Arabic Music. A year later, he released his very first album, Ya Tareeq. While the album was not particularly successful, it marked his entry into the music business. Diab persisted, however, and produced three more albums between 1984 and 1987: Ghanny Men Albak (Sing from your Heart), Hala Hala (Welcome), and Khalseen (We’re Even). Amidst all of this creative activity, he graduated from the Cairo Academy of Art in 1986.

Launched Into Fame and Film

In 1988 Diab releases his album Mayaal, which propels him into stardom practically overnight. That same year, he launched his film career, starring in the movie El Saginatean (Two Prisoners) alongside Elham Shaheen and Youssef Shaaban. Two years later, he starred in the movie El Aafareet and became the first Arab artist to make a music video. In 1992, Diab starred in Ice Cream Fi Gleem, and the movie soundtrack was released later that year. He then played opposite internationally recognized actor Omar Sharif in Deahk We La’ab (Laughter and Fun), which made its debut at the 1993 Egyptian Film Festival.

Amr Diab’s Music from 1991 – 1999

The 1990’s saw Diab continuing his prolific recording career in tandem with his acting. From 1991 to 1995, he released six more albums in addition to the Ice Cream Fi Gleem soundtrack: Habibi (My Love), Ayyamna (Our Days), Ya Omrena (Our Life), Weylomony (And They Blame Me), Zekrayat (Memories), and Ragaeen (We’ll be Back).

In 1996, Diab released his watershed album Nour El Ain (Light of the Eyesight). Sales of this album reached Triple Platinum and became the best selling album ever produced by an Arab artist. The album’s title track “Nour El Ain” was a hit all over the world, from South America to India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and was remixed for dance floors all over Europe. “Nour El Ain” was also a featured song for the Brazilian telenovela O Clone. The success of Nour El Ain earned Diab awards for Best Video, Best Song, and Artist of the Year at the 1997 Annual Arabic Festival, and he became the first Egyptian recipient of a World Music Award in 1998.

His 1998 follow-up album, Awedooni, was released to high acclaim and reinforced his status as an international star. The Best of Amr Diab, released in early 1999, featured a tribute to Arabic music legends such as Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez titled “Maham Kibrit Sugheir” along with his most popular hits from the ’90’s. Diab released Amarain (Two Moons) in July of the same year; his duets with Algerian Rai megastar Khaled and Greek singer Angela Dimitrou are highlights of the album. Amarain is still considered to be one of his best albums to date.

Amr Diab’s Music from 2000 to the Present

Amr Diab’s status as a musical heavyweight continued into the 21st century. In 2000 he released Tamally Ma’ak (Always With You), an album notable for incorporating the Spanish guitar into many of the songs.His next much-anticipated album, Aktar Wahed, is released in 2001. Like the previous album, it broke new musical ground with the song “Wala Ala Balo,” a dance mix featuring trance and techno rhythms along with a guest appearance by rap artist Sandman. Two years later, Diab released R&B-influenced Allem Alby (Teach My Heart). From 2000 to 2003 he maintained a rigorous touring schedule and continued to accumulate awards, including Best Video Clip at the 2001 Arabic Video Clip Festival in Alexandria and his second World Music Award for Best Selling Middle Eastern Artist in 2002.

2003 also saw a change in Diab’s career when he ended his long-standing contract with Egyptian music label Alam El Phan and signed on with Rotana Records, the largest record label in the Middle East owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. His first album with Rotana, Leily Nahary (My Nights and Days), was released in late summer 2004, and followed up with Kammel Kalamak (Keep Talking) in 2005. Kammel Kalamak sold 3 million copies within its first month on the shelves.

Diab’s most recent album, El Leila De (Tonight) was released in July 2007 and sold over a million copies in five days. He is also reported to have left Rotana Records to sign on with a new label, Good News 4 Music.

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.

Sep 102007

Cheb Mami, famous Rai Music singerOutspoken. Blunt. Gritty. Rebellious. These adjectives have been used to describe American rap music – but they can also describe Algerian raï music, pronounced “rye” or “rah-EE” and translated as “opinion” or “point of view” (it is also colloquially used as an exclamation similar to “oh, yeah!”).

In addition to being compared to rap, it has also been likened to African-American blues music and punk, as well as characterized as “good-time, party music”.

Raï is a shining example of world music, boasting a heady mix of Bedouin, Spanish, French, and Berber influences. Born around the turn of the century in the Western Algerian port of Oran, it emerged from a blossoming music scene and transformed into a distinct musical style in the 1930’s.

The earliest forms of Raï drew from diverse sources such as Bedouin melhun poetry, bar songs referred to as zendanis, medh, poetic songs praising the Prophet Muhammad, and hawzi, a descendant of Spanish classical music. It was typically performed in venues frequented by the underclass, such as cafes, bars, and bordellos. Performers of raï refer to themselves as “cheikhs” or “cheb” (translated as “youthful” or “charming”) if they are male, and “cheikhas” or “chaba” if female.

Development of Raï Music

By the 1930’s, raï (also called “wahrani”) had developed political overtones, earning the disapproval of French colonists. The first internationally known raï shaabi musician of this period was Cheika Rimitti, who began performing during this time as a teenaged girl. In a 2001 interview with Afropop Worldwide’s Banning Eyre, she characterized traditional raï as “a music of rebellion,” music that “looks ahead,” in which she sang about ordinary problems of life, social problems, and the condition of women. This interview was granted after her first and and only performance in North America, at the New York Central Park Summer Stage. She died on May 15, 2006.

Bellemou Messaoud, famous Algerian Rai SingerAdditional western influences began seeping into raï in the 1960’s with the music of Bellamou Messaoud, a trumpet player nicknamed Le Pere du Raï. In addition to replacing the qasbah flute with the trumpet, he infused jazz, rock, blues, funk, and flamenco into the traditional wahrani sound, complete with guitar, saxophone, and accordion arrangements. By 1967, the Algerian government had banned raï from broadcast media, which drove it underground. Despite the government’s efforts, cassettes of raï music circulated around the country as well as Europe.

In the late 1970’s and 1980’s raï flourished even more, gaining a widespread appeal both at home and abroad spurred by Ahmad Baba Rachid’s blending of traditional raï with contemporary pop music. The first state-sanctioned raï festival was held in Algeria in 1986, with another raï festival in Bobigny, France the same year. In 1988, raï performer Cheb Khaled rose to international stardom, spurred by his extraordinarily successful album Kutché. In 1992, he became a major hit in France and India with his album Khaled, and in 1996 was the first musician to ever produce a number one hit song in France that was sung entirely in Arabic.

Popular Raï Music Performers

Other raï performers aquiring popularity and stardom during this time included Cheb Mami, Cheb Hamid, Raïna Raï, Houari Benchenet, and Mohamed Sahraoui. In the 1990’s performers such as Cheb Hasni, Cheb Tahar, and Cheb Nasro popularized lover’s raï, characterized by sentimental pop ballads. Although Americans are by and large unfamiliar with raï, many were introduced to it through Sting, the former frontman of the rock band The Police, via his collaboration with Cheb Mami on his album Brand New Day. Cheb Mami’s vocals were also featured in the song “Desert Rose,” one of the album’s hits. By the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, performers such as the French star Faudel and fusionist Rachid Taha were adding hip-hop, punk, and rock to the raï mix.

Those listening to raï for the first time may sound like typical western pop music with Arabic lyrics and world music overtones. This is not a genuinely accurate description, however, the wide range of musical influences notwithstanding. Combining eastern and western influences in a unique way, the cornerstone of raï is comprised of the instrumental, tonal, cultural, and religious influences of traditional Bedouin music.

Controversial Raï Music Lyrics

Raï has also gained an equal amount of notoriety through its conversational and controversial lyrics, sung in both Arabic and French, often in the same song. Bawdy and not lacking in blunt imagery, raï lyrics are a vehicle of intimate confessions of love, as well as a vehicle in which to sing about sex, lust, and alcohol and express opinions on headier topics such as corruption, misery, poverty, and war.

Just as raï earned the ire of French colonists in the 1930’s, it has faced a similar, and more extreme fate under the current Algerian government, which is highly conservative. In 1994, raï singer Cheb Hasni was assassinated by an extremist group. As a result, most raï musicians currently live in exile in France.

Nevertheless, raï remains a popular musical genre in North Africa and Europe, and is slowly catching on in other parts of the world.

Aug 072007

Amr Diab, as you undoubtedly know, is the best selling Arabic musical artist/singer in the world. But what else would you like to know about him?

Born in Port Said, Egypt in 1961, Amr studied Arabic music at the Cairo Academy of Art. He recorded his first song, El Zaman, at the age of 23. His career really began to take off in the 1980’s, and by the 1990’s he had achieved a degree of superstardom previously unheard of for an Arabic singer.

I’m not the biggest Amr Diab fan in the world, but I know there’s a lot of interest, so I’m currently preparing a detailed biography and discography. I’m wondering if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to cover? How about it fans, any bit of information you’re dying to know about Amr Diab? Maybe I can turn it up.

Jul 292007

Arabic music takht ensemble

Instruments of Classical Arabic Music

Historically, the traditional Arabic music ensemble was known as the takht. You can see one such ensemble depicted in the image above. The takht was traditionally (but not always) a five piece ensemble consisting of the following instruments: the qanun, the oud, the riqq, the nay, and a type of spike fiddle called a kamanjah. In the late 1800’s the kamanjah was replaced by with the Western violin, which was known in the Arab world as the rababah.

After World War One, the takht (the traditional Arabic music ensemble) was gradually expanded into a full Arabic-style orchestra. The Arabic music orchestra included all the traditional Arabic instruments, plus other instruments borrowed from the West, particularly other members of the violin family.

This sort of expanded traditional orchestra was popularized by a handful of now-legendary Arabic singers of the mid-twentieth century.

It is a rich, moving style of music that is utterly unique and instantly recognizable. No discussion about Arabic music would be complete without mentioning the contribution of these musical greats, and we have detailed pages about the great Arabic musicians on this website.

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.

Jul 262007

The Life and Music of Umm Kulthum

The Star of the East. The Diva of Arabic Song. The Voice and Face of Egypt. Who else could these titles describe but Umm Kulthum, possibly the most famous and influential Arabic singer of all time?

Umm Kulthum’s Youth

Umm Kulthum Ibrahim (her full name) always called herself a fallah, or peasant farmer, even when she reached the heights of her fame. She was born in a small rural village in the Nile River Delta, most likely in 1904. Her father was a religious man who augmented his small income from the town’s mosque by singing religious songs at weddings and other celebrations.

Umm Kulthum in front of the pyramids in Egypt

Umm Kulthum learned to sing from her father, and soon began travelling with him to neighboring villages to perform. She had an exceptionally strong voice and she and her father were soon much in demand. Umm Kulthum later reflected that they walked so much, it seemed to her they walked the entire Delta before they ever set foot in Cairo.

The Move to Cairo

Many people encouraged Umm Kulthum and her father to move to Cairo, where she would have much greater opportunities as an entertainer. Her father was reluctant to make the move, not knowing anyone in Cairo, but in 1923, when Umm Kulthum was about 19 years old, they chanced it. The musical community and the Cairo press took note of her vibrant voice, but her talent was viewed as unschooled, and the religious songs she sang were not fashionable enough for the big city.

Her father hired musical teachers who taught her vocal sublety, stage presence techniques, and even poetry. Umm Kulthum learned to emulate the dress and behavior of the elite women of Cairo in whose homes she sang.

Stylistic Evolution

All this time she had been performing with her father and other family members, singing the old Arabic religious songs of the Nile River Delta that she had learned as a child. In Cairo of the 1920’s this was viewed as old fashioned. Umm Kulthum knew that if she wanted to rise to the top – she never lacked ambition – she would have to adopt a more modern style of Arabic music.

In 1926 Umm Kulthum hired a group of experienced and prestigious musicians who together composed what was called a takht, or Arabic style orchestra. She began singing new love songs that had been written especially for her. These changes, along with her now trained voice and elegant style, thrust her into the forefront of the Egyptian musical scene.

A Brilliant Businesswoman

Every time a new medium of entertainment or communication was introduced in Egypt, Umm Kulthum was there. By the 1930’s she was making commercial recordings, and with the advent of Egyptian National Radio in 1934 her audience expanded to include Egyptians all through the nation.

Umm Kulthum was a brilliant woman who managed her career with foresight and finesse. She negotiated her own contracts, produced her own concerts, and carefully managed her relationship with the press. She guarded her privacy closely but gave exclusive interviews to journalists who would write favorably about her. In radio interviews she spoke of her humble roots, imagining that she was speaking directly to the simple people sitting around the radios in their homes and coffee shops. She began appearing in Arabic films in 1935, and starred in six films.

Umm Kulthum’s “Golden Age”

The 1940’s and the early 1950’s are considered Umm Kulthum’s “golden age.” Working with composer Zakariya Ahmad and poet Bayram al-Tunisi, Umm Kulthum created a more populist repertory that appealed to a wide Egyptian audience. Later in the 1940’s, she began collaborating with composer Riyad al-Sunbati. While the results were stylistically different, they were still considered authentically Arab and were very well received.

In addition to her artistic achievements, Umm Kulthum was an established presence within the entertainment business. She joined the Listening Committee, which selected the music appropriate for radio broadcasting, and assumed the presidency of the Musician’s Union.

Health Problems

During this time, she also became known for the strength of her personality, her sharp wit, and her pointed sense of humor. Unfortunately, beginning in the 1930’s, Umm Kulthum developed various health problems that continued to pain her throughout her life. She received treatments for her liver and gall bladder, and in 1946 was afflicted with an upper respiratory inflammation that was later diagnosed as a thyroid disorder. She also required treatment for the inflammation of her eyes, due to the harsh lights of the stage. By the mid 1950’s her health had improved significantly, however, and she was able to resume a normal schedule of appearances.

Marriage to Dr. Hasan al-Hifnawi

In 1954, Umm Kulthum married Dr. Hasan al-Hifnawi, a highly successful skin specialist who was also one of her personal physicians. Like Umm Kulthum, he was raised by a religious family and was familiar with the norms and mores of rural Egypt. Her audience was accepting of her marriage, as they perceived her as a human being with human needs similar to their own, instead of as an immutable star.

A More Public Role: Umm Kulthum becomes the Voice and Face of Egypt

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Umm Kulthum expanded her public role. She began granting more interviews and cultivated the position of spokeswoman for a number of causes. She advocated the increase of governmental support for Arabic music and musicians, and endowed a charitable foundation. After the Egyptians were defeated in the 1967 war, Umm Kulthum began a rigorous domestic and international touring schedule in which she donated the proceeds of her performances to the Egyptian government. Her concerts were highly publicized, and she soon came to be known around the world as “the voice and face of Egypt.”

Her Death

By 1971, Umm Kulthum’s health began to deteriorate dramatically. That year she suffered a gall bladder attack, along with a serious kidney infection the following winter. Her last concert was in December 1972, despite her intentions to perform again. On January 21, 1975, she was stricken by a kidney ailment, leading to the heart failure that ended her life February 3, just a few weeks later. The number of mourners at her funeral was in the millions, and it took over three hours to move her body to the mosque of al-Sayyid Husayn, believed to be one of Umm Kulthum’s favorites. After the shaykh of the mosque repeated the funerary prayers, her body was taken directly to its burial place and quickly buried in accordance with Muslim practices.

Jul 222007

A type of Arabic musical instrument: an Egyptian tableh

The unique beats and rhythms of Arabic music

There’s no doubt that Arabic music has a very distinct sound, at least compared to Western music. I can hear a simple drumbeat, with no other musical or vocal accompaniment, and think, “That’s an Arabic music rhythm!” Or I could hear someone hum a tune, and without having heard the song before I could recognize it as a typically Arabic tune.

What is it about Arabic music that gives it such an exotic sound and makes it so different from Western music? Is it the instruments, the beat, the language?


It is difficult to describe the characteristics of Arabic music without sounding too technical, but I’ll try:

  1. Arabic music is driven by it’s rhythms. The rhythms lead the melody and are not constant, varying throughout.
  2. Standard tempos of Western music are absent in Arabic music.
  3. Arabic music songs often begin with an arrhythmic, or free rhythm introduction. This is called the taqassim, or division.
  4. In Arabic music, the vocalist is allowed total freedom from tempo or rhythm, particularly when not accompanied by a rhythmic instrument.
  5. Unlike Western music rhythms which break down evenly, Arabic music rhythms are additive. In other words, the Arabic music rhythms are a series of irregular smaller patterns with one following the next. They cannot be evenly divided, for example: 4+2+3+9, or 2+3+2+4=11. These patterns can be very complex, consisting at times of over 40 beats.
  6. The basic components of an Arabic music rhythm are two kinds of beat and silences (rests). The downbeat (dumm) is a deep sound made by hitting the drum near the center. The upbeat (takk) is a crisper, high-pitched sound made by tapping the rim of the drum.

If you’re a musician or a knowledgeable listener and you’d like to share your perspective on the differences between Western music and Arabic music (or Near Eastern, or Middle Eastern music if you like), please do so via our comment form, or submit a longer piece through our contact form.

 Posted by at 12:28 am
Jul 182007

Abdel Halim Hafez is considered one of the four greats of Arabic song, along with Umm Kalthoum, Farid Al Attrach and Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

Hafez was one of the most influential Egyptian musicians of the twentieth century, despite his fairly short career. He was most prominent during the 1950’s and 60’s.

Today, more than thirty years after his death in 1977, his music is still played daily on the radio in Egypt and the Arab world.

Abdel Halim Hafez, a great Egytian singerAbdel Halim Hafez, One of the Four Greats of Arabic Music

Abdel Halim Hafez is sometimes known as el-Andaleeb el-Asmar, The Dark Nightingale, because of the combination of his dark skin and resonant voice. The nickname is perhaps doubly appropriate because of the difficult and painful life that he lived.

Abdel Halim Hafez’s Youth and Early Career

Born in 1929, Abdel Halim Hafez lost both parents at a young age, and was subsequently raised by his aunt and uncle. At the age of eleven his eldest brother enrolled him in the Arabic Music Institute, where he developed his talent by singing the songs of Mohammed Abdel Wahab, a prominent 20th century Egyptian singer and composer.

Hafez later studied at the Higher Institute for Theatre Music, from which he graduated as a classical oboe player. He began his professional musical career as an oboe player, before setting his sights on becoming a singer.

He soon became known for his resonant but mellow voice, subtle vocal style and clean intonation, along with his long, moving vocal phrases. A blogger recently described his voice as “nectar and honeydew”, and it fits.

Abdel Halim had his first hit in 1951 and subsequently became a staple on Egyptian radio. He also appeared in many popular Egyptian films.

In 1961 Abdel Halim Hafez partnered with Mohammed Abdel Wahab (whose songs he had grown up listening to) and Magdi el-Amroussi to found an Egyptian recording company called Soutelphan (Voice of the Artist), which continues to operate today under the umbrella of EMI Arabia.

Abdel Halim’s Illness, Death and Funeral

Abdel Halim had contracted a parasitic water-borne disease called bilharzia when he was eleven years old, and it plagued him periodically and painfully througout his life. He finally died of the disease in 1977, a few months short of his 48th birthday, while receiving treatment in London.

His body was taken back to Cairo for his funeral, which was attended by thousands of people, more than another other funeral in Egyptian history aside from those of President Nasser in 1970 and Umm Kulthoum (another great Egyptian singer) in 1975. He is buried in Al Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo.

Abdel Halim Hafez is considered by some to be the most popular Arab singer of the twentieth century, as he has reportedly sold more discs since his death than any other Arab musician, even Umm Kulthoum.

Highlights of Abdel Halim’s Career

His most famous songs include Ahwak (“I love you”), Khosara (“A pity”), Gana El Hawa (“Love came to us”), Sawah (“Wanderer”), Zay el Hawa (“It feels like love”), and El Massih (“The Christ”), among the 260 songs that he recorded. His last, and perhaps most famous song, Qariat el-Fingan (“The fortune-teller”), featured lyrics by Nizar Qabbani and music by Mohammed Al-Mougy. He starred in sixteen films, including “Dalilah”, which was Egypt’s first colored motion picture.

In 2006 a feature film about Abdel Halim Hafez’s life, called “Halim”, was released. It starred the immensely popular (and now late) actor Ahmad Zaki in the title role. The film provides an accurate rendition of Abdel Halim’s life, but is hampered by poor production values.

 Posted by at 10:18 pm