Leave Your Knowledge at the Door, Part 2

Last week, I wrote a brief overview of the very dense world of maqam theory. This week, Issa gave us a look into more of the cultural/traditional side of Middle Eastern music which, as I’m sure you could guess, is just as dense, if not more so, since its history has run so deep for so long.

Like most traditional music, Middle Eastern music like maqams got their start in religion, mostly as Quranic meditation. The difference between this and something like Medieval church music is how it progressed – over time, even though Medieval church music was not originally intended or even thought of as music, it did eventually become exactly that, even within the realms of the church, as Gregorian Chant started to include harmony and more complex rhythm for the sake of the music itself. In Middle Eastern countries, “religious police,” as Issa referred to them, were not only against so much as referring to meditations as music but actively acted out against the mentality. Now, of course, the term “religious police” is used lightly – these were conservative traditionalists that were more or less against adapting for non-religiously driven reasons.

This, of course, didn’t actually stop the music from evolving – what I see as the natural human instinct to progress and improve resulted in the music (even though it was not considered that at the time) being slave to the religious text it had supported since the beginning. As a result, melodic lines in music never took precedence over the text.

Obviously, this didn’t stay the case forever. There is now plenty of music for music’s sake in the Arab world. In fact, one art form Issa showed us that I personally had never seen before (at least in Arab culture) were a few clips of what are essentially Arab musicals. For example, he introduced us to a female vocalist named Fairouz, a star in this world. Check out some of it for yourself at this link below (embedding was disabled for this video):


He also some time talking about the rhythmic concept of what he referred to as “borrowing time.” To demonstrate, he had me hold steady rhythm while he played his oud – as I did my best to hold steady, I did notice that we didn’t feel together every once in a while, but as we kept playing, I realized it was usually at the ends of phrases and that he would always end up right back with me. In Western terms, this was essentially “quasi time” or a brief moment of rubato. This is also a technique used often in jazz, especially during solos, but also occasionally used with melodies, which is more similar to this style since, like the melody of a jazz tune, the melody of an Arabic song would still be driven by diction of the original text, leading to a common downbeat. Here is an example – this is a longer one which I’d recommend listening to the entirety of if you have time, but if not, skip to about the 4:24 mark where the vocal line comes in and you can hear this very obviously:


One of the most thought-provoking things for me, though, was the time he took to clarify the difference between Arab and Arab speaking. Of course, I knew that not everyone that lives/has lived in or whose ancestors are from the Middle East is Arab, I admittedly hadn’t ever given that much thought to the space between the language and the religion. His biggest point was that, though someone may speak Arab, this does not necessarily mean they are Arab. Especially in what, for whatever ridiculous reasons, has seemingly become a more hostile racial environment here in the US, I think this is an extremely important thing to remember.

He went on to talk about the extreme differences in dialects among Arab speakers regardless of religion, saying that the differences between the two most extreme dialects are significantly more different than the same in English, so much so that many in that situation prefer to speak to each other in English because it is simply easier. The best example of this I can think of would be someone raised with a thick Southern accent trying to talk to someone from a Caribbean island – while both speak English natively, the dialects are so incredibly different than it may be easier for them to speak to each other in another common language if possible.

The line I mentioned just before between Arabs and Arab speaking people still causes social and political riffs to this day, many of which end up making headlines one way or another even here in the US. Just like the US though, this is good cause to create art, and music has definitely been an outlet there just as it is for us. This last video is a great example – in fact, it touches on a handful of issues covered from this past week, and is should therefore be a great note to end on!