Scales-The Basic Building Block
Middle Eastern music is based on the maqam system. A maqam roughly corresponds
to a Western musical scale. For example, where an American musician might
perform Pachelbelís Canon in D (a canon - a classical form - played in
the key of D major), a Middle Eastern musician might perform the Samai
Kurd Shaheen. (A samai - a classical form - played in the maqam known
as Kurd and composed by Simon Shaheen.) A composition can begin in a certain
maqam, then shift to others during the course of the song. There are at
least 24 distinct maqamat, developed over thousands of years of musical
A maqam tells a musician what the correct intervals are between the notes
of a scale, and which notes should be emphasized. Often, the notes of
a scale lie only a quarter-tone apart, rather than half-steps apart. What
can sound like dissonance to American ears are actually extremely subtle
differences in tone.
Middle Eastern music often contains overlapping rhythms. The drummer may
be playing one rhythm, the violinist another, the riq (tambourine) player
a third, while the dancer keeps yet another on her sagat (finger cymbals),
yet all are woven together into a seamless tapestry of sound. The dancerís
job is to embody the different rhythms for the audience, while also expressing
the emotion of the music.
Middle Eastern musicians frequently perform taqasim - the art of improvisation.
Taqasim may be woven into existing compositions - similar to a guitar
riff in the middle of an American rock song - or played as an art in themselves,
as in the Arabic classical tradition. The musician begins with a well-known
melody, a maqam, or a simple collection of notes, then embellishes it
in a free-flowing manner.
Often, Middle Eastern music involves ornamentation. In the same way a
dancerís delicate hand gestures ornament her dance, a musicianís style
may embrace and color individual notes. Ornamentation includes the use
of grace note, trills, runs, arpeggios, "bending" a note, and other techniques.
To draw a parallel, imagine singing a simple childís melody like "Three
Blind Mice." Then imagine how a jazz musician might play with the song,
stretching out certain notes or adding syncopation. You still recognize
the basic melody, but the musician has put his or her stamp on it. Both
improvisation and ornamentation allow musicians to express their individual
style within traditional forms.
Call and Response
Middle Eastern music frequently employs a call-and-response form in which
a lead instrument plays a phrase and another instrument responds, creating
a musical conversation. The lead and responding instrument can change
throughout the composition.
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Tabla-A drum, shaped somewhat like a goblet, traditionally made
of clay and covered by a goatskin head. The tabla is literally the heartbeat
of Middle Eastern music, as its beat keeps time for the other members
of the orchestra. This drum is sometimes referred to as a durbakke or
Oud-A short-necked, pear-shaped string instrument, the ancestor
of the European lute. (Say both words aloud, and youíll hear the relationship.)
Sometimes beautifully ornamented with mother-of-pearl, the oud was traditionally
made of the wood of a fruit tree and plucked with an eagle feather. (Todayís
musicians use a plastic plectrum or pick.) The sound is warm and full
Violin-Familiar to American audiences, the violin was introduced
to the Middle Eastern orchestra only recently, in late 19th or early 20th
century. The violin is frequently the lead or responding instrument in
a traditional call-and-response. Because of its resemblance to the human
voice, the violin is capable of expressing tremendous emotion.
Singer-The singer plays a vital role in both traditional and classical
Middle Eastern music, due to the importance of the lyrics. A classical
Arabic vocalist can present an entire evening of sung poetry. Part of
the singerís role is to bring the poetry to life through vocal techniques
that invoke the emotions.
Sagat-Small finger cymbals, similar to a Flamenco dancerís castanets.
A dancer may play the underlying percussive rhythm of the music on her
Nai-A hollow reed flute, the nai has the haunting, breathy quality
that Americans often associate with Middle Eastern music. Because these
flutes cannot be tuned to the different maqamat, a nai player carries
flutes of many different sizes.
Kanun-A stringed instrument similar to the zither, the kanun has
72 strings, which are plucked by rings fastened to the musicianís fingers.
The kanun has a delicate, intricate sound, brighter and seemingly faster
than the oud.
Riq-The Middle Eastern tambourine, the riq (sometimes called the
daff) is played by striking both the fishskin head and the cymbals that
Tar-A large, round frame drum, similar to the Irish bodhran. The
tar is used mainly in popular and folk music and is also referred to as
the duff or the bendir.
Other Traditional Instruments include the tabal beledi, a large
bass drum played in folk music; the mizmar, an oboe-like reed instrument
; the mijwiz, a double-reed instrument with a droning sound; and the rababa
or rebec, a two-stringed fiddle held upright on the knee.
Modern Instruments such as electric guitar, accordion, saxophone,
clarinet, organ, piano, cello, bass, and even drum machine and synthesizers
are common in todayís pop music. Like all great musical traditions, Middle
Eastern music is a living art form that is always adapting and changing
while staying true to its heritage.
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FAQs-Frequently Asked Questions
What should I listen for?
Hearing an orchestra play Middle Eastern music for the first time can
be overwhelming. Begin by concentrating on how one instrument is playing.
Try listening to the drums first, then focus on another instrument. Then
hear how the instruments interact with each other. If there is a singer,
listen to how he or she interacts with the musicians. When in doubt, listen
for the deepest drum beat - it is literally the heartbeat of the music!
Mostly, listen with your entire body, and when the music goes somewhere,
let it take you on its journey.
Where does the music come from? What do we know about its history?
Middle Eastern music is a living tradition that has roots in the ancient
civilizations of the Middle East. It echoes the court and folk music of
Sumeria, ancient Egypt, Arabia, the Islamic Empires, Andalusia, and Persia.
The resulting music traditions are deep and varied, but always evolving
as each generation adds its innovations while honoring the forms and work
of the past.
What are the different styles of music?
Within the two broad categories of folk and classical music, there are
hundreds of styles springing from various regions and sub-cultures. For
instance, the pearl-divers of Bahrain have their own musical styles. So
did the court musicians of the Ottoman Empire, the mystics of Persia,
the folk musicians of Andalusian Spain, the villagers of Lebanon, and
What are the songs about?
Love is a major theme in Middle Eastern music, in all its aspects - love
of family, country, nation, nature, and of course, the beloved, whether
close at hand or separated by oceans. In addition to love, many songs
focus on religious and national ideals. Whatever the theme, however, it
is always rendered with strong emotion and passion.
Is this music written out in scores?
Yes, composed music and folk tunes are often written out in scores using
Western notation, although many musicians (particularly folk musicians)
still learn pieces by ear.
Iím hooked! How can I hear more Middle Eastern music?
- Listen! Middle Eastern music is now available in large music retailers
and specialty shops. In Minneapolis, try Sindbadís International Imports.
You can also order by catalogue - Rashidís, Daff & Raff, and al-Manar
are some of the companies to look for.
- Watch! Check the newspaper for performances in your area. Or look
for the movie Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt by Michal Goldman. This
1997 film (now available on video) explores the performances and life
of the greatest Arabic songstress of the 20th century, Umm Kulthum.
- Read About It! A few books to start with include Habib Hassan Toumaís
The Music of the Arabs and Virginia Danielsonís Umm Kulthum: The Voice
of Egypt (published by the University of Chicago Press.)
- Surf the Net! We have
links to many web sites and discussion groups on Middle Eastern dance,
music, and culture.
- Contact Us! Weíd love to hear from you! Call, write, or E-mail us
Jawaahir Dance Company
3010 Minnehaha Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55406
Yalla! Dance and Music of the Middle East, is a 6-page brochure explaining
these rich and beautiful art forms. For information on how to order, please
visit The Souk.
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