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History Of Arabic Music

History of Arabic
Arabic music is my favorite musical styling.

Although I have come to enjoy classical and contemporary styling as well,
Arabic music has almost an innate quality of enjoyment for me. Its
songs speak of the life and culture of Arabic countries and its melody
is not commonly heard on American radio stations. Its songs tell
the story of the Arabic people, people who are similar to Americans but
also different in many ways. The songs are a romantic and wonderful
inspiration to me while living and studying in America.

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The tradition of Arabic music has been
cultivated throughout Arab regions for thousands of years. Although it
has undergone many changes over the centuries, it has retained certain
distinctive traits.

The Arabic music tradition developed in
the courts of dynasties in the Islamic empire from the 7th century to the
13th century. It flourished during the Umayyad dynasty in the 7th
century and 8th century in Syria. Great performers were drawn to Baghdad,
now the capital of Iraq, under such rulers as Harun ar-Rashid, who was
a patron of the musical arts during the late 700s.3
The cities of the Islamic empire, from
Spain across North Africa and throughout the Middle East, boasted many
fine musicians. These early musicians were often composers and poets as
well as performers. Although the major writings on Arab music appeared
after the spread of Islam in the beginning of the 7th century, the music
tradition had already begun. Before the spread of Islam, Arab music incorporated
music traditions of the Sassanid dynasty (224-641) in Persia and the early
Byzantine empire (4th century to 6th century) and of sung poetry from the
Arabian Peninsula.3 Arabic-speaking scholars also studied the treatises
of ancient Greek philosophers on music. Music theorists of the 10th century
and 11th century, such as al-Farabi and Avicenna, produced their own theories
of music based on what they had learned from the Greeks and on the music
of their own times. Greek works translated by the Arab scholars were later
studied by European scientists and philosophers.

Melody and Rhythm
Arabic music is created using unharmonized
melodic and rhythmic systems. Arabic melodies draw from a vast array of
models, or melodic modes, known as maqamat. Arabic books on music include
as many as 52 melodic modes, of which at least 12 are commonly used.3 These
modes feature more tones than are present in the Western musical system,
including notably smaller intervals that are sometimes called microtones,
or half-flats and half-sharps. Arabic melodies frequently use the augmented
second interval, an interval larger than those of most Western melodies.3
The sound of Arabic music is richly melodic and offers opportunity for
subtle nuance and creative variation.

The rhythmic structure of Arabic music
is similarly complex. Rhythmic patterns have up to 48 beats and typically
include several downbeats (called dums) as well as upbeats (called taks)
and silences, or rests.3 To grasp a rhythmic mode, the listener must hear
a relatively long pattern. Moreover, the performers do not simply play
the pattern; they elaborate upon and ornament it. Often the pattern is
recognizable by the arrangement of downbeats.

In Arab tradition, good musicians offer
something new in each performance by varying and improvising on known pieces
or models in a fashion similar to that of jazz musicians. The inventions
of musicians can be lengthy, extending ten-minute compositions into hour-long
performances that bear only a skeletal resemblance to the models. The inventions
of the musician traditionally depend upon the response of the audience.

Listeners are expected to react during the performance, either verbally
or with applause. Quiet is interpreted as disinterest or dislike. The audience
members, in this tradition, are active participants in determining the
length of the performance and in shaping the piece of music by encouraging
musicians to either repeat a section of the piece or to move to the next

Modern Era
Born of the cultures of the Arab World
stretching from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, Arabic music is
becoming popular world-wide. It is made up of an astonishing variety
of folk, classical, and popular musical traditions. Many of these have
survived for centuries, reflecting the musical sensibilities of the ancient
world as well as the Middle Ages.

While each region within the Arab World
has its distinctive styles, commonalities of instrumentation, modal structure,
rhythmic patterns, performance techniques, and lyric content extend across
the area, forming a fascinating weaving of artistic tradition that changes
and evolves while remaining true to its ancient heritage. In the
last decades a growing global audience has come to appreciate the richness
of this music.

The global audience is hungry for information
about these traditions, their history, the playing techniques and theories
behind them, as well as news about performances, recordings, and concerts.

Listeners, performers and students rely on word of mouth to keep current
on Arabic music news. This is due to the fact that it is primarily
distributed through smaller recording labels, and since performances occur
outside the mainstream concert circuits.

Arabic Song and its English Translation1
“Sawah” (Vagabond)
What follows is a translation
into English of the song lyrics for Sawah. Also, there is a transliteration
into the Roman alphabet of the original Arabic lyrics. This song was first
popularized by Abdel Halim Hafez.

Arabic Lyrics1
English Translation2
Sawah, wei mashee feil beilaad,
Vagabond, and walking between countries,
Weil khatwa beinee wei bein habibee
And the step between me and my beloved
[is] big
Meish war bei-eed, wana feeh gareeh
A long journey, and I’m wounded
from it
Weil leil yei-arab, weil nahar rawah
And the night approaches, and the
day goes
Wein laakom habibee, saleimulee
And if you see my beloved, say “Hello”
to him [her]
Tameinuneel asmaranee, amla eil
el ghorba fee
Reassure me: how is my brown-looking
girl doing so far away
Sawah, wana mashee layalee
Vagabond, I’m walking all night
Sawah, walla daree bhalee
Vagabond, not knowing what I’m doing
Sawah, meil for-a ya ghalee
Vagabond, and the separation, oh
my dear
Sawah, eih elee garalee
Vagabond, what has happened to me?
Weisneen, weisneen wana dayeib bsho’
wei haneen
And years, years, and I’m melting
in loneliness and tenderness
Ayeiz a-araf bass taree-u meinein
I want to know just where is his
[her] road
Repeat Chorus:
Ya eounee, ah ya eounee,
My eyes, oh my eyes
Eih garalak fein enta, wei bta-meil
What has happened to you and what
are you doing?
Ya znounee, ah ya znounee mat seibounee
My worries, oh my worries, leave
me alone
Meish naaeis ana heer aleil
I’m worried enough about him [her]
Lana areif ar-taah, wana ta-yeih
Neither can I rest, and I’m lost
like a vagabond
Repeat Chorus:
Ya amar ya naseenee
Oh moon, who is forgetting me?
Raseenee alee ghayeib
Take me to the absent one
Nawarlee, wareenee, seikeit el habayeib
Enlighten me, show me the road to
the beloved
Waseitak, weiseiya, ya shaheid alaya
I’ve made you promise, you who witnessed
Teikeelu alei beiya
To tell him [her] of my state
Weilee aseito blayaleiya
And what I’ve suffered during my

1. Goodyear, Amina. Sawah
– song compositional elements. 1996.

2. Ibrahim, Nicole. Sawah
– song translation, transliteration. 1996.

3. Nassen, Abdul. Arabic
Music and Its Cultural Influences. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.


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