Hearing presumably "exotic" music for the first time in the Middle East, the average listener from the Western world is inclined to confuse it with the keening of banshees, the howling of cats or the off-pitch gropings of a child's first piano lesson. Indeed, the contrasts between Western and Arab music are so pronounced that if both didn't produce patterns of sound, Westerners might well consider them separate art forms.
Arab music is definitely different. To ears attuned to the melodic blandness of ballads or waltzes it probably does sound harsh, discordant and monotonous and there is no denying that it has a certain high, wailing quality that is often unbearable. Songs, furthermore, seem to be unvaryingly mournful, tremulous, loud and endless.
If such reactions are understandable, however, they are also slightly unfair, and more than slightly uninformed. They fail to consider that musical idioms are as different as languages and that if they can't be understood they can't be appreciated. The differences in Arab music, the feeling, for example, that somehow it is a bit "off," are not accidental. They don't occur because Arab composers are unaware of harmony or because, say, the flutist can't read music. They occur because the Arab octave is divided into quarter tones rather than half tones, which is the way that seems logical and natural to the Westerner; because melody—still structured like 18th-century European melodies—is usually stressed at the expense of all but the most primitive harmony, thus lending that peculiarly fiat, atonal quality that is so distressing to Western ears. There are equally good explanations for the content and the length of songs too and even for the way they are presented, reasons that go back to an era when Eastern music, not Western, reigned supreme in the world.
Arab musicologists can trace their own folk forms back to the Bedouins of ancient times, whose simple caravan song—the huda—cheered their desert treks. Its rajaz meter—said to correspond to the rhythm of the camel's lurching stride—consists of six metrical feet each of which comprises two longs, a short, and an accentuated long and is regarded as the prototype of all Arabic meters. The first written record of Arab music, however, is a 7th-century B.C. Assyrian inscription which tells of Arab prisoners' songs of toil which caught their masters' fancy, and made them ask for more.
Probably the traditional emphasis of Arab music on the solo voice stems from the nomadic character of Arab life, the loneliness and tribal mobility which made any ensemble music, requiring a fixed urban abode, an impossibility. So, too, did the itinerant life lead to the development of light, portable musical instruments instead of pianos, sousaphones or pipe organs. The kettledrum and shawm—a double-reeded oboe-like instrument capable of a deafening blast—were distributed throughout the Mediterranean littoral in the wake of the Muslim conquest, as was the lute, an Arab forerunner of fretted instruments such as the guitar and violin which were introduced by the Arabs into Europe in the 13th century. Other Middle Eastern borrowings include the three-stringed rebec (Arabic: rebab), the flute (which goes back to predynastic Egypt) and the bagpipe, which first appeared in Syria and Alexandria shortly after the beginning of the Christian era.
The exact form of Arab music prior to the 13th century, when the first indigenous musical notation appears, has been a subject of speculation and reconstruction by experts. But since that time the structure and rhythmic patterns of Arab music have been codified and, to a great extent, solidified by custom. During this period, systems of melodic and rhythmic modes came into use. The melody type, called by its present name maqam, was of a prescribed and distinctive scale, a certain register and compass, one or more principal notes, and typical melodic phrases. By the 13th century there were 12 such primary modes. While the maqam dictated melodic development, the iqa' controlled the rhythmic organization of the music. In the 19th century there were eight such measures, based on alternations of a hollow percussive sound usually of low pitch and a dry staccato sound of higher pitch. These were beaten out on the drum, tambourine, and the tiny kettledrums called the naggarat.
The importance of rhythm in Arab music has always been accentuated by the fact that music among the Arabs is more of a collective than an individual experience, with the rhythms brought to life by the movements of the singer. It is possible for Arabs to enjoy their music in solitude on records or from the radio, of course, but infinitely more desirable is the public performance in which the atmosphere of the place can soak in, so to speak, along with the music. In the 10th century, according to historical accounts, this custom had already taken hold, although in a rather restrained manner. At concerts given in the home of a singer named Azza al-Maila in Damascus, for example, the behavior of the audience was most decorous, demonstrations of appreciation during the performance being severely frowned upon. If anyone so far lost himself as to lean over and whisper a comment to his neighbor, an attendant with a long stick would summarily rap the offender's knuckles.
Not so in modern times. In the open gardens under the stars where much of the Middle East's music is heard on balmy summer nights, the audience is not only permitted but expected to give vent to its" feelings. Nor does the audience wait for the end of a selection, but bursts forth with applause and shouts of appreciation whenever the finesse of execution of any musical figure demands it.
Modern times have also brought less fortunate changes to the fore. With the expansion of Western influences, Arab music, like Arab architecture, has begun to change. An analysis of modern Arab music would show an unattractive accumulation of inappropriate snippets from both classical and popular European compositions and clumsy efforts to employ harmony—without even a sure knowledge of harmony. It is a far cry from the judicious, artistic borrowings of Arab composers who, in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, were able to find in other cultures elements that blended with, rather than clashed with, the national melodic idiom, and who, consequently, were able to develop a strain which was pure and uncorrupt-ed and which still provides the basis for the best of Arab music today: the songs of the late Sayyid Darwish, the older songs of such greats as Um-Kulthum and Abdul Wahab, the earlier songs of Fairouz, almost everything sung by Sabah and the folk songs still heard everywhere in the Arab world.
Curiously, it is precisely these songs—and most Arab music is vocal—that are the hardest for the uninitiated to appreciate, and for good reasons. For one thing, they are sung in a foreign language that is incomprehensible to most visitors, a language, moreover, with an abundance of laryngeal and pharyngeal sounds that constrict the throat and tighten the vocal cords with possibly haunting yet almost inevitably jarring results. For another thing few Westerners ever really know just what is going on, or realize that typical performances follow a prescribed, almost ritualistic form that is as essential as the quality of the singer.
A typical song will begin with taqasim (improvisations) on the 'ud (the forerunner of the lute, from which that instrument's name also derives) in the scale or maqam in which the song is written. Western listeners usually enjoy this passage, which is similar to a guitar solo. This will be followed by an orchestral prelude in which every instrument on the stage will join. Since there won't be a trace of harmony among the instruments this may evoke a somewhat less favorable impression on Western ears. Thus introduced, the singer improvises on the ya layl (O! Night!) theme, in which the only words heard are ya layl. From the artistry shown in executing this "cadenza" the experienced listener can gauge the skill and the beauty of the voice. Finally the singer embarks on the central theme of the song, which may have the form of a long ode (or qasida), a muwashah (lyric poetry developed in Andalusia) or a simple strophic lyric called the daur, with the full orchestra playing in accompaniment.
The orchestra, called takht (seat) in Arabic, that accompanies the singer, can range from three to thirty instruments, and generally gives the singer a breather by playing a refrain after each long vocal recitative. Besides the 'ud the instruments include the qanun, a zither-like fretted instrument trapezoidal in shape, with 24 strings; the santur, a species of dulcimer; the nay, a vertical flute; percussion instruments such as the daff (tambourine), tabl (drum) and the riq; and such Western innovations as the piano, violin, and accordion, introduced to the orchestra in recent times along with the inevitable microphone and loudspeaker system which amplify the sound to the satisfyingly bravura level favored by most Arab audiences.
Arab music is definitely an acquired taste for Western music lovers, who, in trying to decide how to react to it, might do well to recall a story about al-Farabi. On one occasion, so the story goes, al-Farabi in playing the 'ud by his first mode made his listeners laugh, then by changing his mode brought tears to their eyes, and by yet a third mode sent them all into a deep sleep, whereupon he left them. There indeed is a broad range of possible reactions. One of them should fit.
Afif Alvarez Boulos, founder of the Beirut Orpheus Choir, studied music in Lebanon and Italy, is an associate of the Royal College of Music in London and holds a Ph.D. in music from Harvard University. A lifelong student of both Arab and Western music, he has lectured throughout the Middle East, England and the United States.