Friday, February 25, 2011

Discussions on the Arabic Maqam Tradition.

            The term “Arabic Music” is a broad one and lends itself somewhat to blanket analysis of a tradition with an extraordinary diversity of styles. This is often seen as a negative, where entire societies are perceived to be uniform in customs, tradition and ritual. As an example; being in Jordan would not yield any difference in experience from being in Iraq. Of course, for a student of any anthropological field, this mindset is an atrocious vantage where whole discussions could be engaged on communities the size of a few families. There is, however; sometimes a need to organize subjects through very large groupings in order to distill greater cultural contrast. The Maqam tradition in Arabic music is shared throughout much of the Greater Middle East and aspects of it can be found in Europe or as far away as Indonesia and China. In this respect, seeing a unity of tradition which courses through a large area of the world can actually be incredibly useful for recognizing where common heritages exist.

            Culturally speaking, the Arab world could simply mean the group of countries who use the Arabic language to communicate. This of course would not include nations that make up the what has been called in the last decade; “the Greater Middle East.” These countries, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Israel have a host of national languages that include Turkic, Ind-European, and other Semitic tongues as their means of communication (Achcar 2004). Racially and Ethnically these nations have little in common as well and therefore; politically speaking, the need to socially group these countries together has largely to do with the majority religion being Islam. In terms of a musical culture, however; these groups do share enough to be able to speak of the Maqam tradition in terms of not only the Greater Middle East, but also (as noted above) some places in southern Europe as well as Asia.

            From a technical standpoint, a “Maqam” may be translated as a mode or scale, and in the same way that in the west there is an association with a minor key being sad and a major being happy, so too are there associations with moods in the Maqam tradition. According to Aboudi Badawi, an oud player and Arabic music educator; “a scale is made up of a sequence of specific notes, these notes produce melodies that evoke emotions and feelings” (Badawi, 2003). The Arabic term for the emotions brought about through melodic instrument playing or singing is known as “tarab” which can be translated to the word “ecstasy” in English. This is one of the most important aspects of musical practice in the Arab world, that the music should be infused with a powerful amount of emotional capacity. Anne K. Rasmussen punctuates this point in her chapter on Arabic music in the text Worlds of Music where she notes that; “The concept of tarab gets to the very heart of Arab musical aesthetics. The term refers to a repertory of traditional compositions as well as to a style of performance that both embodies and invokes tarab (Rasmussen, 2009). It should be noted that music which is modal does not often lend itself instinctually to harmonies other than drone sounds and therefore; much of Arabic music is played either by solo instruments and percussion or multiple instruments playing heterophonically.

Examples and Discussion of Maqamat

            What follows are the eight primary Maqamat (plural of Maqam). Although dozens of Maqamat exist, there are eight that are popularly played by musicians and the other Maqamat are seen as subordinate to the parent scales (Badawi, 2003). One consideration for the reader to keep in mind is that by default all of the primary Maqamat are eight consecutive notes (seven distinct notes plus the octave of the tonic), however; there are Maqamat of the north African tradition which can be pentatonic scales (Zhedan, ND).

Figure 1. Maqam Ajam

            The Maqam “Ajam” carries with it many of the same connotations as the western major scale, namely an association with happy emotions. Cameron Powers, author of the book; Arabic Musical Scales, writes that Ajam's associated moods are: “bright, happy, majesty, pride, loftiness, national anthems, strength, [and] seriousness” (Powers, 2005) While Aboudi Badawi states that “Ajam is a cheerful Maqam that gives the listener and instant feeling of happiness and joy, it can be used for either slow or fast music, but regardless of the tempo this Maqam will always result in a happy feeling” (Badawi, 2003). It is possible that this Maqam's popularity has something to do with colonial European rule over Arabic-speaking lands, where native music makers would be performing for foreign audiences they might have attempted to find melodic sequences closer to the European visitors own home music, this might explain some of the same emotional associations mentioned above. Of course, without any primary source information on the subject, this remains pure speculation.

            One intriguing aspect of the Maqam system is it seems as though the range has something to do with the character of the melody. For instance; a “major” scale started on B flat is called “Ajam” whereas the same scale with an F tonic would be "Jar-kah,” and a C tonic is called “Mahoor.” (Zhedan, ND). This aspect of the Arab musical mindset exemplifies the importance of the above mentioned concept of “tarab.” In this instance, the height of a note might have a great deal to do with how the listener perceives the effect and therefore; change the mood of the piece.

Figure 2. Maqam Hejaz

            Maqam Hejaz (sometimes spelledn Hijaz) is easily recognizable due to the augmented second appearing between steps two and three of the scale. The traditional practice of musicians has been to  slightly lower the f-sharp and slightly raise the e-flat in order to create a more cohesive line within  the melody.  Badawi states that “this Maqam is often described as 'snake charming music” (Badawi, 2003) but this is really more a reflection of western composers applying augmented seconds in their scores to give an exotic flavor than of native perceptions of the music.  Cameron Powers writes that “this Maqam is associated with the lonely treks of the camel caravans and with fascination and enchantment” (Powers, 2005). This sense of the Maqam draws from its association with folk music of the Saudi Deserts (in fact, Hijaz is a region of Saudi Arabia). This Maqam is known by other names in other regions of the greater middle east. In Turkey this scale is known as “Usbaein,”  in Africa it is known by the names “Zedan” and “Alhijaz Alkabeer” (Zhedan, ND). 

Figure 3. Maqam Nahawand

            Nahawand, like the western Dorian mode has theoretically the same intervals in its ascending and its descending form, furthermore; its lower and upper tetrachord is identical in their arrangement of whole and half steps. In practice, musicians often employ a raised seventh in order to pull back to the tonic, this is most common in the lower octave. As to the character and associated mood of this mode, there seems to be some minor inconsistencies in the way it is described. Powers writes that “Nahawand is a straightforward and sweet Maqam” (Powers, 2005) whereas Badawi states “Nahawand produces extreme changes in emotion, it is the Maqam of feelings” (Badawi, 2003). It is as if to infer that one writer sees Nahawand as uncomplicated and somewhat plain and the other sees it as passionate and vibrant. In this instance it is important to keep in mind that varying views of musicologists are equally as frequent in Arabic music as it is in other cultures.

Figure 4. Maqam Bayyati


            What has been described as the interval of a “quarter tone” by theorists, has actually existed in Arabic music practices for some time. It is one of the most distinct aspects of music from the Middle East.  E-half-flat is known in the Arabic language as "Sikah,” which used to specifically refer to the second note of Bayyati but is now used to describe all half-flats.

            The remarkability of the “quarter tone” in world music texts, is in of itself remarkable. Tunings that differ from the western equal tempered system are commonplace around the world and even Europe has a history of alternate tuning systems that were quite distinct from the modern form, the most famous being meantone temperament. It is however, through the west's dominance over the rest of the world that all practices seem to measured against it. It is clear that the “specialness” of the “Sikah” notes became apparent during colonial times. Anne K. Rasmussen writes;”Prior to this time, notes like E-half-flat, or Sikah in Arabic, were simply considered natural, regular notes” (Rasmussen, 2009). This happens in such a frequency that mention of the “quarter tone” (sometimes called “neutral interval”) is always reserved as a caveat in books and research done on intonation. This point was raised at the 2009 annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, November 22nd, 2009 in Mexico City, Mexico. In a presentation by Sami Abu Shumays it is noted that; “almost all of the research done into how the brain processes music has dealt exclusively with Western Classical music (Shumays, 2009). Bayyati is, of course one of many examples of modes with half-flats.

Figure 5. Maqam Rast

            Cameron Powers summarizes the moods of Rast as; “Romantic and positive, cheerful, stately and elegant” (Powers, 2005).  Maqam Rast is notable for its association with the Islamic call to prayer, and in general this is a common scale for religious music (although it is not the only scale used in religious music). Indeed, in many countries religious recitation is an art form highly praised and looked upon with great admiration. As an example of this; in Indonesia (the country with the largest population of Muslims in the world) there are many competitions in Koranic recitation in which the contestants are regarded in very esteemed lights (Rasmussen, 2009). It should be noted that the description of the call to prayer or Koranic recitation in general as music faces some dubious criticism in Muslim circles. The above mentioned vocal styles are not actually considered music, and indeed, some of the more conservative members of the religion frown upon any type of music.

            The discussion on music in Islam is always one that is destined to occur in any investigation of music in the Greater Middle East. Dr. Rabah Saoud  (an author for Muslim writes in his essay; The Arab Contribution to Music of the Western World; “In dealing with the subject of music in Islamic civilization one cannot avoid falling into various arguments about the Islamic views on this art” (Saoud, 2004)Throughout recent history there have been attacks on the practice of making music. This stems from conservatives within Islam, most notably in Iran with the recent banning of western music and eventually any instrumental music in schools (Bloch, 2009).

Figure 6. Maqam Kurd

            Maqam Kurd is named after the Kurdish people and their region of the Middle East. This area consists of southern Turkey, northern Iraq, and the western part of Iran. The scale itself is very similar to the West's Phrygian mode and in the Persian Dastgah system it is known as "Shur" (Malm, 1977). Aboudi Badawi states that Kurd is; “airy and spacious, and creates the feeling of freedom. It is the typical Maqam for modern Arabic singing.” Badawi goes on to say that in the fusion of Arabic and Western dance music, Kurd is an appropriate choice (Badawi, 2003).

Figure 7. Maqam Saba (theoretical form)

Figure 7a. Maqam Saba (practical form)

            What is interesting about Maqam Saba is that it is the only example out of the eight where the mode changes its root note in the upper tetrachord. From a music-theory standpoint this has led modern musicologists to describe the scale in two ways; a theoretical form and a practical form. In its theoretical form it is somewhat reminiscent of Hijaz with the emphasis on the augmented second. In its practical form it becomes a very rich basis for melody as the root-to-eighth note ends up being a diminished octave and continuing onto what sounds like a completely new scale.

            Maqam Saba is often heard in folk music as well as religious music of the Sufi-Muslims (Powers, 2005). In middle eastern Jewish ceremonial music this mode is used to accompany circumcisions, this is explained that “Sabi” in Arabic translates to “baby-boy” (, ND). It is impossible to say if this association exists in the rest of the Middle East. Some musicians describe this scale as sad, others describe it as mystical. Badawi describes Saba as “the blues scale of Arabic music” (Badawi, 2003).  It is not surprising, though; given the tonal variety of the makeup in the upper region, why there would be such varying opinions on what mood or emotion this Maqam evokes.

Figure 8. Maqam Sikah

            Perhaps one of the most fascinating examples of the Maqam System is Sikah. As the name would imply, Sikah is built off of the E-half-flat. Because the tonic note is a “detuned” tone, it renders all the subsequent notes an unequal distance from the base. This creates for a very vibrant and alive character of melodies in this mode and very rich orchestral beating occurs when played with an ensemble. It can also sound very unusual to western listeners who are primarily accustomed to the equal temperament of western music. This is much more the case with Sikah than other scales that contain “quarter-tones” because it is the half-flat that is the resting place of the melody. William Malm writes on this issue and states that to some listeners there is an; “out-of-tune' sound of Near Eastern music (when in fact it is being played very accurately and artfully with the varied intervals mentioned)”  (Malm, 1977). Once a listener is accustomed, however; it becomes a very rich and expressive mode.

            There are many members of the greater Sikah family of scales, these include; Huzam and Mustaar. In Huzam, the fourth tone is lowered and the fifth raised (on the scale above this would include an A-flat and B-natural), and in Mustaar, there is a raised second (F-sharp on the scale above). Cameron Powers writes that Sikah is; “sacred, mystical, [and] common in folk melodies” (Powers, 2005). Aboudi Badawi describes Sikah as; “the Maqam of youth and strength... It was originally known as the 'music of the mountains' but later became standard in traditional Arabic music” (Badawi, 2003).

            It should be noted that the Maqam system represents only a theoretical basis for explaining the tonal vocabulary of the Pan-Arab musical tradition. In practice, the Maqamat are subjected to many permutations; sometimes differing in their ascending and descending order, sometimes emphasizing particular patterns (or pitch cells), and often transposing or modulating to another mode completely. This is usually the case in what could be called the Arab “classical tradition,” which, like so many other classical traditions of the world, has its roots in the court patronage system. Folk music and religious music, however; tend not to be as virtuosic in its approach.

Improvisation (Taqsim)

            In Arabic music, taqsim generally refers to either an introductory prelude to a piece of music, an improvisation within a per-composed piece, or simply a freestanding demonstration on an instrument. In the first and last examples, the taqsim takes on an air of freedom in terms of timing. This isn't to say that the music is without meter, but rather without regular meter. Usually these sorts of performances consist of short phrases evolving into longer melodies not unlike the Alap of a Hindustani Drupad composition. A prime example of this style was the many taqsims demonstrated by the famous Oud player; Munir Bashir. Bashir, who recorded in all of the primary Maqamat (and indeed, a good deal of the less common ones) would usually begin his improvisations with short phrases which brought out the major character of the mode while giving a great deal of space between interjections of new ideas. Unencumbered with a regular meter, this seemed to give Bashir the freedom to express whatever mood the Maqam was suggesting to him. As the performance moved forward the tempo would change from slow to progressively faster and the phrases would get progressively longer. The volume would also crescendo which usually resulted in a kind of strumming which would appear to push the instrument to breaking, although this never actually happened. As in so many other traditions which prize the ability to improvise, the performer of a taqsim is at the same time composer and performer, there is not the same separation of the two as there is in the west.

            When writing on any musical tradition it is important to keep in mind that the very nature of the craft is one of constant evolution, therefore; the classical Arabic music available for consumption today cannot be said to be a faithful representation of music from Arabia's ancient past. Like all other cultures, those of the Greater Middle East have influenced each other, as well as being influenced by those outside, namely Europe and India. This has always been the case, that music, like language is subjected to periods of fashion, rebellion and resurgence. Currently there are large ensembles playing Arabic music in restricted heterophonic orchestras using a great deal of European instruments (such as the violin family and woodwinds). There are also smaller ensembles of about eight or less who perform in a more liberal heterophonic style on traditional Middle Eastern instruments. There have been many well known soloists such as Bashir as well as the phenomenally popular Um Kathoom who form a pantheon of stardom in their own right. Finally there are the home and folk musicians, the amateurs who form the true and direct line from not only Arabic Music's past but who will also preserve it for the future in whatever form it decides to take.