Friday, February 19, 2010

LISTEN! The Importance of the Samee'ah in Arabic Music

     Not many people realize how important the audience is in Arabic music.  Their importance is such that they were given a title of sorts.  They are called the "samee'ah", or literally translated to english, "listeners".  You would think that in all music the audience is important and this is true, but in Arabic music the audience/listener play an especially important role.  This is because Arabic music is an interactive music were both the audience and the musicians participate in the process of tarab.  I have used the word tarab in every one of my posts on this blog because tarab is the most important aspect of Arabic music.  It is what distinguishes Arabic music from Western music. 
     We can see the importance of the listener (samee') and how tarab effects people by simply observing an Arabic music concert.  I am not talking about when Fares Karam or Haifa Wehebe come to town, but real Arabic tarab music.  At the bottom of this post I will post three YouTube links of videos form The Michigan Arabic Orchestra concert done on January 28th 2010.  In those videos you will notice people clapping along with the music, whistling really loud after the piece is over, shouting out exclamations such as tayeb (lit. delicious), ya salam (lit. oh peace), and Allah (lit. God).  These sort of things happen because tarab is taking place.  
     How do we know tarab is taking place?  The reaction of the audience is only the outward expression of tarab, it is what emotion that stirs inside the individual that causes the outward reaction that we call tarab.  I know this because of my experience with Arabic music but to further prove my point I will share with you what someone told me after the concert.  For the sake anonymity I will be a bit vague.  After the concert I was approached by an audience member who told me, "The last song Usama sang brought a flood of memories from my childhood days."  His outward reaction was shared by  many samee'ah (listeners) in the audience which indicates that tarab took place.  I know that as a musician hearing these outward expressions from the audience makes me perform at a higher level because in turn I experience tarab.  This turns into a cycle that continues to grow until everyone enters a state of saltanah,  meaning a higher state of. tarab.  However without the audience participation in all of this we can not achieve saltanah or tarab because as I have mentioned before that tarab is a cycle that involves the audience and in turn effects the musicians performance.     
     Being a samee' (listener) does not mean one has to be of a specific ethnicity.  The only requirement is to truly listen.  Having some knowledge of the music helps but is certainly no substitute for listening.  This is hard to do but with help from other audience members in the concert it is possible for tarab to experienced by everyone in attendance.  In his biography Sabah Fakhri, a Syrian vocalist would mention that in the beginning of his concert he would start going through all of his songs and pay attention to the audience.  He would do this to find the samee' (listeners) in his audience then sing to them the entire night.  This is not done because the singer is excluding the rest of the audience, but rather because he knows that in finding the few samee'ah in the audience, they will be able lead the entire audience to a state of tarab.   I did the same thing  in my  concert every time I played a taqasim (improvisation) on the nay (reed flute).  I specifically looked at one member in the audience who I knew loved to hear that instrument, this made me put more of  myself in the performance knowing that his reaction would effect the people around him.   So LISTEN!!!!!!!!! Music has a way of effecting people on such deep and emotional level, I have seen it first hand.  Think about it, Arabic music is always created with the listener in mind, if no one listened then what is the point?

YouTube Links
Ya Imsafer Wahdak 1/2:
Ya Imsafer Wahdak 2/2:

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mediocrtiy In Music

     Listening to the music coming out of the pop scene in Arabic music, I have noticed a lot of mediocre product coming out.  At times I can't tell whether I am listening to a song by Assi Hilani, or Najwa Karam because most of the music coming out today sounds the same.  This tells me that there is a disturbing acceptance of mediocrity in Arabic music.  Not only is this a problem in music but it has become a standard in society were mediocrity is uplifted over excellence.  My intent is not to put down Pop culture music in the Arab world, but this is an issue that needs to be addressed.  As musicians we have a responsibility not only to ourselves but to the listeners and more importantly to music itself.  
     Mediocrity in music is a problem because it waters down its complexity.  This does two things to the listener. First it lowers their standards with respect to quality.   Lets face it, in Arabic Pop culture the music coming out is not the most mind stimulating.  Second, mediocrity "dumbs" down the listener and by doing that removing any expectation of experiencing anything profound in a musical performance.  Not only does mediocrity effect the listener but it effects the musicians as well.  It fosters the idea that true tarab can be achieved with singing repetitive lines about love or whatever meaningless subject they chose.  Arab tarab music is much more complicated than simple repetition.  Just listen to the countless pieces by Abdel Wahab, Riyad Al-Sunbati, Ahmed Fawzy, and Farid El-Atrache, by no means is that music repetitive or simple.  It also effects the musicians by allowing them to take the easy route and play simple pop music.  We all know that in order to perform music at high caliber, IT TAKES WORK!!!!!!!!  I cant even tell you how much music consumes my life, it is very hard work but I do it because I believe in and love music that much.  
     I believe that these problems with mediocrity stem from two reasons.  One of them has to do with television, media, and technology.  Think of it, when I was about four years old, there was no such thing as a cell phone.  We had  rotary phone in the house, the kind you have to spin a wheel and dial the number.  Now home phones virtually don't exist, EVERYONE has a cell phone.  We have gotten used to having everything handed to us quickly and in turn, developing a short attention span.  Arabic music needs an audience to intently listen to whats going on.  This takes a certain amount of attention to detail that most of today's generation does not have.  That is an easy problem to fix, it just takes people to simply SLOW DOWN in life.  The second and much larger problem is the acceptance of mediocrity in society as a whole!  I have no real explanation for this statement other than people have just gotten lazy.  It is apparent in our schools, our workforce, obesity in people, and even in religion.  With all the advances in technology and the prosperity that we have seen in the past two decades (not including the recent financial crisis), we have gotten accustomed to things being easy for us.  To fix this, it requires more work on an individual level that I wont even dare to comment on, but I truly believe that it is an issue that needs to be addressed for reasons that go way beyond music.  
     There is something to be said about music done at a high level.  In Arabic music, you get the full effect of tarab when music is performed at a high level of excellence.  People are smart, and will eventually figure out the difference between junk and something good, but when will that happen?

Monday, February 8, 2010

What is Tarab?

In my past three posts I have mentioned the word tarab, and I would give a definition of musical ecstasy in Arabic music.  I decided to take a deeper look into this very important aspect of Arabic music.  For many reasons the word tarab would take more than one post on a blog to define, but I will do my absolute best to give you all a quick overview.  What exactly does the word tarab mean?  According to Dr. A. J. Racy's book, Making Music in the Arab World" the Culture and Artistry of Tarab", "In Arab culture, the merger between music and emotional transformation is epitomized by he concept of tarab, which may not have an exact equivalent in Western languages".   So we go from defining a word, to describing a concept.  Now we ask what is the concept?  In order to better relate the concept to you, lets look at what scholars had to say about the difference between Western European music and Arabic music.  Guillaume Andre Villoteau lead a musicological team as part of Napoleons scientific mission  to Egypt in 1798-99.  Villoteau had observed that Arabic music evoked powerful emotions form its listeners.  About thirty-five years later an Arab writer by the name of Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq on his travels to Europe attempted to explain the difference between Western and Eastern music.  In his writings he took special notice of how the audience reacted to Western music Also comparing Western music to his own experience with Arabic music he noted that Western music was suited to representing images and concepts whereas Arabic music tended draw more raw emotion from its audience.  There are consistent findings in both of these men that Arabic music does have a more outward and profound effect on its audience compared to Western music.  In my own experiences with Western and Arabic music, I found Western Music to have its own form of tarab that is much more subtle and cerebral than Arabic music.  The best example I can give to describe that feeling with Western music is to listen to Copeland's clarinet concert  which was originally written for Benny Goodman, a jazz clarinetist.  One should pay special attention to the stark contrast between the slow and fast sections of the piece such as the difference in texture, harmony, mood, tempo and intensity.  All of those aspects are perfect examples of what makes Copeland's clarinet concert sound they way it does and in turn stimulating the kind of tarab it does out of me. Nonetheless  it is a completely different form of tarab then what I experience with Arabic music.  Going back to our original point that tarab is more accurately described as a concept rather than a definition and answering the question, "What is the concept of tarab?''.  We also find that the concept of tarab in Arabic music is to move one emotionally through the music, whether the listener (samee' in Arabic) is led to feel overwhelmed by joy, sadness, or just plain elation for the music that is being performed.  Not only is tarab one of the main components that makes Arabic what it is, but you can also find different forms of tarab on other types of music in the Arab world as well.  One of the obvious places and well known places to find it would be within the Sufi religion.  Two noticeable differences exist between Sufi music and Arabic Music.  Sufi music is religious andmore reserved whereas secular Arabic music is generally not religious and can be more emotional and technically flamboyant at times.  It is sort of the same difference between music of the Catholic church in the late middle ages and Ars Nova, a genre of music that is sometimes described as polyphonic music of the fourteenth century.  The Dhikr, which in Arabic literally means remembrance or invocation, is a name used to describe a Mevleviye Sufi Liturgy, and in that context the word dhikr takes on the meaning Remembrance of God.  This ceremony is where you will find a great example of religious tarab where the ones who are partaking in the service, the listeners, end up twirling in a circle hence the name whirling dervishes.  The instrumentation with this music is generally frame drum and nay (Arabic reed flute), and the tarab that is experienced in this worship service is strongly tied to being closer to God.  The Orthodox Church of the Byzantine empire which at one point included most of the Arab world shares a similar type of tarab completely achieved by chanting various hymns and psalms in eight different modes.  My own experiences with the Orthodox church have shown me that indeed there is a type of tarab felt during any of the Church's services, and even more so during High Holy Days such as the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) or Pascha (Easter).  There is a general theology that goes with chanting, and that is the chanter is to remove himself as to become transparent and be seen as if he is singing with the choirs of angels in heaven praising God.  If done right (and it rarely is), the chanting is supposed to uplift the person (Listener) in worship from his or her current position to a state of pure prayer.  While religious tarab has different feelings or objectives behind it, its the principal (going back to that idea of concept) that is the same.  All of these forms of music I mentioned have the ability of uplifting the listener from his or her current state and take them somewhere else on an emotional journey.  You can easily find all forms and degrees of tarab in all genres and forms of Arabic music.  Each one would have a unique characteristic style, sound, and feel to them, and for purposes of time I am not able to explain all of them.  However out of all the styles in my opinion Classical Arabic music, or what is also called Tarab music, both old and new is where you can experience tarab at its finest.  Finally, the reason for talking about this subject is that  for those who want to understand Arabic music on a deeper level, they must first understand the concept of tarab.  The way tarab is expressed in Arabic music is what makes it unique to many different cultures  that have the same or similar concept in their music.  It is also what makes it such an intriguing art form that is starting to attract many ears in the West.  
            Isn't moving the listener why we make music, after all?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Arab Pop Culture Music vs. Tarab Music

We have a problem with Arabic music today.  The mainstream pop culture music has taken over the entire music scene in the Middle East practically wiping out an entire tradition and genre of Arabic music.  I hear many people in my community who say that the music of Abdel Wahab, Um Kalthoum, Sabah Fakhri, and many other Arab Classical artists both old and new are dead and pop music is what people want to hear.  While there is some truth to the above statement, I have a different outlook on the situation.  First let me explain some fundamental differences between Pop Culture and Tarab music.  Pop Culture music today has become simple, and repetitive and most of it sounds the same.  It uses but not fuses many western elements and about 60% of it is focused on weddings.  Recently few Pop Culture stars have "stretch" the limits by including some suggestive "sexual themes" in there music.  While Tarab music, both classical and new ,tends to be a little more deeper and mature in musical content and lyrics.  Another big difference between the two genres of music is instrumentation.  Pop Culture music will use more electronic and "foreign" instruments such as, keyboard, electric bass, and LOTS of percussion from the Latin and American style.  Tarab Music makes more use of the orchestra or what I call the Arabic "symphonic sound".  I am not saying that a traditional "takht"* is always used, sometimes in contemporary Tarab music, musicians will branch out and experiment with different elements or instruments. These are only some of the main differences between the two genres of music. Reading this, one could easily say that I am biased when it comes to music.  While I do have my personal choices and tastes in music, I love ALL Arabic music.  Most people tend to be one sided about what they listen to or what deserves being called "music".  But I believe that EVERY genre of music has its place the Arab world.  While Pop Music is lighter and more geared towards dancing and night clubs, it serves a purpose that is needed.  I mean lets face it, you generally wont find people dancing or doing the "dabke"**  while listening to Sayed Darwish, or Um Kalthoum.  That would be like going to a college night club and busting a move to the greatest hits of Mozart.  People need to dance, let off some steam and just listen to something light and mindless.  At the same time Tarab music has its place in society.  Aside form the fact that it has a rich history in  Arab culture,  it is the type of music that stimulates the mind of both the musician and the active listener.  I am not only talking about music form  centuries ago, or the golden age of Arabic music with people like Mohammed Abel Wahab, Sayed Darwish, Saleh Abdelhey, or Farid El-Atrache, but also  about contemporary and new Tarab music coming out from musicians like Simon Shaheen, Ali Jihad Racy, Bassam Saba, and even Raid George. This genre of Arabic music does exist because it is beautiful, but also because it is necessary, serves a purpose, and has its place in Arab society.  I can sit and write for hours on the individual experiences with this music not just from me, but from almost everybody I know both Arab and non-Arab.  But the bottom line is that Tarab music has made its mark on  Arab culture, and I think I can safely say it has become a part of the Arab identity.  So what is the problem and how do we fix it? In my opinion  the problem stems from a number of reasons, a few of them have to do with education, and most of it has to do with business.  This is why Arab Pop stars are generally much more financially stable than your local oud player.  However I think the solution lies with coming to an understanding that ALL music has its place  and serves a purpose in the Arab world.  One should never be neglected over the other.  This means that  all of us have a personal responsibility not only as musicians but as listeners  to acknowledge, understand, and preserve our rich heritage of beautiful music both old and new.

A small traditional Arabic ensemble that includes violin, oud, nay, qanun, and riq.
** A traditional Arab folk "line dance" primarily danced at weddings.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Arabic Orchestras in America and Tarab

Because of recent events we are seeing a rising interest in Arab culture. With this interest we are also seeing Arabic music making its way to an even larger audience which is causing Arabic orchestras to pop up here and there. One might naturally think that these ensembles are in America are a pretty accurate representation of what Arabic music is like in the Middle East. I happen to disagree with this. I believe that there is one important component missing from most of these ensembles that can be summed up in one word, TARAB. What is tarab? It is a term used in Arabic music to denote a state of musical ecstasy by the listener and/or the performer. In Arabic music the audience as well as the performer play an important role in performances of "tarab music". The musician would basically start performing and eventually the audience would respond to something they liked in the musicians performance, and in turn this would make the musician put more of himself in to the performance which ultimately will get the audience to respond even more to his or her performance. This cycle would continue until either everyone has reached a state of tarab, or until the musicians got tired! Tarab is one of the many aspects that makes Arabic music so different and unique to western music. But what does all this talk about tarab have to do with Arabic orchestras here in the states? Its the simple fact, that most of these orchestras and ensembles hold performances that are devoid of any tarab experience. If you were to listen to authentic recordings of "Arabic tarab music" both old and new, you will hear some improvisatory and ornamental differences between them and groups here in the States. Most of the groups in America play with what I can best describe as a clean and sterile sound were intonation is good and everyone is together all the time, but the performance would lack a certain spirit or "feeling" that goes with the music. Going back to those recordings from the Middle East, you will find that not only do those ensembles play in tune and together (most of the time), but theirs also a certain "feeling" to the way the music is approached. This "feeling" goes beyond just a musical vocabulary of ornaments and were to insert them, but it is also something that as musicians who perform Arabic music  are supposed to "feel". Almost like a dialect with with a specific accent were the dialect represents Arabic music as a whole, and the accent represents the type or genre of Arabic music one is performing. I believe that this is the hardest thing to teach to anyone who wants to learn how to perform Arabic music because you don't want to inhibit the individuals creative ability but at the same time you want to the student to adhere to a set of principles that will make he or she sound like they understand the "dialect" and "accent"of the music. In my previous blog, I stated that I approach teaching Arabic music the same way one would teach a college undergrad how to play baroque music, teaching them a style and vocabulary of music versus teaching from "scratch". The most effective way I found to teach style to my ensemble was to use lots of listening examples along with performance imitation (similar if not the same as the Suzuki method). With the listening, I not only give my students good examples or Arabic music, but I have them listen to a lot of Orthodox Byzantine music as well. Not many people realize that Arabic music mirrors the west in that our musical roots are based within the Byzantine church. If you listen to some Byzantine done correctly (and that's hard to find), you will notice many similarities to Arabic music. In these recordings of Byzantine and Arabic music my students are able to get idea of how to shape melodic lines or phrases in the written out music without writing in all the details on the music. You can see my results on beginners who have never performed Arabic music before on youtube under the name "Michigan Arabic Orchestra".....I will be posting the official recordings soon! I also use performance imitation with my ensemble, were I play a phrase and have them play it back exactly the way I played it. What this does is translate the listening examples to their fingers and in turn gives them ideas on how to perform this music with more authentic sound which all goes towards experiencing tarab in a performance. On personal note regarding ensemble cleanliness and Arabic music. I hear too many ensembles who perform Arabic music very clean and together. I prefer to hear a hint individuality in an ensembles playing. In recordings of the Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum, you will notice times were the orchestra is playing together and cleanly, but there are other times in the music were almost everyone is improvising a little bit after the singer sings a phrase. I call this the concept of organized chaos, in were the ensemble is together but not at the same time. This can be seen during a performance if you look at the violins. In an Arabic orchestra the violins do not coordinate bowing's like a Western orchestra. In Arabic music, and this is my opinion, being clean and precise all the time does not necessarily mean that the performance will be good or have tarab in it. That is all dependent on what the musicians put of themselves in the music and how much they actually believe in what they are playing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Teaching Arab Tuning to Western Musicians

When I tell people that I am teaching non Arabs how to play Arabic music, the most common reaction is, "Can they play the Quarter tone?" My answer is always "Absolutely!" I approach teaching Arabic music to western trained musicians as learning a new vocabulary of music. It is the same concept as a college undergrad learning how to play Bach cello suites, you are basically learning how to play in that style of music, nothing about your playing changes other than the style of playing. The same thing is true with Arabic music. So how does that effect playing Arabic Maqams (modes) with the proper tuning? I believe that I have the most effective and efficient way to do this. I start by giving the musicians Recordings of each Arabic Maqam they are playing. I play them in whole notes about 50 beats per minute and have them play along with that at home. In rehearsals I use a technique which i picked up form one of my teachers, Simon Shaheen, I play a phrase and have them play it back. This does two things, it gives them a sense on what Arabic phrasing should be sound like, and it helps them be more consistent with the intonation. Another thing I have the students do is SING! My high school band teacher has always said if you can sing it, you can play it.! The trick to singing is you have to force the musicians to sing OUT LOUD!, this is because we learn pitch through vibrations, and when we sing out loud our ear registers those vibrations and the actual pitch becomes easier to recognize. There is one common problem people encounter when playing Arabic Maqams. I always have to deal with this and finally figured out why. Western Musicians are taught intonation on instruments such as the violin by the distance of one finger to the other. This is why when a western musician plays a quarter tone (microtone is more proper) like the E Half-Flat, the notes around it (like the "F") go sharp or flat. The only remedy for this is to keep them mindful of the fact that ONLY the quarter is the new note they are learning, everything else stays the same! I can go on forever in greater detail but i believe this a very good start for anyone who wants to learn to play Arabic music PROPERLY!!! The next step (for a later time) would be to learn the the proper tuning of each Maqam and how the quarter tone really works as opposed to just being a not in between a half step!