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:


  1. Hi Michael, My name is Anna. I am a professional dancer from Texas and I just ran across this article.

    I can't help but apply your very well stated thoughts to not only music, but also to dance.
    There is a lack of music appreciation among dancers as well. Many dancers are using more pop these days, rather than classics. My own theory is that dancers, particularly American dancers, many times are afraid to tackle classical music. Many are afraid of misinterpreting the music both physically and emotionally. But as you stated in your article, anyone can expreience tarab if they truely listen. I think it is of paramount importance that the dancer connect with the music as well or else she/he risks losing the audience and preventing them from experiencing tarab.

    Please keep the great articles coming!!!

  2. Thank you for your intelligent and thought-provoking series of essays on Middle Eastern music. As someone who is interested in learning more but has few opportunities to do so as a result of where I live, this is an invaluable resource. In return, I would like to direct your attention to this article, if you have not seen it already The subject is Western music, but I believe you will find it is very much in keeping with your thoughts on the evolution of Arabic music.

  3. Hello Michael,

    My name is Michelle and I wonder if you have any background information regarding Ya Masfer Wahdak? I know it was composed by Mohamed Abdel Wahab but was it made for a movie or do you think he wanted to fuse Arabic/Spanish music together? It is such a lovely piece of music; I would love to know some history to this song.
    Thank you,

  4. Thank you for this beautiful post- it made me cry, just to remember some of the beautiful performances I have been privileged to attend in the past- once you know that feeling of true connection to the music, there is nothing else that can compare. I wish more people would open themselves to this possibility by attending live music & really listening.

  5. Daniel O'Donnell in Portland: I do not argue the importance of an attentive and appreciative audience, but sorry, you are wrong to assert emotional reaction is tarab. So people get excited, and react, the same thing happens at your average rock concert, that is not tarab. Have you ever been to a concert where, for example, an oud master or a ney master plunged the audience into such a deep place that they responded with appreciative silence, and then maybe sighed and murmured "hmmm ... ' and then, maybe, some quiet applause, because they did not want to disturb the atmosphere the musician created? THAT is tarab! The great Arab mystic al-Junayd of Baghdad was once challenged why he appeared to be unmoved by a beautiful sama' at which he was present, and he responded [ Q ] "You see the mountains and take them to be immobile, but I tell you, they move like clouds".

  6. Very nice post.really I apperciate your blog.Thanks for sharing.keep sharing more blogs.