This blog is a compilation of my thoughts and experiences with performing and listening to arabic music.
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?