Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Religion and Music

     Assumptions bother me.  Especially when they generalize a culture that has such a diverse history.  I am speaking of course about the Arab world.  More so in particular about the Levantine area which includes the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan.  This area is also known by such names as, Bilad il-Sham, Al-Mashriq, or Greater Syria.  Most people ASSUME that since I am an Arab, I am Muslim.  While I have nothing against my Muslim brothers and sisters, I am Christian, and more specifically an Orthodox Christian.  Many people fail to realize that most of the Levantine area was Orthodox Christian before the rise of Islam.  So how does music fit into all this?
     To start, lets take a brief Western music history lesson.  Music in Western civilization has its roots within the Catholic church.  The Catholic church had a huge influence on all aspects of life in Western history including music.  Out of the religious musical tradition we start to see the emergence of secular music in the West around the end of the Medieval period and the beginning of the Renaissance period  The same thing can be said about "Eastern" or Arabic music.  This is one instance were "East" mirrors "West".  As I have stated in previous posts on this blog, Arabic music has its roots in the Byzantine Church.  If we you listen to Orthodox Liturgical chant, you can easily hear similarities with Arabic music such as, style, melodic shape, intonation, and maqamat (modes).
     Now let me show you how Arab music has its roots in the Orthodox Church.  Before reading any further, listen to this video (click here).  The video from YouTube is an excellent example of Byzantine chant in the Orthodox Church.  There are eight modes or "tones" in Byzantine chant.  Tones 1 and 5 are close to maqam bayati in Arabic music. Tones 2 and 6 are close to maqam hijaz. Tones 3 and 7 are mix of maqams ajam and jiharkah. Tone 4 is a variant of maqam sikah.  Tone 8 is close to maqam rast.  Without going in to all the theology and theory behind Byzantine chant, the basic differences between each tone or mode is the tone treats that certain maqam or mode.  In the video example it is clear that the choir is chanting in tone 2 or in Arabic music we would say this sounds like maqam hijaz.  While the choir is not singing the hijaz scale as it would be sung or performed in Arabic music with regards to tuning, it has many things in common with its treatment of that maqam.  The "dominant"* note in tone 2 and maqam hijaz is the fourth scale degree.  The treatment of the notes below the tonic of the the mode share common principals.  In Arabic music maqam hijaz usually plays the tetra chord below the tonic as maqam rast.  For example if I were to play maqam hijaz on "D",  the notes below the tonic would be G, A, B half-flat, C, and D. This would sound like maqam rast in Arabic music.  In the YouTube video the choir does almost the same thing with the notes below the tonic.  They do not complete the rast tetra chord at first by going all the down to the G, but they still use the "quarter tone"**  on the second note below the tonic, about 50 seconds into the chant they do complete the rast tetra chord starting from the fifth note below the tonic and ascending upwards to the tonic again with differences in tuning from the Arabic tradition.  Another way we know that tone 2 is close to hijaz in the video is by listening to the intervals between the second and third note of the mode.  While again there is a difference between the Arabic tuning of the hijaz scale and the Byzantine tuning, there still is a wider interval between the second and third note of the mode which is characteristic of maqam hijaz.
     Aside form the similarities in modes  or maqams and their treatment, there is also a stylistic similarity.  Listen to these two videos, one of a priest chanting (click here), and the other of a violin taqasim*** performed by Sami Al Shawwa (click here).  If you listen carefully you will hear that Arabic music and Byzantine chant share many similarities when it comes to ornamentation and phrasing.  This can be illustrated by observing the Ornaments the priest does with his voice and comparing them to the ornaments done in the violin taqasim.  Other similarities include the use of drones, sliding and bending of notes, and of course modulations in and out of the maqams or modes.  It is much easier for some one who has grown up listening to Arabic music and Byzantine chant all his or her life to spot these similarities.  For those who are not well versed in either type of music, the best thing to do would be to really listen to each detail of both types of music.  The principals of both styles of music are the same, and that is to uplift the listener, or in other words, Tarab.  Tarab is used in both Byzantine chant and Arabic music.  Tarab in Byzantine chant is used to elevate the listener to a higher state of prayer while Arabic music uses tarab purely as an affect on the listener so that he or she may enjoy or apperciate the music on a deeper level.  In any case both genres of music are intended to impact the listener in one way or the other. 
     As I have stated in the second paragraph, Western music has its roots in the Catholic Church which was the dominant religion in the West at the time.   In this blog I  have shown how Arabic music and Byzantine chant are alike.  The similarities are clear, and it is a fact that the Orthodox Church was the main religion in the Arab world before the rise of Islam.   It would make sense that Arabic music has its roots in the Byzantine Church, amongst other cultural influences from in the Middle East.  Religion has always been there to witness and be a part of a cultures growth and expansion.  We see this not only in the Arab world, but with the Greek, Russian, and European civilizations as well. So it comes to no surprise that a religion such as the Orthodox Church would have some hand in the development of Arabic music.  But then again, I may be assuming.

* Dominant is a term used in Western music that is used denote the fifth scale degree.  The dominant in Arabic music is not fixed like Western music, it could be the fourth, fifth, an even the third scale degree.

** Quarter tone is a generic term for notes between whole steps that are not in the Western tuning system.  These notes are not necessarily in between half steps, the maqam or mode would usually determine the tuning of the "quarter tone"

*** A taqasim is an improvisation in Arabic music that starts and ends on the same maqam or mode.