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Discover Belly Dance Journal

Feature Article
Middle Eastern Music: A Primer

By Trey R. Barker

It is exotic. The dance. The music. The composers and artists. Even many of the instruments are foreign to western ears. To someone who is considering exploring the richness of Arabic dance, this entirely new world can be overwhelming. But it isn't as difficult to navigate these strange musical waters as it first appears.

In the pantheon of Arabic music, the names so well known in the west--Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Lennon- McCartney--are notably absent. They've been replaced by names like Farid Al Atrache, Mohammed Abdul Wahab, and Amr Diab.

As with western music, there are many different variations and interpretations of Arabic music. But also like western music, the rhythms, though varied, are all basic and fundamental.

Kay Hardy Campbell, an Arabic music scholar, says the difference in rhythms can be boiled down to the difference in complexity of those rhythms. "The patterns are very different. In western 'classical' music you find a lot of 4/4, and 3/4. But in Middle Eastern music you have really complex 10/8's, 12/8's, many versions of 6/8, various 4/4's and even 28/4's."

In other words, where Western music usually gives a dancer three or four beats per measure, Arabic music gives a dancer six, ten, twelve, sixteen, and more, beats per measure. This is just a repeat of what Ms. Campbell just said. It is sometimes difficult for someone raised with western music to internalize those strange rhythms enough to dance comfortably to them.

How those rhythms are played within the context of an ensemble can be quite different from western music, too. Campbell says Arabic music rhythms tend to be much more driving than western music, more like the drummer in a rock band or hip-hop outfit.

"It's a steady backbone that carries the whole band along," she says. "Especially in the Middle Eastern nightclub tradition. Many 7/8's in [western] jazz just bring me right back to a Middle Eastern feeling. I keep waiting to hear a hip hop piece playing 'balady' or maqsum."

But for dancers, getting a feel for the types of rhythms in Arabic music isn't quite enough. Once a dancer understands what kinds of rhythms they are likely to encounter, they must contend with those rhythms shifting within the song, and in some cases, stopping completely for dramatic purpose.

"Certainly we have [shifting rhythms and silences] in western music," Campbell says. "But the drop-dead- take-your-breath-away silences that are so dramatic in Middle Eastern music and [that are heard] in the really complex cosmopolitan pieces by the 20th century composers, [along with the] rhythmic shifts, are constant [in Middle Eastern music]."

An example of that, according to Campbell, is 'Layali Lubnan,' by Abdul Wahhab. 'Layali Lubnan' moves constantly between different sets of rhythm patterns and maqams, which are the groups of notes used in the melody and harmony.

"In fact if you want to listen to an example of shifting rhythms, 'Layali Lubnan' is a really great song to demonstrate how fast the rhythms can change," says Campbell. I'll look for a place to find this piece of music.

Though many Arabic musical instruments are familiar to westerners (guitars and drumsets, synthesizers and keyboards, even some wind and brass instruments such as saxophone and trumpet) there are many others westerners do not see or hear much. Many of these instruments are indigenous to the Middle East.

There are many string instruments in Arabic music, though they have to be tuned to the maqam (musical scale) used in Arabic music. The Ud (pronounced 'ood') is a pear shaped, fretless instrument with twelve strings. To produce a sound, the player must pluck the strings, what is called pizzicato in western music.

Another instrument is the Qanun (pronounced 'kuh noon' and also spelled Kanoun or Kanun). Again, it is a plucked instrument though it sits across the performer's lap, much like a steel guitar in the west, but shaped like a harpsichord lying on its side (or a hammer dulcimer).

The Saz (pronounced 'sahz') is a Turkish instrument. Visually, it could be mistaken for a small lute, but with a longer, thinner neck. Unlike the Ud, the Saz has adjustable frets, which allows the musician a wider range of tones. The adjustable frets are somewhat similar to a capo used on western guitars, which allow the musician to play in different keys more easily.

In terms of percussion, there are many hundreds of variations of instruments. Perhaps the most famous is the dumbek, pronounced 'doom beck.' (also called a tableh, or derbekke) This hourglass-shaped instrument is extremely popular and used in nearly every aspect of Arabic music. Though recent vintage dumbeks can be made of metal with synthetic heads, the traditional instrument is ceramic with an animal skin head.

The riqq, sometimes spelled riq or reque (pronounced 'rick'), is one that most westerners would recognize. It is an Arabic tambourine. A versatile instrument, it can be used as primary or secondary rhythm.

Pronounced 'def,' the def is, in all practical ways, a tambourine without cymbals. And as with the tambourine in western music, the def is used predominantly for background rhythm

Another instrument widely recognized in the west are finger cymbals. In Turkey, finger cymbals are called zills; in Arabic countries, they are called sagat.

Generally, Arabic music uses fewer wind instruments than percussion or stringed instruments. Some of those include the mizmar, and the zurna, both of which are from the oboe family. Both are used frequently in ethnic-style Arabic music. Another common wind instrument is the ney (also: nay). It is, basically, a wooden flute, similar to western wooden flutes, or western recorders but is played from a hole at the end of the instrument, rather than from a hole cut in the side. It appears regularly in Turkish and Arabic music and is quite difficult to master.

Understanding rhythms and instruments is basic to learning Arabic music, but it is not everything. Arabic music is like an unexplored room. Discovering rhythm and instrumentation is like finding the door. After opening that door and stepping into this new room, the novice dancer will find hundreds and thousands of songs with which to begin building a repertoire.

There are standards, just as there are standard songs for western musicians. Young rock and rollers in America must know how to play Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Young jazz musicians must know how to play Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." The same applies to novice dancers. There are standards of Arabic song. When searching the local record bins or surfing the internet for exotic music, some titles to look for include: 'Wa Marrat al-Ayyam,' 'Aziza,' and 'Zeina,' by Abdul Wahhab.

Also, Farid al Atrache is a musician with whom dancers should be familiar. He is generally considered a modern Arabic composer/performer, but many of his tunes have become standards in the genre. 'Gamil Gamal,' 'Habena,' 'Toutah,' and 'Me Alli We Oltelu,' are all required listening.

Another composer of popular song is Mohommed Abdel Wahab. His songs include 'Cleopatra,' and 'Inte Omri.' - most famously sung by artist Umm Kalthoum.

And don't forget, according to Campbell, to go to live performances while exploring this genre. Seeing the music played and watching the dances performed can be just as educational as simply listening to the recorded music. Discover the dancers and musicians in your area, go see them perform, and ask them questions.

It is an exotic world, with different music and dances, different costumes and customs, different aesthetics. But for those willing to put in the effort, the discovery of Arabic music will enrich both their lives and their performances.

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