Arabic music is my favorite musical styling. Although I have come to enjoy classical and contemporary styling as well, Arabic music has almost an innate quality of enjoyment for me. Its songs speak of the life and culture of Arabic countries and its melody is not commonly heard on American radio stations. Its songs tell the story of the Arabic people, people who are similar to Americans but also different in many ways. The songs are a romantic and wonderful inspiration to me while living and studying in America.
The tradition of Arabic music has been cultivated throughout Arab regions for thousands of years. Although it has undergone many changes over the centuries, it has retained certain distinctive traits.
The Arabic music tradition developed in the courts of dynasties in the Islamic empire from the 7th century to the 13th century. It flourished during the Umayyad dynasty in the 7th century and 8th century in Syria. Great performers were drawn to Baghdad, now the capital of Iraq, under such rulers as Harun ar-Rashid, who was a patron of the musical arts during the late 700s.3
The cities of the Islamic empire, from Spain across North Africa and throughout the Middle East, boasted many fine musicians. These early musicians were often composers and poets as well as performers. Although the major writings on Arab music appeared after the spread of Islam in the beginning of the 7th century, the music tradition had already begun. Before the spread of Islam, Arab music incorporated music traditions of the Sassanid dynasty (224-641) in Persia and the early Byzantine empire (4th century to 6th century) and of sung poetry from the Arabian Peninsula.3 Arabic-speaking scholars also studied the treatises of ancient Greek philosophers on music. Music theorists of the 10th century and 11th century, such as al-Farabi and Avicenna, produced their own theories of music based on what they had learned from the Greeks and on the music of their own times. Greek works translated by the Arab scholars were later studied by European scientists and philosophers.
Melody and Rhythm
Arabic music is created using unharmonized melodic and rhythmic systems. Arabic melodies draw from a vast array of models, or melodic modes, known as maqamat. Arabic books on music include as many as 52 melodic modes, of which at least 12 are commonly used.3 These modes feature more tones than are present in the Western musical system, including notably smaller intervals that are sometimes called microtones, or half-flats and half-sharps. Arabic melodies frequently use the augmented second interval, an interval larger than those of most Western melodies.3 The sound of Arabic music is richly melodic and offers opportunity for subtle nuance and creative variation.
The rhythmic structure of Arabic music is similarly complex. Rhythmic patterns have up to 48 beats and typically include several downbeats (called dums) as well as upbeats (called taks) and silences, or rests.3 To grasp a rhythmic mode, the listener must hear a relatively long pattern. Moreover, the performers do not simply play the pattern; they elaborate upon and ornament it. Often the pattern is recognizable by the arrangement of downbeats.
In Arab tradition, good musicians offer something new in each performance by varying and improvising on known pieces or models in a fashion similar to that of jazz musicians. The inventions of musicians can be lengthy, extending ten-minute compositions into hour-long performances that bear only a skeletal resemblance to the models. The inventions of the musician traditionally depend upon the response of the audience. Listeners are expected to react during the performance, either verbally or with applause. Quiet is interpreted as disinterest or dislike. The audience members, in this tradition, are active participants in determining the length of the performance and in shaping the piece of music by encouraging musicians to either repeat a section of the piece or to move to the next section.
Born of the cultures of the Arab World stretching from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, Arabic music is becoming popular world-wide. It is made up of an astonishing variety of folk, classical, and popular musical traditions. Many of these have survived for centuries, reflecting the musical sensibilities of the ancient world as well as the Middle Ages.
While each region within the Arab World has its distinctive styles, commonalities of instrumentation, modal structure, rhythmic patterns, performance techniques, and lyric content extend across the area, forming a fascinating weaving of artistic tradition that changes and evolves while remaining true to its ancient heritage. In the last decades a growing global audience has come to appreciate the richness of this music.
The global audience is hungry for information about these traditions, their history, the playing techniques and theories behind them, as well as news about performances, recordings, and concerts. Listeners, performers and students rely on word of mouth to keep current on Arabic music news. This is due to the fact that it is primarily distributed through smaller recording labels, and since performances occur outside the mainstream concert circuits.
Arabic Song and its English Translation1
What follows is a translation into English of the song lyrics for Sawah. Also, there is a transliteration into the Roman alphabet of the original Arabic lyrics. This song was first popularized by Abdel Halim Hafez.
Sawah, wei mashee feil beilaad, sawah
Vagabond, and walking between countries, vagabond
Weil khatwa beinee wei bein habibee barah
And the step between me and my beloved [is] big
Meish war bei-eed, wana feeh gareeh
A long journey, and I’m wounded from it
Weil leil yei-arab, weil nahar rawah
And the night approaches, and the day goes
Wein laakom habibee, saleimulee alei
And if you see my beloved, say “Hello” to him [her]
Tameinuneel asmaranee, amla eil el ghorba fee
Reassure me: how is my brown-looking girl doing so far away
Sawah, wana mashee layalee
Vagabond, I’m walking all night
Sawah, walla daree bhalee
Vagabond, not knowing what I’m doing
Sawah, meil for-a ya ghalee
Vagabond, and the separation, oh my dear
Sawah, eih elee garalee
Vagabond, what has happened to me?
Weisneen, weisneen wana dayeib bsho’ wei haneen
And years, years, and I’m melting in loneliness and tenderness
Ayeiz a-araf bass taree-u meinein
I want to know just where is his [her] road
Ya eounee, ah ya eounee,
My eyes, oh my eyes
Eih garalak fein enta, wei bta-meil eih
What has happened to you and what are you doing?
Ya znounee, ah ya znounee mat seibounee
My worries, oh my worries, leave me alone
Meish naaeis ana heer aleil
I’m worried enough about him [her]
Lana areif ar-taah, wana ta-yeih sawaah
Neither can I rest, and I’m lost like a vagabond
Ya amar ya naseenee
Oh moon, who is forgetting me?
Raseenee alee ghayeib
Take me to the absent one
Nawarlee, wareenee, seikeit el habayeib
Enlighten me, show me the road to the beloved
Waseitak, weiseiya, ya shaheid alaya
I’ve made you promise, you who witnessed
Teikeelu alei beiya
To tell him [her] of my state
Weilee aseito blayaleiya
And what I’ve suffered during my nights.
1. Goodyear, Amina. Sawah – song compositional elements. 1996.
2. Ibrahim, Nicole. Sawah – song translation, transliteration. 1996.
3. Nassen, Abdul. Arabic Music and Its Cultural Influences. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.