Middle Eastern Dance
Musical Trends in Middle Eastern Music

The Middle East has a long histoy of musical tradition.  In fact most of our modern Western instruments have their origins in instruments introduced to Europe during the Middle Ages through contact with Andalusia (Al-Andalus) and through the Crusades.  The Lute for example (and all of it's modern ancestors to a degree) came from the Arabic oud or Al 'ud (عود).  One of the oldest examples of Arabic music is the 13th century Andalusian song 'Lamma Badda Yatathana (لما بدا يتثنى)'.  It demonstrates a type of Music that developed there known as Muwashshah.  Muwashshah is a style that is still around today, although it is considered a dying art which lacks much of the poetical structure of traditional Muwashshah musical pieces.

         Lamma Badda Yatathanna (13th century)                        Al-Andol by Sonia M'barek (2012)

During the reign of the Ottoman empire (1293-1922) Arabic music was highly influenced by Turkish musical styles.  The Ottoman Empire spanned all of the Middle East, South Eastern Europe, North Africa and parts of south-western Asia.  The heart of the empire was in Turkey.  During the Ottoman empire music of the Ottoman courts was exported throughout the kingdom highly influencing the music throughout the region and setting the stage for traditional structure.  Although there remained traditional folk music in each country, Arabic classical muwashshah music became the established standard throughout the empire.
To truly understand the changes and differences in modern Arabic music compared with classical Arabic music, one has to understand the structure and qualities of classical Arabic music and the evolution into modern Arabic music.  Classical Arabic music is based on the Maqamat system which is a modal system (similar to a musical scale).  Tones were also divided into not only whole and half tones, but also quarter and eighth tones (Western music uses only whole and half).  It was monophonic and frequently used an augmented second.  Most importantly music was expected to follow the principles of Tarab (loosly translated as enchantment).

Tarab is a complex concept in Arabic music involving not only the use of unique intervals and maqam but also a wide variety of qualities expected of the singer.  The use of classical Arabic language and proper grammar is essential to tarab as is imparting emotional overtone.  Beyond that a singer is also expected to have clear enunciation and should have extensive knowledge of Classical Arabic poetry and proverbs with which the singer is expected to use in song.  Additionally, it features unison of heterophonic textures, stately tempos, slow expressive solos (taxim), concentrated listening, and emotional feedback from the audience.  Tarab however is considered a dying art in modern Middle Eastern music.  It became that way largely due to the Western influences in music.

In 1798, Napoleon opened Egypt to western influence.  Most of the Middle East was undergoing changes due to Western Colonization from European superpowers.  The Turks introduced European style Military bands to the region in the 1800s and many musicians began learning to play European style music and instruments to appeal to their colonial ruling classes.  Even after colonial powers began to wane, Western influence lived on.  Muhammad ‘Ali was determined to modernize Egypt.  Part of this modernization which was meant to bring Egypt in line with Europe was the introduction and promotion of Western Classical music including European-style military bands and Italian opera.  In the late 1800s the opera 'Aida' was especially commissioned from Verdi by Khedive Ismail of Egypt to further his efforts to make it ‘a part of Europe’.  Shortly after his rule the British did effectively rule Egypt which became a de facto British colony in 1882.

Egypt's determination to become more Western and its status as a British colony meant they were in many ways more open to technological advancements like those occurring in media in the early 1900s.  Egypt grew in importance as a media presence for the entire Middle East/North Africa region.  In 1904 the phonogram was introduced in Egypt and they quickly became the leaders in production and recording in the Arabic speaking world.  Having what was essentially a monopoly on the industry Egyptian music specifically was exposed more widely to the region then other styles of music.  Although there are smaller musical movements and influences in other parts of the MENA region, Egypt's media presence meant that it was largely reflective of the majority of trends and was usually the trend setter.  Their media presence remains incredibly strong even today.
By 1919 Egyptians were tired of being occupied by the British and they lead a revolt by 1922 Britain bestowed nominal independence on Egypt.  The 1920’s saw many changes in the music industry.  Radio became the new means of communication.  Pressured by changes in the new faster paced world and nationalistic movements, the elaborate 19th century musical genre’s began to decline.  The older flexible forms, improvisation and small takht ensembles began to be replaced by fixed arrangements and large orchestras.  While the music was changing the main elements of tarab were still being used.

The 1930’s saw another major technological change, the musical film.  Egypt became the Hollywood of the Middle East and sought to emulate the successful Hollywood musical style while appealing to an Arab audience with their own music, dance, and culture being showcased alongside the American imports.  This musical era is frequently referred to as romanticism because of the abundance of love songs in both music and musical films.  Singers like Um Kalthoum and Farid Al-Atrache were masters of tarab, both are remembered fondly throughout the Arab world for their clear enunciation and mastery of the Arabic language as  well as their vocal qualities.  Singers from all over the Middle East came to Egypt to "make it big."

           Um Kalthoum - Tichouf Oumori (1926)                          Farid Al-Atrache - Ya Ritni Tir (1930s)

Another thing that happened in the 1930’s of Egypt’s musical industry actually starts with the 1920’s American craze over tango and salsa.  A decade long gap between the two trends may make it seem unconnected but Egypt was once again emulating trends in American music as it took about 10 years for trends to make their way to Egypt.

The 1950’s and 60s continued to build upon the traditional tarab although they more and more frequently began featuring western influences in the way of tempo, composition, and which musical instruments were used.  Things like the accordion, the piano, and the violin enter into the composition of large orchestral pieces.  1952 marks a distinct differentiation in styles.  It was the year when Egypt led a revolution which finally freed them from foreign rule.  Huge waves of nationalism spread throughout the entire country.  The songs were highly political and modernization began to take hold of the music industry.  Musician's like Fairouz and Warda Al-Jazira rose to fame with songs that spoke to the political struggles of emerging nations and the Arab national identity they sought to recreate.

             Fairouz - Jadaka'l Ghaytou (1966)Warda Al-Jazira - Jamila (1958)

The 70’s and 80’s were highly influenced by the west.  The introduction of audio cassettes and tape players became increasingly more affordable and accessible.  This led to more people having access to foreign music as well as local music.  Television stations also began to broadcast American music and television shows leading to a youth demand for shorter, faster, westernized songs and the al-Jeel (the generation) genre emerged with singers like Hamid al-Shaeri and Samira Said.  Influences such as disco and electronic synthesized music became influential.

       Hamid al Shaeri - Wein Ayamak Wein (1984)Samira Said - Bitaqat Hob (1977)

By the 1990's Arabic pop (or al-Jeel)  and other pop genres in Turkey and Persia had become a major style along with Sha'abi/Cha'abi styles, both of which were heavily influenced by western music.  Pop genres had become mostly devoid of tarab and featured Arabian style to Westernized melodies.   Latin styling was also quite common in 90's music as the Latin wave made it's rounds globally.  Artists like Amro Diab and Tarkan were able to achieve international levels of fame.  Music from the 90's generally featured synthetic drums, western melodies, and sometimes little to no Arabian styling.  Early Arabic rap also began to emerge.

Amro Diab - Ya Nour El-Ein (1996)                Tarkan - Şimarik (1997)

Popular music after the year 2000 has been increasingly more western sounding and decreasing in Arabian styling.  It is almost completely devoid of any quality of tarab.  If you don't listen to the songs lyrics they could easily be mistaken for a popular western song.  About the only difference really is the language it's sung in.  Artists like Amro Diab and Hakim still produce popular music and are still highly popular along with artists like Nancy Ajram.

            Amro Diab - Banadeek Ta'ala (2011)                  Nancy Ajram - Ah Wa Noss (2004)

Although some modern singers of traditonal styles and tarab still exist they are rare indeed and most consider the art dying if not dead.  With the current trends in Middle Eastern music we see a trend towards extreme Westernization and elements of Globalization.  Only time will tell if more traditional Arabic musical styles, tarab or no tarab, will continue on into the future or be lost to Westernization/Globalization.

For additional information on trends and changes in Middle Eastern music check out some of these articles and papers:
Modernizing Reforms and Turkish Music in the 1930's
Record Industry and Egyptian Traditinoal Music: 1904-1932
Words and Music in Beirut: A Study of Attitudes
Arab Music History
Modernization and Westernizatino of Music in Egypt
Some Meanings of the Spanish Tinge in Contemporary Egyptian Music
'On the Terrace' by Frederick Arthur Bridgman. c. 1885. Oil on canvas

On the terrace