Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula

This book offers a fascinating glimpse into the musical customs of Bedouins, seafarers and other local communities from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait.
Author Lisa Urkevich, above left, with a traditional musician in Hail, a city in north-west Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Lisa Urkevich
Author Lisa Urkevich, above left, with a traditional musician in Hail, a city in north-west Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Lisa Urkevich

The Arabian Peninsula has always been, and still is, full of music, contrary to popular belief. As harsh as the living conditions may be in parts, the region always has been at the crossroads of migration from the Levant, Iraq, Iran, India and East Africa.

Now, a new book gives a fascinating insight into the musical traditions of Bedouins, settled oases people, mountain communities – including those of the lush green Asir in Saudi Arabia – the urbanised people of the coastal ports Jeddah and Kuwait City and, in the north-east, the pearl fishers, with their own seafaring songs.

In fact, the author, Lisa Urkevich, quotes estimations that, at some point, up to about 1.3 per cent of the populations of Bahrain and Kuwait might have been professional musicians, employed in wedding bands or on the pearl-fishing boats and, at times, in using music to ward off bad spirits.

Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula is a study on the music of four countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar (Oman and Yemen are left out because they have a separate evolution behind, or fenced off by, mountains and the desert, while the UAE is also separated by the Empty Quarter). And not only is it the most comprehensive book in English on the music of this part of the world, it is also one of the most comprehensive books on music anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

Urkevich, a professor of ­musicology at the American University of Kuwait, refers to a Dutch explorer, who, in 1750, noted that Kuwait had 800 boats for a population of 10,000. If only 500 of these had a professional musician on board, “then 5 per cent of the population were ­active musicians”.

And a musician was often better paid than the fishermen.

“Frequently he was paid handsomely, more so than the divers, because a quality [musician] could not only draw a fine crew, but also inspire more productivity and sing safeguarding prayers for the men,” she writes.

But, of course, being well paid is certainly not a general rule for musicians of the region; Urkevich mentions how the Saudi singer Talal Maddah, while being highly regarded, was found to have hardly been able to save any money when he unexpectedly died in 2000.

“It was a national disgrace when we all found out how meagre was his wealth,” Urkevich quotes a fellow musician. And in several parts of the region ­music-making is left to rather deprived communities.

Urkevich started working on this book 20 years ago. Then, some of the legendary master musicians, who grew up before the oil economy started to change everything, were still active: male singers such as Maddah and “the Father of Saudi Music” Tariq Abdul Hakim, in addition to female singers such as Tuha and Itab of Saudi Arabia and Wahha Al Hamra from Kuwait. Deceased legends, such as Kuwait’s Aisha Al Murta and Bahrain’s Aisha bint Idris, were also still fresh in the minds of people Urkevich spoke to. That gives the book a historical thoroughness yet with a first-hand, reportage feel.

Today, while some of the traditional music styles are being nurtured, there are genres frowned upon. This is notably the case in the music of spiritual traditions found among the communities descending from former slaves brought from Africa, comparable to Zar in Sudan, Egypt and Iran, and Gnaoua in Morocco. In fact, the Zar practice exists in many places across the peninsula, but it is considered by some as superstitious and immoral.

Yet black communities, who often live on the margins of ­society, take more liberty to engage in their own and traditional practices. An example is the daringly wild music of the Jizan area in the impoverished far south-west tip of Saudi Arabia, opposite Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“[They] are considered quite impressive both physically and artistically. They engage in elaborate synchronised moves and, while outdoors in extreme heat, dance at a quick pace, dipping, kicking and stabbing their weapons into the air for relatively lengthy periods. Jizani coastal dance is among the most spectacular in the kingdom.”

Another interesting point addressed in the book is the declining prominence of female singers. Each country mentioned had a rich tradition of female singers, and many of the famous singers were of black descent, again proving the relative liberty the black communities enjoyed.

However, under the influence of conservative values, female singers have more and more been pushed out of the public arena.

“Following the 1991 invasion of Kuwait, the official focus on heritage and music lessened, and the number of traditional female performers began to decrease,” the author writes. Urkevich quotes renowned Kuwaiti wedding singer Suliman Al Qasar: “In the 1980s, we used to sing everything inside the hall with the women guests, no problem. However, after the invasion, people become more religious … Now we perform behind a barrier and only enter when the groom enters, as his musical escort. But this is only if the bride insists. Otherwise we stay behind the curtain for most of the evening and do not see the women.”

While the traditional female singers, and very often those of black descent, are disappearing from the public arena, Egyptian and other expatriate singers, who are not familiar with the traditional repertoire, are jumping into the void.

“Lines regarding the kind of music performed and the function of the [traditional female performers] are blurred in recent times,” Urkevich writes.

“Young pop artists [the ones ­often from Egypt], who are trying to jump-start their careers, are performing as lead singers before [traditional] drumming groups, and more and more non-traditional and commercial Khaliji songs are being added.”

Remarkably, Urkevich describes how in some of the deepest parts of Saudi Arabia, traditional female performers are still highly in demand, but of course will perform for women only.

Urkevich writes in detail about her experiences in the field, including encounters with musicians and local tribes – up to her husband being arrested after she photographed Saudi women in a market, but outside such an experience, she always writes about the many warm welcomes she received. Meanwhile, musicologists can find a treasure of material including notated fragments. An added CD with excerpts makes it possible to get an idea of how all of this music sounds.

In most parts of the wider Middle East and North Africa, the original indigenous music culture is being neglected, if not suppressed. Morocco is on the good side, nurturing its rich musical heritage and turning it into an economical asset, by organising festivals around it.

On the other side, several nations have mostly sidelined their traditions, replacing them with a national narrative that was more suited to the self-image of the emerging middle class or more digestible to the taste of the rising conservative movement.

More broadly, it is thanks to the author that one grasps just how much music pervades this part of the world. One is awed, along with Urkevich, by how music is not just an accessory luxury, but a basic need of life to cope with the sea, the desert or ghosts, or to be at ease with oneself.

One comes out of this book with a better understanding of the Arabian Gulf’s indigenous cultures.

This book is available on Amazon.

Neil van der Linden curates ­music events in the Middle East and North Africa, is editor of the online Gulf Art Guide and writes about Middle East music for Songlines.

Published: August 13, 2015 04:00 AM


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