How New York musician Faraj Abyad is trying to revive classical Arabic music around the world
The musician explains the four main elements of the genre
In 2003, when he was 14, Faraj Abyad was introduced to the music of Egyptian singer Mohammed Abdel Wahab.
Thanks to Abdel Wahab’s soulful baritone, his moving oud improvisations and unique compositional style – which blended western themes with Middle Eastern quarter-tone melodies – the young Abyad was hooked.
“I innocently asked my mentor where I could find new music composed in this style,” Abyad says. “He answered that those days have passed. You cannot find anything new in this genre. Ever since this moment I dreamt of one day composing in this style and reviving it.”
Abyad, who went on to study the classical Arabic genre under a number of notable music teachers in the US, now seems to be on a fast track to establishing that dream.
The Baltimore-born musician, who is of Syrian descent, has played in some of the most prestigious venues in the US – including the historic Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Broadway Street – revitalising the genre through his interpretations of classical works. He's chosen songs by the likes of Farid Al Atrash, Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Fairuz and Sabah Fakhri, as well as created originals, which he writes using compositional approaches found within the genre.
So what makes a classical Arabic song, well, classical? Abyad, who now lives in New York City, says the genre boils down to four key tools: maqam, rhythm, poetry and grammar.
“Just like the Arabic language is so rich and complex, so is its music,” Abyad says. “In the western music system, the main scales are major and minor, with additional modes that are less commonly used. However, in the Arabic maqam system, there are eight to 10 primary modes, with hundreds of uniquely nuanced scales that emanate from them.”
The maqam system, Abyad says, is so vast and diverse, and can be manipulated in myriad ways. He uses colour as an analogy, noting how “each maqam provides a different musical colour; one maqam may be sad and invoke darker emotion, while another may be happy and invoke a positive emotion".
"At the end of a composition you have a painting of many colours [maqamat], and a great composer can manipulate those elements to create a true masterpiece.”
The genre's rhythmic system is rich. “There are hundreds of rhythms,” Abyad explains, “some in complex time signatures that are unseen in western music.”
During the Golden Age of the genre – which historians typically place between the 1920s and 1950s – European, Spanish and many other rhythmic patterns were infused into the genre's music system. These techniques are still used today and have, in a sense, become "Arabised".
“The mix of western rhythms and traditional Arabic maqamat in one musical phrase is a beautiful contrast," Abyad says. "Imagine someone writing beautiful Arabic calligraphy on a building in New York City. This contrast between East and West is so striking and beautiful. In a sense, this is what the great composers of the Golden Age were doing when they combined Sharqi and Gharbi."
One example of this blend is the tango rhythm in Abdel Wahab’s Balash Tibousni, which then seamlessly moves over into Malfuf, a classic Egyptian rhythm often used in belly-dancing songs.
Another defining aspect of Arabic music is its incorporation of advanced-level poetry.
“English rarely uses complex poetry in its songs,” Abyad says. “You will not find contemporary British composers taking words of Shakespeare and putting them in a song.”
However, in the Arab genre, there is a strong tradition of using Arabic poetry, from the Jahili poetry of the pre-Islamic age to more contemporary works. Part of this is because unlike its English counterpart, the classical Arabic language, or Fusha, is very much in use today.
“Composing great poetry in Fusha is such a powerful art,” Abyad says. “When composing to classical poetry, the music is complex and rich, as well as the words. It is a double treat.
"Think of the great composition of Riad Al Sunbati, Al Atlal, the incredible depth in every aspect of the work; singing, poetry, performance, composition and musicianship.”
The proper use of grammar, as well as a refined knowledge of how to manipulate it, also has a prominent place in the composition of classical Arabic music.
“Umm Kulthum got her start being disguised as a boy by her father and reciting Tajweed in the mosque,” Abyad says. “It is no coincidence that after this experience she became one of the greatest Arabic singers. In both composing and singing, one must have an understanding of how letters can be manipulated, and the rules of grammar and Quranic recitation are extremely helpful with that.”
While composing his own works, Abyad always tries to keep these four aspects of classical Arabic music at the forefront.
“My first step in the artistic process of composing is finding a poem that resonates with me and expresses something that I feel deeply,” he says. “If I am emotionally moved by a poem it always inspires a good melody. If the poem is sad, I will know right away that I can use a specific maqam or rhythm that displays sadness, or vice versa.”
Yet Abyad says the classical Arabic genre faces a number of challenges in today’s world. For one thing, the term ‘classical’ might imply a genre that is old and outdated. Abyad is quick to stress that isn’t the case.
“I noticed that recent pop compositions do not use many of the traditional maqamat and unique rhythms, because the modern ear is not accustomed to them any more.
"Over the years, Arabic music has been simplified,” Abyad explains.
However, that’s not to say the classic approaches don’t shine in more contemporary works. Though the Arabic pop music of today might be missing some of the rich components of its traditional counterpart, Abyad says the two are not that different.
“I personally love Arabic pop and find that it often has incredible Tarab elements. [But] I would like to see more,” Abyad says. “Many composers are discouraged to write Tarab music, because they feel it is out of date for the modern listener. They are always concerned that it will 'not sell'.
"I disagree with this notion; I have seen myself by the reaction of my audience that the Arab world, as a whole, misses this art form and would like to hear new music from it.”
In addition to composing, Abyad also hopes to shine a light on the musicians working within the genre, and the natural instruments they use.
“The art of musicianship and natural acoustic Sharqi instrumentation is on the decline in the Arab pop world because of the invention of the Oriental keyboard and studio midi sounds, which are replacing human musicians,” he says.
“I wish the Arabic music world today would rely less on electronic sounds and more on natural instruments.”
While performing in New York has a number of benefits, Abyad says he is eager to bring his music to the Middle East.
“New York is a hub for jazz, classical and other types of world music. Being in the scene here opens up your creative mind to the other incredible arts of the music world and thus enhances my compositions in regard to mixing with non-Sharqi styles,” he says.
“On the other hand, I aspire to touch the hearts of those in the Middle East, as well. Expanding to the Middle East is equally as important from my perspective, as it would give the initiative to revive classical Arabic music an opportunity to spread.
"After all, this music is written in the Arabic language, so what better place to perform it than the land it comes from to an audience that understands the language and music intuitively?”
Updated: June 30, 2020 03:49 PM