Notes from the past: preserving the UAE's Islamic musical heritage

Cherif Khaznadar is spearheading the move to find and preserve songs and instruments from the UAE's rich musical heritage.

Once upon a time not so long ago, women used to sing lullabies to their children as they drifted off to sleep. The songs would be those that their mothers and grandmothers taught them, sung to tunes that were also handed down from generation to generation. It's the same with traditional musical instruments, beloved of families before the age of hi-fi came along and destroyed part of our culture that is as old as life: singing and playing music together.

When the day dawns that people sit up and realise they can't remember the words or the tunes anymore it may be too late, according to the experts. "Part of the problem is that there are instruments that are not being produced any more because the sons of the old craftsmen don't want to go into their father's trade. They want to go out and make money," says Cherif Khaznadar, the director of the Al Ain Centre for Music in the World of Islam. He is tasked with the job of preserving a traditional musical heritage that is in danger of disappearing from the world of Islam.

"We want those craftsmen to be able to pass their art to other generations so that we can play these instruments," he says. Mr Khaznadar, the 70-year-old founder of the French Maison des Cultures du Monde, has devoted the past 30 years of his life to seeking out rare music and cultural events to introduce to France. Now, thanks to the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage, he is doing the same for the UAE and the wider world of Islamic music.

This month saw the last in a series of five events put on by the Al Ain centre to highlight the problem and find ways of dealing with it. An academic and cultural conference on The Role of Women in the Transmission of Musical Heritage in the World of Islam, explored the history of traditions in Muslim communities as far afield as Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran, Syria and Andalusia. It also included a session about children's songs in the Emirates by Shaikha Mohamed Al Jabri, one of several researchers who are committed to seeking out and preserving such intangible treasures.

Mrs Al Jabri spoke of the old days when life was hard for the families of pearl fishers who might be away for months while their womenfolk were left at home looking after the children and entertained them by passing on the songs. "Folklore was linked to children's games and nobody knows who the writer of these songs was. It's remarkable how the same song has different variations in Al Ain, Ras Al Khaimah and Dubai," she said.

Even these differences are worth recording and preserving, according to Mr Khaznadar who was in Al Ain for the conference. He was persuaded to take on the directorship by Adach's vice president Mr Zaki Nusseibeh, a long time patron of the arts. The idea for a UAE-based centre dedicated to the preservation of the musical traditions of the Islamic world came about during a congress held in 2007 in Assilah, Morocco, to examine the state of musical traditions.

This was deemed necessary with the enormous changes across the world since the Second World War and as a result of the various independence movements, the Cold War, the development of the media and globalisation. There was a realisation that certain almost intangible aspects of cultural heritage were disappearing and needed to be preserved. "Five years ago we wouldn't even have used the term 'intangible heritage'. Suddenly people are realising that these things are something they can be proud of. Very often you have to name things in order for people to recognise them," says Mr Khaznadar, who was born in Syria.

The goal of the Assilah conference, attended by 100 musicians and musicologists, was "to encourage the vitality and the diversity of the traditions and musical practices of the world of Islam today and to promote greater circulation of knowledge and practices in a spirit of tolerance and mutual recognition". Topics included appraisals of the musical relationships formed between different regions in the world of Islam and the circulation of musical forms, knowledge and influences. The role of women and children and the relationship between music and power were also on the agenda.

"We had a wish list and it was thought necessary to create a centre for music in the world of Islam. Zaki Nusseibeh suggested that Al Ain might be a good place for it," says Mr Khaznadar. "So I organised a meeting of seven or eight people, all experts in their field from the Smithsonian, UCLA, Maison des Cultures, the conservatory in Lebanon and we exchanged ideas and wrote a report for Adach." The Al Ain centre has yet to be built but work started immediately on two of its goals, the first being the safeguarding of ancient lullabies, children's songs and music associated with pearl fishing, falconry and other traditional pursuits.

Another major project is the transference to digital format of a priceless collection of music made at the first congress of Arab music in Cairo in 1931. "Musicians from all over the world attended and it was recorded on 110 separate 78-rpm records. There is only one complete collection in the National Library of France but you can't give everybody access to something so fragile, although they have had access to bits of it. We want it to be transferred to digital and made into CDs and there is an agreement to publish it," Mr Khaznadar says.

The lullabies project involves 22 researchers, 15 of whom are already hard at work, finding and recording lullabies not only in Islamic countries in the Gulf region but anywhere in the world where there are Islamic communities. "Some of these communities in Indonesia, Russia, Latin America, and Europe develop a new musical expression that's no longer preserved in the country of origin. We have to collect and preserve this music too.

"Our researchers are already collecting lullabies and children's songs to produce albums. They will hire professionals to produce the songs. Of course we won't be able to cover all lullabies but it will be a start and it will be an ongoing process. "This is something that we are losing. I sang to my children but my son's wife does not sing to hers and young children are too used to pressing a button and turning on their own songs," Mr Khaznadar says.

When the Al Ain centre is built it will serve two purposes. One is to safeguard the music, which would be done in the field by recording and filming and not necessarily made public. The second is to open its doors to students and especially children who will have access to documents, music and film and be able to see the old instruments in a small exhibition. There will also be a small performance centre where artists can present their work

"It's important to have the public involved with this from the beginning as they are the first ones who are concerned with it," says Mr Khaznadar, who also chaired a 2009 convention for the safeguarding of intangible heritage. "This is not to try and fossilise music. Music is an experience of society and evolves with society. This is the music we had 30 years ago and which could be lost for economic and political reasons where a country is suddenly deprived of something that it still needs and could evolve," he says.

He mentions countries such as Uganda under the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin Dada in the 1970s when the president suddenly decided to collect and burn musical instruments. "And as recently as two months ago in Somalia, music on the radio was banned," he says. Researchers in Colombia recently circulated a questionnaire in which they asked people to try to identify what they considered to be "intangible heritage".

"The most interesting things came out. A family can have its own lullaby for example or its own musical production. They need to be conscious of the value of these things. "They disappear because there is no consciousness of their importance," says Khaznadar who believes the UAE to be one of the most active countries in trying to identify its heritage and preserve it. "They have chosen culture as something to be distinguished for. Consciousness is starting elsewhere in the Gulf."

Mr Khaznadar, whose mother was French, moved to France 48 years ago. He studied business administration at the American University of Beirut before going on to work as a theatre director and later ran the drama department of ORTF, then the only French television channel. He set up the Festival of Traditional Arts in Rennes, where he lives, in 1974. The first event in France devoted to what was not yet called "world music", it was a huge success and it prompted him, together with his wife Françoise Gründ, to persuade the ministry of culture to create a venue entirely devoted to world theatre and performance. The Maison des Cultures du Monde was set up by the then president, François Mitterrand, in 1982.

A Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur, one of France's highest honours, Mr Khaznadar is widely acknowledged to be a leader in the field of cultural festivals in Europe and has directed the Assilah Moussem Festival near Morocco and the opera festival at Rennes. In 2006 he was asked to be artistic director of the Fès Festival of Sacred Music, the midsummer festival that celebrates artists from Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu and other faiths.

He is now bringing his vast experience to the Al Ain Centre for Music in the World of Islam and hopes to discover and preserve the musical treasures of the region that people often take for granted. He urges local people simply to look around them and listen to the music of their everyday lives. One feature of his work at the Maison des Cultures du Monde is ensuring that unknown local musicians are respected in their own towns and villages by seeking them out and inviting them to France to give a performance.

"The fact that a local musician is invited abroad means that he is looked upon differently. Suddenly his own people sit up and start taking him and his music more seriously. They think that if they want to hear him in Paris, then perhaps they should be listening to him at home."