Sawt to nagazi: seven traditional music genres from the Arabian Gulf

The music of the Khaleej tells the story of trade, tolerance and community

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, Feb. 20, 2015:  
People peruse the exhibitions and enjoy festival offerings while they tour the activities at the Qasr al Hosn Festival 2015 on Friday Feb. 20, 2015. (Photo / Silvia Razgova)

For such a fast-moving, future-focused region, the Gulf has a long and storied musical history.

The genres, some of which date back to the 16th century, exemplify the best attributes of the region.

These are art forms born out of collaboration, tolerance and commerce, which come from communities living on the coast and in the desert.

That is why Ghazi Al Mulaifi, a musician from Kuwaiti fusion group Boom.Diwan and professor of applied ethnomusicology at NYU Abu Dhabi, says there is no real indigenous music ascribed to the Gulf.

“What we have, instead, are the sounds containing all the historical movement within the area,” he explains.

“For example, because a lot of the major cities in the Gulf are on the coast, that cosmopolitanism that comes with port cities is reflected in the music, because you are not only trading in commerce, but also in culture and ideas.”

Those exchanges have taken root in all aspects of the music performed in the region, from lyricism and instruments to dance techniques and context in which it’s played.

Here are seven genres of music widely played across the Gulf and how they came to be.

1. Sawt

Dating back to the late 1800s, sawt is a form of a capella music performed in exclusive settings.

“It necessitates a knowledge of poetry and requires a certain level of training to achieve,” Al Mulaifi says. “It was mostly performed in courts and you would consider it music for the high class.”

Al Mulaifi says sawt was played in Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia before arriving in the Emirates.

Still performed today, the genre takes inspiration from classic Arabic poetry.

“The lyrics come mostly from old poetry from not only the Gulf, but also Iraq, because of its old culture of literature,” he says. “The singer needs to recite these great poems with skill.”

2. Samri

This is music used by Gulf families to cut loose from the daily grind.

Hailing from Saudi Arabia's region of Najd, samri is a 300-year-old music genre that remains a popular form of escapism, says Al Mulaifi.

"It is festive music played when families gather late at night and usually in the desert," he says.

"It is a form of desert music played with a daff, a round frame drum, and lyrics delivered in the Nabati style of Arabic poetry.

“The drums can sound intense and there can be some light dancing – not from the musicians but from the people there who are moved by the music."

3. Women’s samri

Women’s samri has its own qualities but is performed within a similar context to regular samri.

“It is played at a much slower tempo and dance plays a bigger part,” Al Mulaifi says of the form, which spans back to the 1700s.

“Women’s samri may contain some commentary on domestic life but it’s not lamentations. It is still celebratory music and it is about entertainment.”

4. Bahri

The music of bahri, which means sea songs, are sea shanties first sung by Kuwaiti pearl divers on voyages to North Africa and parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

On sturdy boats these seamen thumped the tabl bahri (an Indian sea barrel drum) and sung songs of Indian and Swahili roots centring on faith, devotion and sorrow.

The compositional structure, Al Mulaifi says, takes its cues from Iraqi poetry.

“It is the most cosmopolitan of the music of the Khaleej,” he says. “Pearl-diving music is often driven by Sufi chanting. The lyrics praise God and they are essentially songs of gratitude.”

Bahri’s presence diminished significantly once Kuwaiti authorities banned pearl diving in 1955.

5. Tanboura

A genre connecting the Arab world to North Africa, tanboura arrived in the Gulf in the mid-1700s. Al Mulaifi says the music was first performed on the Swahili Coast, including Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, before moving on to Morocco, Egypt and the Gulf.

“It is important to state that, because of its origins and the period, tanboura didn’t just come through slavery,” he says.

“The music was also brought to the Gulf peninsula voluntarily through migrant workers from north-east Africa.”

Tanboura is named after the long-necked string instrument, which has its roots in India, and Al Mulaifi says the Mena region's spin includes songs played in the pentatonic scale similar to American blues music.

"Tanboura also involves a guy wearing a manjur, which looks like a skirt made of sheep and goat hooves,” he says. “They shake their hips and that provides a percussive sound.”

6. Liwa

Liwa is a 200-year-old genre widely played in the south of the Gulf, primarily in the UAE, Oman and Yemen. It takes the rhythmic elements of tanboura and adds an extra dose of showmanship.

“This is music played in weddings and festive situations,” Al Mulaifi says.

“A liwa performance has drummers in the middle and there is a procession of people singing, clapping and going around in circle in rhythm.”

While the music is performed primarily in the UAE as a representation of its cultural heritage, in other parts of the Gulf it is viewed as a more esoteric genre.

“In Kuwait, for example, it has more of this insiders' vibe,” Al Mulaifi says, “in that the people who play it are revered and the people who listen to it are those in the know.”

7. Nagazi

The vibrant sounds of nagazi are clear from its name. “It literally means ‘that which makes you jump',” Al Mulaifi says.

“It is music that moves you. It is fast-paced and features frame drum players who are really good at soloing, which is delivering these loud cracking sounds at the right time to raise the fervour and excitement.”

Popular in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the music, Al Mulaifi says, is viewed as a form of light entertainment and remains popular today.

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