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Contemporary Arab Artists from the Middle East
Thoughts on Music from the Orient
Toufic Kerbage
Intifada, Islam, desert, identity, remembrance, violence
Picture Gallery
Writing as an autobiography of the soul
Is writing an adequate alternative to despair?

Procreation and Ambivalence
A Sky so Close
The Jordanian Desert
Bedouin, satellite dishes and mirrors of stone

Paths through Literature and Exile
Imagining a Different Future
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 1
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 2
Mohammed Mounir
The musical diversity of the Middle East ranges from simple, sober Lebanese melodies to the rapping of the group Aks’ser, from the Egyptian pop of Mohamed Mounir to an Egyptian hip-hop rooted in ancient Egyptian incantations. However, the tendency to let the ancient musical heritage be forgotten and subject music to the demands of showbiz is proving nearly impossible to stop.

The musical spirituality of the Middle East is closely linked to music’s temporal divisions and a deep respect for individual syllables and entire lyrics: divisions of time, and even silence, remain an Arab art.
For some time now, the music of the Lebanon and the Middle East has avoided heavy ornamentation as “sobriety” and “simplicity” have became the order of the day. The 1960s Lebanese music’s discovery of neo-classical European forms and patterns from the interwar period substantially influenced the musical styles of the region, an aesthetic canon at variance with the old Byzantine-Ottoman imperial taste in Cairo. From the 50s onwards masterpieces of hybrid sound were created too, merging classical western or eastern music, jazz, pop, or rap. It was within this movement that Ziad, the last of the famous Rahbani family, transformed his mother Feyrouz, paramount diva of the Lebanese chanson, into a successful nightclub singer, revamping her quintessentially maternal, modest and angelic image - a transformation no one would ever have believed possible. Her Kifak Inta album (How are you!) remains the most successful in the Arab world of the nineties.

There’s a deep rift running through the current music scene in the Lebanon and the Middle East, separating Arab disco from all other styles of music. This division is not only musical but also economic since the Arab disco sound has become the means of livelihood for the rich oil stars. Meanwhile, the major vocal traditions are slowly dying and those of the Gulf have disappeared completely. Lebanon, deprived of natural resources, has a rich natural environment, rain, sun, mountains, snow and sea. The musical styles have reflected life in the villages, the cities and the court but now music has turned into a commodity belonging to the highest bidder. A few Bedouin practices from the Arabian peninsula and the Gulf do survive while a thousand-year-old musical legacy from all the Arabian coastal towns is lying stranded in the bureaucratic red-tape of the Cultural Institutions.

Arab chansons are rapidly being reborn in showbiz styles. The key production-moguls, usually from the Arabian peninsula, prefer artists that come with a suitably flashy sound and image, and are turning many marvellous singers into performers only singing one to two melody lines with hardly any variations in rhythm. The essence of the Middle Eastern art of music has become transformed into the art of drawing an audience under the spell of sharp units of sound, bound in a continuous flux of sound and vision. The piercing loud sounds and tones traditionally meant for open spaces - unlike in nature but similar in function to the thudding of western techno - become fun for dancers, but a nuisance for listeners.

On Beirut’s waterfront many young people tend to make their own Saturday night’s dance-steps by mixing local moves with Aleppino, Kurdish, Eufratian, break-dance and hip hop steps - a spontaneous Narcissus hybridisation. It’s worth comparing Lebanese and Egyptian hip hop since the latter may be musically more authentic and convincing but the lyrics are exclusively about the trials of love; in Beirut, on the other hand, they’re about the impossibility of driving a car, talking freely, surviving the water shortages, the power cuts, and messed-up relationships. It’s a feeling neatly summed up in the name adopted by one of the groups - Aks’ser: No Entry.

Cairo hip-hop, though, traces its roots back to the traditional Egyptian songs used to conjure the spirits. The key figure in this scene is Ahmad Adawiya who, since 1970, has used his texts and image to cultivate an impression of ambivalent sexuality. The younger Cairo bands have become ever louder and apart from a few traditional percussive instruments electronics reign supreme. Nonetheless, their rhythms and melodies couldn’t be more traditional, just like their texts - all preoccupied with the torments of love. The alto voices have a quality reminiscent of western Renaissance music while the extremely nasal sound reflects a tonal colour only found in traditional religious chanting.

The prevalent feeling shared by all Arab people is that they lack a modern musical identity, and it has brought a need for new notions of music in its wake. As strange as it may sound, the Egyptian composer Hamid Al-Sha'iri turned the singer Amro Diab into a pop star using a style of music essentially retro-disco. It was this neo-musical identity that gave another composer, Sharnoubi, the idea of persuading the singer Warda, absolute master of the Cairene style since the death of the great Oum Kalthoum, to adopt a “sexy” recitative style - and made her into a pop star.

Nonetheless, the Arab world still has a ready audience for a classical music that, in many aspects, is inspirational. So let’s end by citing a positive example and briefly mention the work of the great film director Youssef Chahine: in his films, at least, you can hear simple musical ideals accompanied by the voice of … who else, but Mohamed Mounir.

by Toufic Kerbage

Author: Toufic Kerbage