Tag Archives: Middle East

The nobat in Malay court life

The nobat, a percussion-based music ensemble, has performed in the Malay courts of maritime Southeast Asia since the coming of Islam to the region in the 13th century. The nobat originates in the Islamic traditions of the Middle East and has long been incorporated into the sacred court regalia as a symbol of a sultan’s power and sovereignty. The ensemble also is revered for its perceived mystical powers and its ability to consolidate and maintain sociopolitical order. The spread of Islam saw the nobat and its musical practice travel via ancient land and sea routes across Asia to develop by accommodating different local cultures and belief systems.

Drawing patrons from some of the greatest Muslim empires, the sounds of the nobat in palaces symbolized the installation of new rulers, announced the arrival of dignitaries, signaled prayer times, and instilled courage among soldiers on the battlefield. The emergence of the nobat as a court institution was less a result of the collective agency of the masses than a desire of the Malay ruling elites. The ensemble developed during a period when societies were governed by absolute monarchs, military commanders, and regional governors who had the means and purpose to patronize it. Along with the nobat, ruling elites also were responsible for supporting the advancement of the arts and sciences generally, and many musicians, poets, painters, philosophers, and scientists found themselves under court patronage.

By the late 20th century, the nobat mostly went silent as sultanates declined in visibility and power. The few that have survived continue to perform in the sultan’s courts of Kedah, Perak, Selangor, and Terengganu in Malaysia and in Brunei.

Read more in “The nobat: From Muslim antiquity to Malay modernity” by Raja Iskandar Bin Raja Halid in Performing arts and the royal courts of Southeast Asia. I: Pusaka as documented heritage, edited by Mayco A. Santaella (Leiden: Brill, 2023) 139–160. Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

The video below features a performance of the nobat in Kedah, Malaysia.

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Filed under Asia, Religious music, World music

Fayrūz and Lebanese identity

After her breakout performance at Lebanon’s 1957 Baalbeck International Festival (where organizers had initially worried that their sophisticated audience would find homegrown music distasteful) the music of Fayrūz went on to become a powerful emblem of Lebanese identity—a position that it holds to this day.

Fayrūz’s performance, which featured music by the Raḥbānī brothers, was the headline act of the Festival’s first Lebanese Nights series, and its resounding success ensured the continuation of the series, with the Fayrūz/Raḥbānī trio as its mainstay, until the Festival’s suspension at the beginning of the Civil War in 1975. During that time, the trio forged a music that both articulated Lebanon’s national character and aspired toward a future in which the country’s liminal position between the Arab world and the West would bring long-lasting peace and prosperity.

While this element of futurity was rhetorical and discursive, it was also profoundly sonic, manifested in the arrangement, instrumentation, and style of their work. The Fayrūz/Raḥbānī trio’s music was clearly positioned in relation to three major reference points that dominated nationalist discourse at the time: Arab nationalism, the West (conceived as European high culture), and Lebanese culture (conceived as local folklore).

While the style developed by the trio continues to shape understandings what it is to sound Lebanese today, Fayrūz’s voice has become symbolic of Lebanon itself. Notably, she did not sing there during the Civil War; she came back to perform in 1994, and returned to Baalbeck’s stage on the occasion of the Festival’s postwar resumption in 1998. Her wartime silence was publicly received as an act of resistance against violence on Lebanese soil and as a show of solidarity with the Lebanese people—further reinforcing the identification of her voice and persona with Lebanon as a country.

This according to “Hearing cosmopolitan nationalism in the work of Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers” by Nour El Rayes (Yearbook for traditional music LIV/1 [2022] 49–72; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-16150).

Above, Fayrūz performing in 1971 (public domain). Below, the official music video for the Fayrūz/Raḥbānī song Lebnan el akhdar (لبنان الأخضر/Lebanon the verdant); the recording is the subject of a detailed analysis in El Rayes’s article.

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Filed under Asia, Performers, Popular music, Reception

Raqṣ šarqī as musical interpretation

 

Interpretive skill plays a particularly important role in Egyptian raqṣ šarqī, which is customarily improvised by a solo dancer to live musical accompaniment. The heterophonic structure of classical Egyptian music involves layering instruments, each of which simultaneously performs its own ornamentation on the melody, rather than adding harmonies.

As an intermediary between the music and the audience, the dancer has the ability to direct the audience’s attention to a particular instrument or embellishment by emulating its rhythm, pitch, and dynamics in movement. In so doing, the raqṣ šarqī dancer chooses not only what the audience will see, but also what they will hear.

The concept of muāsabah (analytical listening) illuminates how, by being a sammīʿa (skilled listener), the dancer can enhance the audience’s appreciation of the music, temporarily making them skilled listeners as well. Ultimately, raqṣ šarqī performance is a multisensorial practice that combines sounds, sights, and movements in order to heighten the audience’s aesthetic and emotional experience.

This according to Listening with the body: The raqs sharqi dancer as musical interpreter by Ainsley Hawthorn (St. Johns: Research Centre for the Study of Music, Media, & Place (MMaP), 2020).

Above, a raqṣ šarqī dancer in Cairo with her ensemble, photographed by Dan Lundberg; below, Dr. Hawthorn presents her research.

Related articles:

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Filed under Asia, Dance

Ancient metaphors of love

Toward the middle of the 13th century B.C.E., shortly after a granddaughter of the great Hittite king married the Ugaritic ruler, a matrimonial scandal shook the kingdom. The first lady of the city-state of Ugarit was accused of disporting herself with the nobles, of “ceaseless enjoyment” with them: the Akkadian word ṣiāḫum (to laugh joyfully, to flirt) was the discreet description of conjugal infidelity.

“To laugh” had been the euphemism for sexual intercourse and physical love for at least 700 years, as is attested in Paleo-Babylonian love songs. Already in Sumerian songs of the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., the verbs “to delight” and “to utter joyful cries” were used to describe amorous play.

The language of love in Aššurian songs is one of metaphors and discreet allusions; carnal love is mentioned only indirectly, through stock literary devices stemming from a long tradition. Amorous metaphors include “the scent of cedar is your love”, “she seeks the garden of your opulent love”, and “today my heart is full of play and music”.

This according to “La musique des amoureux” by Brigitte Groneberg (Dossiers d’archéologie 310 [février 2006] pp. 50–54).

Above, a Paleo-Babylonian plaque; below, Peter Pringle performs his recreation of an ancient Egyptian song that uses similar metaphors.

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Filed under Antiquity, Asia

Umm Kulṯūm, voice of the people

Umm Kulthum

The virtuoso Egyptian singer Umm Kulṯūm (أم كلثوم) has been acclaimed as representing the voices of the people throughout the Arab world.

Following a long historical tradition of well-known, respectable female singers, Umm Kulṯūm’s repertoire revolved around Arabic poems with historic themes and colloquial Egyptian Arabic songs. Performed during a time of rejection of all things colonial in favor of all things Egyptian, her songs, both textually and melodically, reflected this emphasis.

The role of listeners is crucial in constructing the identity of her voice and their usage of live and recorded performances for their own purposes. Songs from Umm Kulṯūm’s repertory illustrate how social identity may be embedded in music using specific musical cues understood by the performer and her audience.

This according to “Voices of the people: Umm Kulthūm” by Virginia Danielson, an essay included in Women’s voices across musical worlds (Boston: Northeastern University, 2004, pp. 147–165).

Today is Umm Kulṯūm’s 110th birthday! Below, Baeed anak (Away from you) at the Olympia Théâtre in Paris, November 1967.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Virtual Assyria

The ancient land of Assyria, long divided among modern nations, lives again—in cyberspace.

Exiled around the world, Assyrians have established an Internet homeland, Nineveh on line. This portal links to many other Assyrian websites and hosts articles about Assyrian concerns.

Music has proved to be a decisive factor in uniting this virtual community and its  corporeal counterparts. Assyrian songs have become powerful tools for shaping and communicating Assyrian identity—and even for learning the ancestral language.

This according to “Translocal communities: Music as an identity marker in the Assyrian disapora” by Dan Lundberg, an essay included in Music in motion: Diversity and dialogue in Europe (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2009) pp. 153–172.

Below, the Iranian singer Gaggi performs Assyrian pop.

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Filed under Asia, Popular music, Resources