Arab Avantgarde Music (Part 4)

12:28 pm Arabic Music, Music, Music Theory

In the first three parts of this series, I addressed the problematic aspects of talking about Arab avantgarde cultural activity. The reason a problem exists are ambiguities related to the term avantgarde, and the fact that the term, by now, has connotations resulting from its usage in the context of western avantgarde music and cultural activity.

I would like to close this series by touching on some of the unique characteristics of Arab avantgarde cultural activity in the twentieth century with a focus on music.

In my view, one of the most significant differences between Arab and western avantgarde phenomena is the fact that in Arab societies these pioneering works made their way into the mainstream almost instantaneously. Poetry changed from its classic rhymed, metered, measured, symmetry, to prose poetry. The subject matter changed dramatically and became more personal and more immediate (song lyrics being an exception in that they still obsessed with love, almost exclusively). “Modern Poetry” as it became known, had, by the mid twentieth century, constituted the majority of new poetry works.

Musical theater was introduced (almost single handedly by Sayyid Darwish), and other forms of staged musical performance and musical films became very successful within a short period of time. These were influenced, to an extent, by western musical theater. But they also had unique characteristics reflecting the originality of their makers, and the uniqueness of the conditions in which they appeared.

Musical content changed, incorporating instruments, orchestration techniques, and sounds from other cultures, mainly western European tonal 19th century music.

Experimental, surrealist cinema followed suit. Youssef Shahine, Egyptian filmmaker, produced a large body of works of experimental, surrealist, and unconventional in narrative. The civil war in Lebanon dealt a heavy blow to similar currents in Lebanese cinema.

Returning for a moment to music, it is worth mentioning here two other distinctions from western avantgarde music, which may help explain why the Arab mainstream culture adopted avantgarde music fairly rapidly. The first was that the greatest composers and performers of the twentieth century were involved in it, listened and studied other traditions in depth, and wanted to do something new. More reflective of the spirit of the times, and the social and political changes all around.

The other distinction is that the introduction of new elements was gradual. None of these great composers produced exclusively avantgarde work. None divorced themselves from the tradition. In fact they were all deeply rooted and schooled in it. None of the avantgarde works were exclusive of traditional elements. In fact, the genius of many of these works lied in the perfect blend and seamless transitions between those elements.

The “tradition” of avantgarde in music still continues today, by the way, although other factors limit its success. Factors like the market demand for spectacle in musical performance (mainly one of sexual overtones)- aka the video clip, and attention span depletion and the need for short sentences and short ideas accessible to the general public on first hearing. Interestingly enough, the movement against the stupification of art is not lead exclusively by an educated elite, but also by ordinary people who see the modern video clip oriented music as a symptom of cultural degeneration and see the artistic revolution that took place in the twentieth century as a symptom of the opposite, the spiritual and cultural awakening of the masses.

2 Responses
  1. Karim Ratib :

    Date: June 14, 2008 @ 9:54 am

    Thanks for sharing these interesting thoughts. The question of what constitutes “avantgarde” seems to be very slippery, and at least requires significant explanation, as witnessed by the Wikipedia entry on the subject:

    I’d be interested to know whom among the contemporary Arabic music makers you consider to be avantgarde. To me, an artist such as Fathy Salama is definitely in that category – having witnessed first-hand his music and his approach to composition. The Egyptian underground music scene is rich with experiments of fusion between traditional Arabic music and other musical traditions – similar to the adaptations that you mention during the early 20th century.

  2. Saed :

    Date: June 14, 2008 @ 12:42 pm


    I think that, in their time, Sayyed Darwish, Abdel Wahab, Mohammad Al-Mougy, Baligh Hamdi, and many others were defining the avante garde in Arabic music.

    As far as contemporary musicians, if you happen to Cairo you should definitely check out Abdo Dagher and Alfred Gamil. Abdo Dagher never made it to the mainstream, because the mainstream is after pop music and other “pollution” as you called it in a different comment. But among musicians and composers, Dagher is considered the most revolutionary composer and improviser in the modern period. Alfred Gamil’s compositions push the edges of tonality and lyricism and continuously explore new territory.

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