Some thoughts on the Samai form

11:31 pm Arabic Music, Music Theory

The Samai form is prevalent in both Arabic and Turkish art music. Though I couldn’t find out exactly when and where the form assumed it’s modern shape, it seems to be fairly accepted that the form is about 200 years old. By some accounts it is as old as 300 years. It is also generally accepted that the form is of Ottoman origin: although the its exact place of birth in the vast Ottoman empire of 200 years ago has not been established, by most accounts it was born in Turkey. Since the 19th century, the art-musical form has been popular both across much of the Arab world, as well as in Turkey.

In this essay, I am going to touch on the different aspects of the form that are of interest both to the performer and to the musicologist.

Those aspects include:

  • Compositional details of the form
  • Performance practices, their regional characteristics and evolution over time.
  • A list of Samais that every performer should know

The Samai form

Naming convention: In Arabic, a typical name of a Samai consists of the word Samai followed by the name of the maqam which the samai explores. Example: “Samai Rast”. Since there could be more than one Samai in a given maqam, the name of the composer is added to the name of the Samai. Example: “Samai Nahawand Masood Jamil”. In some rare cases, a composer would give their Samai a unique name instead of following the naming convention. One example is “Sihr Al-Sharq” instead of “Samai Nahawand Al-Hariri”.
Exercise: Which maqam is “Samai Bayyati Al-Aryan” in and what’s the name of the composer?
Note: In Turkish music, the name of the Maqam comes first and the Turkish name of the form “Saz Samai” follows.

Traditional Uses: Traditionally a Samai appears early in an instrumental or song set. It is part of a series of instrumental pieces that open the set, which may include instrumental pieces in other forms such as Bashraf, Dulab, and Taqaasim. Those instrumental pieces were used to establish the Maqam tonality and relationship with other maqams in the ears of the listeners and singers, and warm the listeners up to the set to come. The singer would typically begin singing soon after the Samai is played.

The Samai Thaqil rhythm: a 10 beat pattern with a 3 2 2 3 subdivision and Dums on beats 1, 6 and 7, and Teks on beats 4 and 8.

The Samai form: A piece in four short movements (each called Khana), each followed by a refrain (called Taslim). The first three movements and the refrain are in the Samai Thaqil rhythm. The fourth is in a contrasting rhythm (most commonly 3 and 6, occasionally 7 and in rare cases other rhythms).

Tonal parameters of the form: Traditionally the first Khana is entirely in the Maqam of the piece, as is the Taslim. I say traditionally because contemporary composers frequently use chromaticism and modulation even in the first Khana. (see the section on modern trends).

The second and third Khanas involve modulation exploring other Maqams. The second Khana stays in the center register, and sometimes explores the bass region. The third Khana ventures into the upper registers. The fourth Khana typically stays in the original Maqam of the Samai. It is often in a lively tempo, sometimes technically demanding, and the energy climax of the entire piece is often achieved in this Khana.

Arabic and Turkish performance practice In the modern period: a comparison

The differences in performance of Samais between Arab and Turkish musicians reflect, for the most part, the audible difference in style between Arab and Turkish art music ensembles. Some differences are unique to Samais, however, namely tempo. Here are the differences that I have observed:

Tempo: Arab musicians typically perform all the 10/8 Khanas in Samais slower than their Turkish counterparts. (In the fourth Khana the speeds are comparable, with Arab performance in the recent period often tending to be a little faster). I compared recordings of 20 Samais performed by Arab musicians, with 20 (different Samais) by Turkish musicians. The tempo range was (eighth note =)90-110 in performance by Arab artists compared to 124-156 in performance by Turkish artists.

Use of percussion: The general tendency is for the Arab percussionist to make extensive use of ornaments and embellishments, and to vary that in a way that interacts with the melodic line, sometimes outlining the form (for example by playing different in the Taslim than in the Khanas).

The general tendency for Turkish percussionists is to play the skeleton, the most basic shape, of the Samai Thaqil pattern, regardless of the melodic line or place in the form.

This is a difference between art-music percussionists in the two styles that does not stop at Samais.

Turkish percussionists also stop when the melody has a rest. This is especially clear at the characteristic phrase endings which occur on the 8th beat in Samais. Arab percussionists tend to continue playing during those.

Melodic ornaments: This is another difference that is not unique to the interpretation of Samais but is rather a general difference in style that is especially prevalent in smaller ensembles. Turkish musicians use fast, fully articulated, usually diatonic, ornaments. Arab musicians use those less frequently, and incorporate other, expression driven ornaments such as: slides, vibratos, grace notes, left hand pizzicato, and, in the case of the Oud, tremolo (Rash) which is virtually non-existent in Turkish Oud style.

Fillers, silences and early birds: Most Turkish interpretations tend to take the rests literally. In a typical Arab ensemble, a musician, two, and sometimes the entire ensemble plays a filler, especially if there is a leap after the silence. Especially common are filling octave and fifth leaps. Early birds fillers that are played at the end of the rest, ahead of the new phrase.

Modern Samai compositions: Contemporary Turkish Samais still adhere fairly strictly to the composition rules as outlined above. Contemporary Arab Samais, however, are a different story. While there are still Samais that are entirely traditional, there are others that push the envelope, typically in terms of tonality. Two examples to illustrate the point.
In “Samai Kurd Dagher” Abdo Dagher added an intro that is not in Kurd (in fact, it is borderline atonal, in the Arabic sense). The Taslim is tonal but it is not in Maqam it is mostly in Bayyati. The other example is “Samai Kurd Shaheen” which features frequent modulations from the start.

A list of Samais every performer of Arabic music should know

  • Samai Bayyati, El-Aryan. Featured in many recordings.
  • Samai Farah Fazah, Tanburi Jamil. Featured in many recordings, including by Tanburi Jamil
  • Samai Kurd, Dagher. Available on “King of Taqasim” recording, in which Dagher plays many of his compositions
  • Samai Nahawand, Masood Jamil. Recorded by many, recommended recording: “Turath” by Simon Shaheen which also includes Samai Farahafazah and Samai Kurd Shaheen
  • Samai Nawa Athar, Jamil Uweis. Featured in “Remembrances” by Jazayer Ensemble
  • Samai HijazKar Kurd, Tatius. Appears in many recordings, including Kudsi Urgener’s Ensemble recording of the works of Tatius
  • Samai Mohayyar, Tanburi Jamil. Best recording of the Samai is on the “Yasemin” CD by Necati Celik. The CD is out of print and might not be easy to obtain.

One Response
  1. Ariel Qassis :

    Date: July 23, 2008 @ 7:20 am

    ya’atik al-’afi;
    a good article.

    a very good book with a chapter about oruguns of the ottoman semai is:
    Feldman, Walter. Music of the Ottoman Court. 1996

    a must read book.

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