Some thoughts on the Samai form

Arabic Music, Music Theory 1 Comment

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.
Read the rest…

Arab Avantgarde Music (Part 4)

Arabic Music, Music, Music Theory 2 Comments

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. Read the rest…

Arab Avantgarde Music. (Part 1)

Arabic Music, Free Improv, Fusion, Music Theory 1 Comment

Having received a call for submissions for essays on Arab avantgarde, I thought this one was just down my alley..

Thinking about the subject, the questions that seem the most urgent to answer are not about the Arab avantgarde music movement itself just yet, but rather questions about how to have a discussion about Arab avantgarde music. In fact, the questions touch on some of the vague aspects of the term not necessarily in relation to Arab avantgarde.

Read the rest…

Simon Shaheen and the Art of Silences and Suspences in Taqasim

Arabic Music, Music, Oud, Taqasim No Comments

Can the sound of the passing time, thousands of years of culture, history, and stories of people and places, journeys, dreams, loves, conflicts, can all those be told in music? Can they be told in one piece of music? Can they be told in one piece of music that lasts a few minutes (seven minutes and six seconds to be precise)?

In the third track (maqam bayyati) of Shaheen and Racy’s “Taqasim”, this is accomplished.

I got this CD almost 15 years ago. Since then, I have listened to it more than any other. We are blessed that we live in a time when recording is possible. When we read accounts of the beauty of someone’s music, we can try to imagine. But how can one imagine music that is unimaginably powerful.

In Taqasim, especially in the third, 7 minutes (and 5000 years) long track, a lot is packed. Simon’s, melodies, tone, and technique, even after 15 years of listening (and knowing the thing by heart), continue to be exciting. New details emerging with each listening. As if the performers secretly rerecord it anew every week or so.

So what makes it work so well? I have repeatedly dwelt on that. Over the years the answers change.

At first, I thought it was technique (isn’t that all we think about when we’re young?). Then it was the melodies. Then it was the recording quality and clarity combined with melodies and technique.

As, despite our best efforts to the contrary, we mature, our ears do too.

It is now clear to me, that he who wants to master the sounds, must also master the silences between them. The music of “Taqasim” stays alive and relevant, because the performers breathed their life into it. The variations in dynamics, pulse, pick technique are at times subtle and at others startling, but they are always natural. The melodies are at times lyrical and at others anxious, and pained. But they are always immediate.

Instrumental music is music where the listener gets to fill in the lyrics, silently, and then revise and re-revise. Millennia can thus be distilled into minutes, and countless stories find home in a jewel case.

How many maqams are there?

Arabic Music, Music Theory No Comments

This question is not only one that a new comer to Arabic music would ask. It is also valid when asked by an Arabic music theorist. There are three main reasons for that:

  1. Simplification of the definition of maqam therefore not recognizing some of the characteristics that distinguish different maqams sharing the same scale. As a result, many maqams that share the a scale are now considered one maqam.
  2. Maqams that are no longer in use are omitted from theory books.
  3. Not recognizing intonation details rendering several different maqams as identical. Read the rest…

How we teach maqams

Arabic Music, Taqasim No Comments

One thing that I am extremely disappointed with is the general weakness in academic resources on Arabic music theory. Don’t get me wrong, I have about 3 shelves full of Arabic music theory books. There is no shortage of books. In fact, if you have only one book you will feel good. They all talk with confidence about the topic and you will feel that the book you hold is actually The Truth, the final word, the definitive resource, your key to the gates of musical heaven.. It’s got everything. They even got rhythms, and cheap photocopy quality pictures of Al-Hambra palace or some random Arabesque ornaments(what does that have to do with it anyway).

Until you open the next book.. The cheap photocopies won’t bother you much. But the maqam information.. As if they’re talking about an entirely different civilization.

How can we make matters worse? As if we already had a true and well researched and documented way to teach maqams that is too complicated, now many music schools are going for simpler ways to teach maqams. In other words, if you are tired of learning Arabic music theory using the traditional “rigorous” and “complex” approach, you now have a choice. You can study diet-maqams. I have one book of diet-maqams.

I am venting because as I am working on my book, I had a few questions about a maqam. I opened six different theory books and got.. Four different answers. Two never really addressed the maqam in any serious detail. So I am referring to the repertoire. Analyzing 19th and early 20th century compositions trying to fish for details.

Also annoying is the fact that it is evident that these books were written by people who actually never read a music theory book. That’s fair enough. It’s an oral tradition. But if you’re going to write a text book, you’ve got to think pedagogy before cheap photocopies of palaces and ornaments.

The true and definitive story of the birth of music..

Free Improv, Improvisation, Music, Taqasim No Comments

Some thousands of years ago someone hit a stick against a piece of wood, deliberately, not for the purpose of making a tool or for hunting or farming. S/He did it for the purpose of hearing the sound of it. Music was born.

How did music start? Why do we play music? What was the first music like? Was it invented by a child or an adult? Was it invented in daytime or nighttime? Was it improvised or composed? Why do we still improvise? Where is music going? Why are there so many different kinds of music? Read the rest…

Sun Drenched Rain

Arabic Music, Music, Taqasim No Comments

Solid blue skies today in San Francisco. The sun drenched sidewalks and I are listening to Matar Muhammad playing buzuq. On the face of it the music is catchy and easy to listen to. But there is so much to this music beyond the face of it.

Matar’s exquisite virtuosity and the energy of his performance are captivating. His genius is most glaring in the perfection of his improvised phrases. It is a very fine balance between what is familiar and accessible on the level of tradition, what is familiar and accessible on a deeper human level, and what is unfamiliar. Our familiars make it easy for us to remain engaged, allowing him to pass his subversive musical messages.

Lebanese buzuq master, Matar Muhammad died at 56 in 1995. Is that an age in which to die?

The CD is called “Tribute to a Master of the Buzuq” and is under the Inedit label.

Matar in Arabic means rain.

Definitions, definitions. Arabic (and other) musical terms in 15 words or less.

Arabic Music, Music, Oud, Taqasim No Comments

As I work on restoring the Nahat for hours on end (so far a few hours each day for the past two weeks), I have had time to think strange thoughts (try planing wood continuously and very carefully for an hour as a catalyst for strange brain activity). One interesting theme: How few words does it take to define something?

By the way. I didn’t count prepositions, “or” or “and” and neither should you.


  • Arabic Maqam: Tonalmode consisting of one or more scales and rules governing melodic progression and cadences
  • Maqamat: Plural of Maqam Read the rest…

The Enchanting Qanun, and a few other CDs for your listening library

Arabic Music, Music, Oud, Taqasim No Comments

I am listening to ” Le Qanun Enchante’ “under the “Club Du Disque Arabe” label. This is probably the best thing one can do on a gloomy San Francisco morning. The first five tracks sound like the Mediterranean sun. The last two like Cairo summer evenings. Every track a masterpiece.

I was noticing that the post “As The Hard Times Hit” is quite popular. Another reason for listening to that CD. Music is flexing its muscles against the forces of nature and modern life, and it is winning. At least for now..

I continue to break the geographic and chronological order of the repertoire series and would like to recommend a few other CDs for a day like this: Read the rest…

« Previous Entries