Features December 5, 2011
Tarab: Making Music in the Arab World

The music in Afropop Worldwide's 2003 program on tarab music has the power to fully rearrange one's thinking about music in the Arab world. It is extremely intense—for some, perhaps, too much so. But it is also so beautiful and spiritually powerful that one may easily become unexpectedly seduced by it. For those wanting to explore the themes in our tarab music program in greater depth, the source of most of the ideas is A. J. Racy's extraordinary book Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab. Below is Banning Eyre's review of the book.

Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab
A. J. Racy


One could hardly ask for a better English-language introduction to the principles of Arabic music than this terse, well-written treatment by scholar and virtuoso musician A. J. Racy, Professor of Ethnomusicology at UCLA. Racy writes with clarity and passion drawing equally on his life-long experience as a performer; his deep friendships with musicians; and his profound understanding of music, texts, and the history of thought concerning this rich cultural world. At its heart, this is a book about the emotional core of a complex and ancient set of musical traditions. Tarab is ecstasy, the deepest possible emotional response to music, and generating tarab is the overriding goal of the musicians at the heart of this book. That idea, with its simplicity and soul, alone helps to make this perhaps intimidating world of music far more available to the average listener.

Racy's lucid and inviting tone is reflected in his simple chapter titles. He begins with "Culture," a look at the contexts in which tarab music has thrived. We get the possibly apocryphal account of the music teacher who shook his shoulders when he played in order to get the right feeling, a fascinating discussion of how in the last century female singers found a place in what had been a man's world, and an authoritative account of the learning process musicians must undergo to earn acceptance in this highly specialized community of artists.

Hamza Shakkur; Alepo, Syria

Racy does not hesitate to address sensitive subjects, like the importance of the nightclub in the expression of essentially spiritual music; the role of hashish in loosening up musicians and making them available to certain emotional states; or, at another extreme, the case of musicians whose increasing religiosity eventually takes them into a spiritual realm where they choose to abandon music altogether. Racy focuses on the singer, who must be possessed by tarab in order to convey tarab to listeners—but the audience too must be judged by the appropriateness of its reactions. There is a wide range of possibilities, beginning with the contemplative, deep listeners, known as Sammi'ah—super fans, serene on the outside, burning with passion on the inside—and ending with those boisterous, extroverted types who must turn their appreciation into a performance of its own.

Racy's next chapter is called "Performance." In it he explores musical venues old and new, formal and informal; and then describes the emotional possibilities that exist within a variety of settings, from the small jalsah to the large and public haflah. The towering figure in Arab music of the 20th century, Umm Kulthum, comes into the story often, notably here with her incisive characterization of the four types of listeners in her huge audiences—from the tenderly transported introvert to the overly exuberant "clown." Syria's great singer Sabah Fakhri is cited for his amazing stamina, evidenced in legendary, 10-hour performances. Fakhri is a mutrib, a professional, male tarab singer who, according to Racy, must be something of a psychologist in addition to a musical virtuoso. The live interaction between performer and audience has been such an integral aspect of tarab music that 20th century audiences were slow to accept the idea of recording such music. Umm Kulthum's monthly live concert broadcasts on Egyptian radio provided a successful compromise, and to this day, the vast majority of available Kulthum releases are from these concerts, although she made many studio recordings as well.

Sheikh Ahmad Barrayn; Egypt

In his chapter entitled "Music," Racy identifies musical characteristics that contribute to the tarab experience. He talks about lyricism, vocal qualities, ornamentation, improvisation, all as means to bring about the abstraction of deep emotions in music. For instance, a clear chest voice makes a more direct emotional connection in this music than one that is breathy or tempered by vibrato. Racy focuses on an arranging technique called heterophony, a kind of loose melding of the musical ensemble in which the instruments come together to play a single unified idea or phrase, sometimes filling in notes for one another. This intimate, energizing interaction among the players leads to ecstasy by binding individual parts in a living, organic union.

Like improvisation—also highly associated with tarab—and ornamentation, Racy finds that heterophony has declined in contemporary Arab music, as Western ideas about strict notation have become the norm. The idea that practices associated with tarab—the emotional core of Arab music—have been weakened over the course of the last century is an important, recurring theme throughout this book.

Racy explores the experience of the performing musician in his chapter called "Saltanah." Derived from the word sultan, or "ruler," saltanah describes that temporary, self-absorbed, creative ecstasy that overpowers and empowers a musician when all elements of a performance come together perfectly. Here again, Racy's experience as a player adds palpable authenticity to the discussion, as he takes the reader inside the musicians' concept of "feeling" and "sweetness" as inborn gifts, looking for the opportunity to manifest themselves. The role of the listener is key here as well, and Racy lets us taste the playful language of "pleasurable affliction" that deeply moved listeners resort to, calling an oud player "You, Mischievous One!," or exclaiming to a performer, "Be merciful," or "Are you trying to make us die today?"

Umm Kulthum, CD art

Such touches bring the subject to life while taking nothing from its ultimate seriousness. That seriousness becomes vivid in Racy's treatment of "Saltanah spoilers." A single wrong note, imperfectly tuned string, jarring modulation, exaggerated ornament, ill-timed or awkward cadence can utterly erase the carefully constructed web of art and emotion that leads to tarab, and its more specialized manifestation, saltanah.

Racy's chapter, "Lyrics," deconstructs the poetry of love, nature, festivity, and intoxication, all of which can be seen as metaphors for the encounter with divinity. The calmness and obliviousness of the beloved contrasts with the agitated, sleepless obsession of the lover. This is a theme that runs through the revered, epic performances of Umm Kulthum as well as the most commercial shaabi and rai pop music of today. Racy concentrates on the former, delving into the "intellectual backgrounds" of some of the key poets whose work Kulthum chose to sing. One of those, Ahmed Rami, relied on 181 "emotionally suggestive expressions," which he reworked from poem to poem, setting them to classical metric figures that would enhance the richness of the music as well. Ultimately, the performer becomes the "sweet tormenter," guiding the listener through the agony and ecstasy of this music's most intense musical experience.

Only in his final chapter, "Tarab in Perspective," does Racy resort to the sort of scholarly tone that may leave some general listeners behind. But even as he works to reconcile his ideas with key existing works in the field, he makes powerful points about tarab music, about its life in cities, even amid the decadence and sexuality of nightclubs, and he draws parallels with related concepts in other musical traditions, like duende in flamenco, and hal in Persian music.

In hardcover, this is an expensive book but well worth the price. Just the same, one hopes for a paperback edition that might find its way into the hands of more general readers, for this is a book with the power to reveal and demystify the rich music and culture of the Arab world and make it approachable to the uninitiated as never before.

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