I’ve come across two articles in the last few days on Arabic music by or about students of the Arabic language. The first is simply about learning the language through music at the IU Arabic Music Club. Introducing students to Arabic through music is not a new idea of course, though it seems to be becoming more widespread since the Arab Spring – UT’s students singing Sout El Horreya comes to mind.
Ramzi Salti has taken this approach in his teaching, inviting musicians such as Omar Offendum, Dam and Mike Massy to speak with his students. So has the wonderful Al Bustan, Seeds of Culture project. Bustan’s Executive Director Hazami Sayed discusses the power of cultural exchange through music here. They have invited artists like Sonia M’barak, Karima Skalli, Rima Kcheich and Marcel Khalife to sing with their students.
In the second article, Katie Polglase discusses a mini video series entitled ‘Middle East Beats’ found on BBC news. There are several of these lists around, many of them popped up around 2011 – you know, the soundtrack of the Arab Spring and all that.
Polglase mentions that the videos include a rapper and Mashrou’ Layla, a “Western style” group with a “more distinct melody” apparently, than the traditional Arabic music to which she has not yet managed to acclimatise herself:
Despite making a real effort, I still really struggle to understand the appeal of more traditional Arab music. I know several Jordanians who feel the same way; they are all in their twenties, many drink, and a lot of the women do not wear a veil. They dislike the more conservative side of Arab culture and its interpretation of Islam, preferring instead certain aspects of Western culture that seem more liberal. The music scene is one arena where this dynamic plays out: they prefer Western or Western-style music to the more traditional Arabic music.
Although Polglase paints this picture of a Westernized, young crowd not into the golden oldies, she then goes on to make this argument:
I wish to explain that the Middle East may be the only remaining area of the world not to have fallen in love with Western music. ‘Middle East Beats’ brings to Western eyes and ears a few bands possessing a Western streak and suggests they represent the modernising youth fighting the conservative music of the past. Why should modern music have to mean Western music? Let us get rid of the idea that ‘change’ only translates as ‘progress’ when it brings a society closer to emulating Western culture.
Yes, progress does not only mean emulating Western culture – but it would be just as wrong to represent “the Middle East” as an isolated bubble, untouched by Western music. While the grand dame Um Kalthoum, the nightingale Abd El Halim and the diva Fairouz will always have a special place in the hearts of many, it is undeniable that there is a trend in Arabic music to incorporate more Western genres. Bands like Mashrou’ Laila are cropping up everywhere – they are far from the exception. The rock group Jadal comes to mind – and one of their songs, a Abd Al Haleem Hafiz cover, is a perfect example of combining the classics with Western genres:
Jadal’s work is similar to Khalas, another Arab rock group that remixes the golden oldies. Here is Um Kalthoum’s instantly recognisable Enta Omri transformed:
Here’s another example of reworking the familiar by Syrian band Gene:
More music that blurs the boundaries between “Western” and Middle Eastern: Hayajan, El Morabba3, Akher Zapheer, Ghanni 3an ta3rif, Cairokee, Autostrad, Lemonada, Kazamada, Wust El Balad, Klaket Band, Nouveau Systeme, Ministry of Dub-Key, Goultrah Sound System, Soap Kills, Kulna Sawa, Karima Nayt, Aziz Maraka, Emel Mathlouthi, Jowan Safadi, Maryam Saleh, Mike Massy, Badiaa Bouhrizi, Suad Massi, Abdulrahman Mohammed, Yasmin Hamdan, Yacoub Abu Ghosh, and many many more.
That’s not including the rappers – who did play a large part in the uprisings of 2011.
The idea that “the Middle East may be the only remaining area of the world not to have fallen in love with Western music” might be just a little bit too definitive. This is not to say all of these artists who are working with Western genres are forgetting their heritage – not at all. Many are incorporating it into wonderful new sounds. It’s not an either/or – as groups like New Sounds from Arab Lands demonstrate.