All about the Arabic Music – Khaleeji Music from history to recent times
Despite the rapid economic growth of the Gulf, its indigenous music remained largely intact while gathering a bigger audience. In the fourth of our eight-part series on Music of the Arab World, Saeed Saeed takes a look at music from the Gulf region, known as Khaleeji music, and its growth from Bedouin beginnings to its current pop status.
Khaleeji incorporates elements of African, Indian, and Iranian music overlaying indigenous Arabian genres such as Samri, Liwa, and Sawt. Kuwait pioneered the Khaleeji genre into its modern form in the second half of the 20th century and soon became the focal point of the industry in a fashion similar to Cairo and Beirut in the case of Arabic pop music. in addition to Saudis, were also among the first commercial recording artists and composers in the Persian Gulf region and the Khaleeji scene continues to be dominated primarily by Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Bahraini artists and composers today.
Before the modern pop sheen of today’s Khaleeji tunes, its history had it play a bigger role than simply entertainment. More than 50 years ago, before the borders of the GCC were established, the songs were vessels transmitting stories of Bedouin communities living in the desert and their fishing counterparts residing on the coast. Music, poetry and dance intermingled to portray stories from different communities. The eclecticism of those early sounds – with some encompassing influences from East Africa, Iran and India – indicate the region was a melting pot well before the skyscrapers and lavish hotels.
There is a reason why the UAE and the wider Gulf celebrates poetry: it forms the DNA of the region’s music. A Bedouin tradition or tribe is highlighted by its shaa’ir, which means poet, whose literary prowess earned him a leadership role within the community. Early Khaleeji music had poets reciting their works – which often dealt with the tales of camel riders, odes to warriors and love songs – accompanied by a rebab or rababa, an eighth-century stringed instrument defined by a tone similar to the human voice. Despite technological advances, some poetry continues to be passed down the generations orally, with new generations adding their bits of improvisation.The genre of Arabic satirical poetry was known as hija. While dealing with serious topics in what are now known as anthropology, sociology and psychology, Al-Jahiz introduced a satirical approach, “based on the premise that, however serious the subject under review, it could be made more interesting and thus achieve greater effect, if only one leavened the lump of solemnity by the insertion of a few amusing anecdotes or by the throwing out of some witty or paradoxical observations. He was well aware that, in treating of new themes in his prose works, he would have to employ a vocabulary of a nature more familiar in hija, satirical poetry.” For example, in one of his zoological works, he satirized the preference for longer human penis size, writing: “If the length of the penis were a sign of honor, then the mule would belong to the (honorable tribe of) Quraysh”. Another satirical story based on this preference was an Arabian Nights tale called “Ali with the Large Member”.
Music and dance
Khaleeji music has many variations linking to specific regions and countries. One of the most renowned forms are pearling songs. Practised along the coasts of the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, the songs were vocal tributes to the joys and hardships of sea life. The song structure is linked to the manner of performance. Those sung during the loading and unloading of sea cargo were often gruffer and made of short, intense bursts, while the entertainment variation were often longer and rhythms more languid. Qatar has its own range of local dances such as the Ardah. Traditionally performed on Friday afternoons, the Ardah has two rows of male dancers accompanied by a stream of percussion including drums, tambourines and cymbals as well as the spoken word. In Oman, the drummer-led Lewa dance, performed mostly during Eid celebrations, is traditionally performed by descendants of African slaves and is sung in Swahili. Sawt – meaning voice – is the most urban form of Gulf music and is akin to the blues. Accompanied by the oud, the genre incorporates Arab classical music with traditional poetry; songs are often book-ended with spoken word verses. Its associated dance, the Zaffan, is performed by two males and consists of kneeling and leaping motions. Sawt music is often performed at evening male-only gatherings. Leading artists include Kuwait’s Shadi Al Khaleej (known as The Bird Song of The Gulf) and Bahrain’s Sultan Hamed.
Traditional Khaleeji music is not a male-dominated arena. Women had their own musical practices that similarly incorporate song and dance. Before the 1950s in what is now Qatar, a dance called the Moradah was popular,. Public performances by women were practiced only on two annual occasions. The first was al-moradah, which involved women and girls of all social classes gathering in a secluded area where they would sing and dance in embroidered clothes. This was usually done in the weeks preceding Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. It was one of the most popular musical practices among Qatari women in previous decades. Each moradah would begin with a prayer to Muhammad. After this, the women would praise tribal leaders and elders, repeating each verse twice before a new verse was introduced.. Second occasion of collective public singing, known as al-ashori, was performed exclusively at weddings. There were two main instruments used during a performance: al daf, a type of tambourine and al tabl, a longtidunal drum. Thematically, ashori songs are cheerful as they rejoice the marriage which is taking place.Today, female singers can be found performing in private parties and weddings. Normally performing as part of a group, the band is led by the Mutribah, normally the most gifted singer, while the others chime in with backing vocals and instrumentation.
The biggest name in Khaleeji music is the UAE’s Hussain El Jasmi, since his 2001 breakout single Bawada’ak. The Khor Fakkan singer’s albums have been big sellers, with a fan base stretching across the Arab world. His local concerts attract thousands of Emiratis, with multitudes of Gulf fans flying in to attend. Dubai’s Ahlam is one of the Gulf’s first pop stars. As well as releasing 10 albums and headlining Middle Eastern music festivals, she was also a judge on the MBC talent show Arab Idol. Saudi Arabia’s Tariq Abdulhakeem is also a major player courtesy of his services as hit-songwriter for Gulf stars as well as an accomplished solo performer.