Sometime during the last weekend of July 2023, previously confiscated musical instruments were collected and publicly burned in the Afghan province of Herāt. The head of the local office of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Aziz al-Rahman al Muhajir, justified the burning by saying that music leads to moral corruption. Apparently string instruments, a harmonium, a tabla, and electronic amplifiers were burned. Performing music in public has been banned in Afghanistan since 2021.
Music has long been a controversial topic in Islam. Although the Islamic world has birthed rich and brilliant musical cultures, some Muslims nevertheless believe that music, especially instrumental music, causes people to go astray by indulging in sensual pleasures. The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic nationalist and pro-Pashtun movement founded in the early 1990s, rose to power in 1996 and subsequently banned the public performance of music and imposed numerous other restrictions on musical life. The group ruled around three-quarters of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 before being overthrown after an invasion led by the United States. The group regained power over the entire country following the August 2021 departure of coalition forces.
Speaking in July 2023, Ahmad Sarmast, founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, likened the Taliban’s actions to “cultural genocide and musical vandalism”. Now living in Portugal, Sarmast says, “The people of Afghanistan have been denied artistic freedom . . . The burning of musical instruments in Herat is just a small example of the cultural genocide that is taking place in Afghanistan under the leadership of the Taliban.”
Read on MGG Online.
Below is a performance of the Afghani rabāb accompanied by tabla at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“Oh, Beloved! I am honey trapped in your love. Make me hear you!”
As the musicologist Ranjana Saxena writes, lyrics like these illustrate the essence of the tappa, a florid, passionately romantic vocal art form of India. Inspired by the undulating motions of camel-riding Arab tradespeople, the word “tappa” originates from the Punjab province of India and Pakistan. Its root word tappana refers to the bouncing and jerkiness of a camelback ride and the mercurial, melismatic singing that these rides have inspired.
Unlike khayal—the serene art music from the Hindustani tradition of India—the tappa is volatile, unfolding rapidly throughout a single tala (rhythm) cycle. The sung text is usually very brief, consisting of not more than two to four lines. However, tappa singers use this brevity to their advantage. They deftly weave in the frenetic melismas through the scant lyrics, finessing the diction to facilitate speed while maintaining comprehensibility. Unlike other forms of Hindustani art music, where the melodic framework for the piece, encapsulated in the raga, is first outlined, this foreshadowing is summarily eschewed in the tappa. Instead, the emotional content emerges over the course of the presentation, which, due to the extreme physical demands it places upon the singer, does not last for more than ten minutes.
At the heart of tappa virtuosity is the zamzama taan, a circuitous vocal gyration employing short patterns of four to five notes that move through the notes of the raga, often cut with notes that are sung in faster subdivisions to create a sense of drama and unpredictability, or to make abrupt changes in the patterns used even more apparent, according to Debapriya Adhikary, one of the torchbearers of the Benarasi tradition of tappa. “Unlike khayal”, he adds, “tappa singing does not allow for nyaas (resting) on any one note. It is a tireless, intricate pursuit of passionate beauty.” Chhuut taans also find a home in the tappa; these taans start with a wide, upwards jerk and descend rapidly, taking a pliable view of tempo, accelerating and then slowing down for effect, underscoring tension and release. However, sapaat taans—linear runs through the notes of the raga—are avoided to ensure that tappas are never confused with faster khayals, which can be equally dizzying.
The demanding nature of the tappa tends to overshadow its nuanced inner workings in scholarship on the genre, both by Indians and cultural outsiders. Colonial collectors such as William Hamilton Bird and Sarah Plowden described tappa as “wild”. At the same time, orientalists such as William Jones and Augustus Willard considered it a “rude style”. Although it can be hard to look past the virtuosic element of tappa singing, a subtle richness emerges once you do. For starters, there is the curious case of the languages used in the tappa texts. The tappas that have endured in pre-partition India (the longest have Punjabi texts), were sung in various languages, including Sindhi, Multani, Bannochi, Derawali, and Saraiki. The poetry of the tappa speaks beseechingly of love, depicting a traditionally demure view of separation and longing. Most importantly, tappa embody the feminine voice irrespective of the gender of the performer; whosoever sings the tappa has to use female pronouns and embody birhaa and shringar, the emotions most closely associated with the feminine in the Hindustani tradition.
Due to its somewhat limited emotional landscape, tappas tend to be composed in a few ragas, such as Khamaj, Kafi, Bhairavi, Jhinjhoti, Tilang, Sindhura, Des, Jangla, Pahari, Maand, and Sohini. Tala (time cycles) used include Punjabi (adha theka), Pashto, and Sitarkhani, used for their uneven accents that further reinforce the off-kilter feel at the core of the tappa.
The rhythmic gait of the tappa is as complex as its origins, which are contested to say the least. The most common view is that this art form was created by Ghulam Nabi Shori (1742-1792), a genius hereditary musician at the court of Awadh in Lucknow, India, patronized by Nawab Asafuddaulah. Tappas attributed to him bear his nom de plume, Shori Miyan, in the last line of the text. As the story goes, he inherited not only knowledge of dhrupadand khayal, the two most prominent genres of art music in the Hindustani tradition, from his father but also a ceaseless innovative spirit. Nawab’s father, Ghulam Rasul, had adapted some of the qawwali taans to enhance his dhrupad singing. At the height of his prowess and frustration, Shori traveled across India until he finally found inspiration after a chance encounter with the aforementioned camel riders and used their simple folk songs as a base for his melismatic vocal virtuosity.
However, authors like Katherine Schofield have brought this theory under greater scrutiny, suggesting that tappas were sung in Delhi nearly a hundred years before Shori Miyan brought them to Lucknow. Considering that Delhi was also the seat of the Qawwali, it is easy to surmise that this conjecture may carry some weight. Besides Schofield, musicologists Fakirullah and Mirza Khan also have identified famous love songs called “tappay” at the time of the Mughal Emperor Shahjehan in the 17th century. Gokul Nath traced tappay sung by courtesans on the streets of Agra even earlier, sometime during the 16th century. Ranjana Saxena notes that some scholars credit the Besara Geet of dhrupad as the source of the tappa. However, due to the oral tradition of music in India, it is hard to say with certainty how any of these compared with the modern-day tappa popularized by Shori Miyan.
Shori Miyan’s is not the only stream of tappa that can be sampled in India. While a contemporary of Shori Miyan, Ramnidhi Gupta, created a variant of the tappa in Bengal that evolved into something completely different due to the sociocultural climate of its new home in Eastern India, from the mainstream, Northern tappa as practiced in Gwalior and Benares. Famed musicologist V.D. Paluskar also composed tappas, but these were settings of mystical poetry and explicitly Hindu devotional, unlike mainstream tappas with their lovelorn turn of phrase. Shori Miyan’s presence in Lucknow, and the spread of his students eastward, virtually ensured that the tappa never gained prominence in Punjab, the land of its origin, as it did in Central and Eastern India. Gamun Miyan (Shori’s disciple) passed the tappa to Benares, and several excellent tappa singers arose there, most notably Girija Devi, who ultimately passed it down to Debapriya.
“I was fascinated by how intricate her singing was, yet how easy she made it seem,” Debapriya says of his illustrious Gurumaa. “She saw that I had an aptitude for the tappa and a love for learning difficult things, so she started to instruct me in it.” Hearing Debapriya sing the tappa, it is easy to see what may have impressed Girija Devi. His cultured, lyrical, and expressive voice not only exhibits the athleticism required for tappa but is also full of pathos and emotion, which is rare nowadays. Debapriya has cultivated a complete mastery of the four baans of tappa singing–laari daar, guthaao daar, khudi daar, and phande daar–overcoming the many challenges these present both anatomically and conceptually to an outstanding degree. He explains that his gurumaa taught him to avoid excessively heavy oscillations to conserve his voice and to find an appropriate balance between vocal gymnastics and the prosody hidden in the text. “I spent a lot of time trying to connect the notes of any given raga in a series of slow glides, which I could eventually speed up to produce the many scintillating effects that the tappa demands,” Debapriya says, “but in doing so I realized that the onus of hard work has to be upon the student. The teacher can only take you to the fountainhead; it is up to you to put in the hours required to claim knowledge as your own.” Debapriya performs his wide repertoire, including tappa, with his cousin and musical partner, Samanwaya Sarkar, who happens to be one of the few contemporary instrumentalists able to render the tappa on his Sitar faithfully.
–Written by Ali Hassan, a versatile singer, percussionist, an aspiring ethnomusicologist, and a multicultural composer-producer from Karachi, Pakistan. Ali is currently an intern at RILM.
Watch a video of Debapriya performing with Samanwaya Sarkar below.
Here Debapriya sings one of his favorite Shori Miyan tappas, and explains the salient features of the Benarasi tappa.
The Baluchis Spread out across Pakistan, Iran, and Muscat, the Baluchi people are as complex and diverse as the landscapes that they inhabit. Baluchistan, the largest Pakistani province, is home to the Baluch as well as a rich geography, culture, and history. Its hardy mountains, though imposing at a distance, harbor beautiful secret alcoves. Its picturesque coastlines sketch a region that has proven both alluring and inaccessible to those who set their sights on it from Cyrus the Great to the modern-day ethnomusicologists. For better or worse, Baluchistan remains an unexplored cultural and geographical wonderland to the outside world.
The Baluchi people and their music bear testament to historical cross-pollination. The Iranian-descended Baluchis have freely mixed with Arabs and Siddis/Sheedis of African origin to create a unique culture. In their music, percussive, driving African rhythms intermingle with a unique melodic idiom, akin to ragas and maqams but standing apart from both. Their repertory ranges from songs of love (dastanag), loss (zahiroh), as well as music to accompany zar and gawati healing rituals and assimilated fishermen songs (amba). The meditative, Sufi-inspired religiosity espoused by the Baluchis also colors their music–manifesting in persistent, repetitive melodic motifs that gradually shift over time.
The benju It is no surprise that the benju, a unique keyboard-fitted zither, evolved in Karachi given the diversity of influences in the region. It was brought to Baluchi shores at the cusp of the 19th century by Japanese sailors, as the local telling of the story goes. This now-ubiquitous instrument arrived as the taishogoto, or nagoya harp, a children’s toy. From these humble beginnings, it has evolved to become a staple instrument in Baluchi folk music.
Over the last century, Baluchi people living in Iran and Pakistan have enlarged the humble taishogoto, adding up to six strings and row of keys, a larger, more resonant body, as well as electric pickups. This upgrade resulted from both necessity and ingenuity as the region has been subject to historical poverty and has had limited economic means and access to parts and reliable materials.
The benju produces a culturally espoused, rich overtone and shadow-notes-laden sound while its soft keys facilitate great melismatic virtuosity. Both hands divide the labors of musicmaking equally with the left playing keys while the other strums strings with a plectrum adding drones as required. However, its one limitation is that it cannot play the lyrical inflections and glissandos that typify the music of the region–a problem shared by the harmonium, the other imported instrument now part and parcel of North Indian and Pakistani music. Despite this drawback, the benju can be heard in many different social contexts. It is equally at home playing folk tunes or being broadcasted over regional TV or radio programs. It is played at rural weddings as well as in urban contexts where its loudness is greatly desired.
The man The benju has become quite popular recently thanks to the Pakistani virtuoso Ustad Noor Bakhsh. His ten-country European tour this past summer left audiences ecstatic and exhausted from dancing for hours to his irrepressible rhythms. Although Noor Bakhsh was already a local legend in his native Baluchistan for decades, his recent international recognition came about through the efforts of the Heidelberg-educated anthropologist, Daniyal Ahmed, whose fieldwork and managerial expertise have catapulted Noor into the global spotlight. Daniyal found him through videos of his virtuosic yet deeply spiritual playing, which have been widely circulated on social media for the past few years. “It took me four years to head out to find him, no thanks to COVID-19”, says Daniyal. “I was glad that I found him.”
Daniyal attributes the vitality of Noor Bakhsh’s music to his personality. He says that Noor loves to eat daal and naan–staples of Pakistani and North Indian cuisine–and is compelled to improvise by a primal energy that emanates from deep within him. According to Daniyal, “[Noor] is an amazing storyteller, steeped in the folk tales, myths, and legends of his people, collected over decades as he played for gavati and damali trance ceremonies, as well as through his many journeys across the wide expanse of Makran, Pasni, and Quetta. Plus, his whimsicality and sense of humor are as formidable as his musicality.”
Noor Bakhsh’s musicianship bears an indelible imprint of his sojourning; he stands out from his peers and defies tradition in a number of important ways. Firstly, unlike the six-stringed benju favored by other Baluchi folk musicians, he plays a five-stringed one, which he has electrified with a single-coil pickup affixed with a rubber band. He amplifies this with a locally engineered hybrid amp, powered by Phillips-Holland tubes that have been out of production since the 1970’s, and a Toyota car speaker. He has powered this rough-and-tumble setup for the last two decades with a car battery and a small solar panel, underscoring the ingenuity of the Baluchi people.
There is also the case of his musicianship. Noor is profoundly inspired by nature, especially birdsong, as evident on his 2022 album Jingul, which was released to global acclaim. From tuning his benju in line with the climate to eschewing tempered scales, Noor creates an atmosphere of deep spirituality and connectedness from the outset. His eclectic personality informs his extroverted style, adorning deeply lyrical phrases with florid passagework that delights the imagination and resists easy categorization. As Daniyal notes, “[Noor’s] fresh and experimental approach to presenting folk tunes borrows from many sources, including Baluchi zahireg, syncretic melodic frameworks influenced by Arabic and Hindustani traditions. However, Noor also adds Western-inspired triads and scalar runs to the expected trills and flourishes of his region’s repertory, wandering from one tune to another and back, building up to an ecstatic crescendo.”
Noor’s journey Hearing the jubilation in Noor’s music makes the particulars of his life ever more surprising. Born in Gaddani to an iterant family of goatherders of the zangeshahi clan, music was an integral part of Noor’s life. He was initiated into music by master musicians Khuda Bakhsh and Rehmat in his early teens, and he has lived a full and difficult life since that time. Noor spent decades accompanying famous Baluch singer Sabzal Sami, honing his craft, gaining local renown as a master instrumentalist, and losing loved ones and navigating other personal tragedies before eventually settling in a village near Pasni, where he has lived for the last two decades. The arid rocky landscape of his native Baluchistan seeped deeply into his creative ethos. It is no wonder that hearing Noor Bakhsh play in Amsterdam, the Dutch wife of the desert-blues musician Ali Farka Touré cried out, “Ali, you’re alive!”
For all his musical aptitude, Ustad Noor Bakhsh remains childlike at heart in the best of ways. “While other musicians from his social class would have been wowed by the architecture and economic splendor of Europe”, says Daniyal, “all Noor could focus on were the sounds of his precious birds. That’s the man that he is, at once fully alive and immersed in the world, while being completely removed from it.”
–Written by Ali Hassan, a versatile singer, percussionist, an aspiring ethnomusicologist, and a multicultural composer-producer from Karachi, Pakistan. Ali is currently an intern at RILM.
Listen to Noor Bakhsh’s music here: https://honiunhoni.bandcamp.com/album/jingul
Watch a video of Noor performing below.
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“After being in Vietnam for over two weeks visiting all possible leads on musical instruments, I was struck with a mild case of musical instrument information overload. One day, I wandered into the central part of Hồ Chí Minh to buy something for my lunch. There, I spotted the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum.
I deliberated, will I or won’t I go in? I supposed they were probably going to close for the midday intermission soon but I decided to give it a quick look. Entering the gates I spotted the ticket office, enquired as to their operating hours, and asked if there were any musical instruments on display. Yes, they were open and yes, they had musical instruments on display. Hip hip!
Wandering around the museum, I found that most of the few musical instruments were already entered in my notes. Therefore, I was thrilled when I stumbled upon the mõ đình, a log slit drum. My last steps were to be the gift shop where I looked eagerly through the books, hoping that one may have information on musical instruments. I was disappointed to find most related to the Vietnam War. I did, however, procure two inexpensive musical instruments–a song loan and a sênh suứ.
Upon leaving, I was surprised to notice one last hidden room down a small hallway. I found two instruments I’d never seen, read of, or been told about before – the chordophones đàn măng đôlin (similar to the mandolin) and the đàn octavina (comparable to the steel string guitar). Both had been adapted from their western equivalent, with a ribbed fingerboard, like the lục huyền cầm (Vietnamese Guitar). I never did get lunch that day, opting instead to visit the Traditional Musical Instruments and Costume Showroom, two blocks away. Sadly this showroom has since closed down.”
The above excerpt is taken from Terry Moran’s Vietnamese musical instruments: A monographic lexicon. (2020). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME), and read up on all the Vietnamese instruments he mentions here.
Above are two musicians performing in a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Below is a video of a musician playing the đàn măng đôlin, an Vietnamese instruments similar to the mandolin.
Ryūichi Sakamoto was one of Japan’s most internationally influential musicians. Sakamoto’s career began in electronic pop music as a keyboardist with the band Yellow Magic Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1978, and which triggered a boom for this genre in Japan. At the same time he released his first solo album Thousand Knives. His understanding of music, which transcended genres, became evident on numerous other albums combining pop music, ambient, jazz, and electro-acoustic music, ranging to early forms of house and techno. His works in addition include the operas Life (1999) and Time (2021). Sakamoto studied composition and ethnomusicology at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music from 1970 onward, where he first came into contact with synthesizers.
He is also known for his music for films by Nagisa Ōshima (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, 1987; The Sheltering Sky, 1990; Little Buddha, 1993), Pedro Almodóvar (High Heels, 1991), and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant, 2015), as well as for his music for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. Sakamoto’s final studio album 12–comprising 12 miniatures for piano accompanied by synthesizer sounds–was released in January 2023. He died in Tokyo on 28 March 2023 at the age of 71.
Look out for a full article on Ryūichi Sakamoto’s life and musical activities coming soon to MGG online (www.mgg-online.com).
Below is a video of Sakamota performing his composition Blu with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.
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In September 1967 Mark Slobin, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, traveled to Afghanistan to spend 14 months studying and documenting the country’s musical traditions. He returned for additional fieldwork trips in 1971 and 1972.
Today, the information and materials that Slobin collected there comprise priceless glimpses of the region before successive waves of war and repression began to decimate its traditional culture.
Mark Slobin, a self-published website from 2021 (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2021-3963), presents his monograph Music in the Afghan north (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976) along with a reissue of Music in the Afghan north, 1967–1972 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004, a website that was taken down in 2020 for technical reasons) and additional slides and super 8 footage from his research in Afghanistan.
As he describes it, “the material presented in this project is something of a fly in amber, a structure engulfed by the flow of history, but still showing the morphology and evidence of a kind of life that existed at a particular moment in time.”
Above, Slobin’s photograph of a rubāb maker in Mazār-i-Sharīf; below, discussing and sharing his documentation of Afghanistan in peacetime.
In August 1928 representatives from the German record companies Odeon and Beka were sent to Bali; their efforts resulted in 98 recordings of a wide variety of examples of Balinese music on 78 rpm discs.
Fortunately, expert guidance for the project was provided by the German expatriate Walter Spies, whose intimate knowledge of Balinese culture ensured that outstanding performances in a large range of genres were documented.
As it happened, at that time Bali was undergoing an artistic revolution. A new musical style known as kebyar was rapidly gaining popularity, and older ceremonial styles were literally disappearing, as their bronze instruments were melted down and reforged to accommodate the new style’s requirements; the Odeon/Beka recordings preserve several musical traditions that were later lost.
Despite the three-minute limitation of early recording equipment, these discs became invaluable archives of Balinese musical heritage; for example, the historically important composition Kebyar ding, once forgotten, was relearned from the recordings by the present generation of musicians, and some records of renowned singers are considered sacred by their descendants, who keep tape copies in family shrines.
These were the musical documents that inspired the young Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who first heard them in 1929. McPhee travelled to Bali in 1931 and remained there for nearly a decade; his activities included making painstaking transcriptions of Balinese pieces. McPhee’s own collection of the 1928 recordings includes most of the copies that are still preserved today, as they quickly went out of print and were discarded due to disappointing sales.
This according to the commentary by Edward Herbst that accompanies the CD The roots of gamelan: The first recordings—Bali, 1928; New York, 1941 (World Arbiter, 1999; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-38076).
Above, a gamelan gong gede group photographed by McPhee in the 1930s (UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive and Colin McPhee Estate).
Below, two of the six discs devoted to Kebyar ding, with archival photographs.
On 27 May 1912 the first Karnatak music conference was convened in Thanjāvūr.
Hosted by the celebrated practitioner of Siddha medicine and devotee of Karnatak music Abraham Pandithar (above), the conference’s stated purpose was “to promote an academic interest in and to diffuse a knowledge of all that was best in the science and practice of Indian Music; to correct all conflicting notions in regard to Ragams and determine the precise and scientifically correct methods; to concert measures to the advancement of Indian music.”
At the conference Pandithar established the Sangeetha Vidhyalaya Mahajana Sangam; the group met five more times between 1912 and 1914, and its deliberations were published at his expense. Pandithar’s Sangam was to lay the blueprint for all Karnatak music conferences that were to follow, including that of the Music Academy.
The library of the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris is home to an extensive collection of writings on music from the Arab world, a region stretching from the Atlas Mountains to the Indian Ocean. This series of blog posts highlights selections of this collection, along with abstracts written by RILM staff members contained in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, the comprehensive bibliography of writings about music. Since the onset of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, the Institut du Monde Arabe has hosted exhibitions and concerts featuring musicians and artists who are at the heart of the cultural production in the region.
“It takes a revolution/To find a solution” - From the song “Revolution” by the Palestinian hip-hop band DAM.
Revolutions and popular movements are characterized by a distinct soundscape defined by chants, songs, and the rhythmic movements of collective bodies. The act of protesting in the Arab world is often encapsulated in the idiom kasir ğidār al-ṣamt (to break the barrier of silence); in contrast, the authorities’ act of oppression is referred to as an act of silencing.
Since the turn of the 20th century, the peoples of the Arab world have composed, disseminated, and rendered songs and chants against all forms of domestic, foreign, secular, and religious oppression. Musicians, vocalists, urban poets, and rappers all moved people to act in spaces, public and virtual. In music literature, these songs and chants are referred to by different names: al-aġānī al-ṯawrīyaẗ (revolutionary songs), aġānī al-iḥtiğāğ (protest songs), al-aġānī al-multazimaẗ (socially committed songs), and al- aġānī al-waṭanīyaẗ (patriotic songs). With the rise of communist and leftist movements in the Arab world during the 1960s and 1970s, aesthetic judgment was defined by the level of social and political consciousness of music and songs.
The history of independence and protest movements in the Arab world is interlinked with a crackdown on civil liberties and freedom of expression, and is marked by the movement of peoples across regional borders and beyond. Writers on music have commented on the phenomena of protest songs in their home countries as well as the circulation of songs across borders and cross-cultural influences among Arab diasporas in exile, acknowledging the continuous connections between communities at home and elsewhere.
Given the cosmopolitan contexts in which musicians and poets work and perform, the musical and poetic production of non-Arabic-speaking peoples of the region is noteworthy: The Algerian Kabyle vocalist Lounès Matoub (1956–98) singing in Kabyle, youths living abroad rap in European languages, and Moroccan urban poets known as Jil Lklam (Generation of Words) mix the languages and dialects of Amazigh and Arabic, fusing them with expressions in French, English, and Spanish.
The music that carries protest and political themes is as diverse as the dialects and languages present in the Arab world. The patriotic and nationalist songs of the first half of the 20th century draw from the rich repertoire of al-qaṣīdaẗ al-ʽamūdīyaẗ (vertical poetry), fusing with local melodies and European-style orchestration and arrangement. Other songs rely on local dialects and musical sensibilities to appeal to the broader masses. Among the anti-colonial and independence songs, the Tunisian “Tūnis al-yūm brāt mi al-tankīdaẗ” stands out, sung here by legendary Tunisian vocalist Saliha (1914–58).
The songs of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that offer social and political commentary rely on local folk styles and instruments, as can be observed in the revolutionary songs of the Sabreen group (Palestine) and the revolutionary anthems of the Firqaẗ al-Ṭarīq (Iraq). The songs of Nass el Ghiwane (Morocco) feature elements of rwais, and the rebel songs of Groupe El-Ouali (Mauritania) use the subversive lyrics of Sheikh Imam (1918–95) from Egypt. In the last decades, rock, reggae, rap, hip hop, and other popular genres have served as a source of inspiration for bands such as Mashrou’ Leila (Lebanon), DAM (Palestine), and Cairokee (Egypt), with its aspirational lyrics and rock instrumentation that respond to the 2011 Egyptian revolution. “Ya El Medane” is one song that expressed the aspirations of the youth during the Egyptian revolution.
Protest songs in the Arab world are forms of expression that break boundaries, defy expectations, and challenge reality. They hail from the Atlas Mountains to Tangier and Algiers, and find a receptive audience in the banlieues of Paris; chants are heard in Tahrir Square and move protesters in Sana’a, Beirut, and Tunis.
The writings featured in this annotated bibliography present and carefully analyze songs accompanying key political and social events. These include nationalist protest movements that unfolded in the Arab world in the last century, from anti-colonial movements and national movements in the first half of the century to chants that accompanied the revolutions of 2011 and beyond.
– Written and compiled by Farah Zahra, Assistant Editor, RILM
Caubet, Dominique and Amine Hamma. Jil Lklam: Poètes urbains (Casablanca: Éditions du Sirocco; Mohammedia: Senso Unico Éditions, 2016). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-56443; IMA catalogue reference]
The Moroccan music scene that emerged in the mid-1990s has become a crucial part of the overall cultural scene of the country. Rappers, slammers, reggae musicians, creators of metal music and non-music genres such graffiti and break dance have all initiated an urban movement that mixes genres and contributes to a multicultural Morocco. The evolution of discourse emerging from the underground scene to the public sphere is explored, with attention to the lyrics of songs expressing a young generation that is concerned with taboo subjects, cool music, and tough texts. Eloquent, humorous, sensitive, angry, and poetic, this creative and rebellious generation expresses, in multilingual tongues—vernacular, Amazigh, mixed with French, English, and Spanish—its love for its homeland along with its desire for dignity, freedom, and a future. A new generation of artists is revealing, in addition to its eloquence and its extraordinary talent for writing and composition, an unquenching determination to be heard. The generation adapted the American counterculture’s ethos of do-it-yourself and solidarity while using new technology and social media to share its music. Including interviews with experts on the new music scene, a selection of song texts shared in their original language and translated to French, and rich iconography, the book represents a platform for the new generations of artists to be heard and seen, a generation that is the true echo of the youth.
Dridi, Daïkha and Omar Zelig. “La petite musique du voyage au bout de la nuit: Quand la musique se revolte, entre ‘bizness’ et poesie”, La pensée de midi 4 (mai 2001) 65–71. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2001-49702; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: A description and an interpretation of the music scenes in 2001, after ten years of political violence that Algeria witnessed. The aftermath of violence and political stances in music genres and scenes, old and new, is discussed. Local genres such as raï, Kabyle militant, and chaabi triste sorrowful chaabi capture a general spirit of hopelessness, but also of hope. Case studies and performances such as the hip-hop group Intik and the group Ragga-Gnawi are explored, and the performance and the following banning of Baaziz’s “Algérie mon amour” is interpreted against the backdrop of political upheavals in Algeria. Algerian hip hop is a rhythmic, musical, and lyrical rupture from everything that preceded it.
El Mazned, Brahim. “Les rwayss, ou la musique amazighe comme résistance”, Le monde arabe existe-t-il (encore)?, ed. by Chirine El Messiri. Araborama 1 (Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe; Seuil, 2020) 190–193. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-71413; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: Approaches Amazigh (Berber) music as an expression of cultural, social, and political resistance. Rwayss is a genre that originates in the Sous region, the center of Amazigh culture, and incorporates singing, dance, and a religious ceremony. The setting where rwayss is traditionally performed is described, and new scenes of rwayss in urban spaces in Morocco and in Europe, especially in France and Belgium, are analyzed. Resistance to musical assimilation and the importance of continuity in rwayss and its connection to the past are considered the main expression of resistance that the tradition holds.
El Zein, Rayya. “Resisting ‘resistance’: On political feeling in Arabic rap concerts”, Arab subcultures: Transformations in theory and practice, ed. by Layal Ftouni and Tarik Sabry. Library of modern Middle East studies (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016) 83–112. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-56445; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: Explores the ways in which young Arab rap artists navigate the contradictions in the urban and public spheres in everyday life. The discourse of resistance permeating scholarship on rap and hip hop in the Arab world is critiqued and perceived as an expression of neoliberal power. Within the context of the rap scenes in Beirut and Ramallah, political feeling is expressed through objection, confrontation, repetition—a set of processes that hinges on collective action and solidarity rather than individual agency. Interactions, as such, should not be labeled as political but should be approached as subversive in their own terms. Conclusions are based on ethnographic studies conducted in Beirut and Ramallah, where interviews and conversations were conducted and exchanges between artists and audiences were observed.
Houssais, Coline. “En chansons: Florilège musical révolutionnaire”, Il était une fois…: Les révolutions arabes, ed. by Chirine El Messiri. Araborama (Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe; Seuil, 2021) 239–248. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-101344; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: Provides a selection of songs that marked the history of revolutionary and nationalist songs. Most of them were initially poems later set to music. All the case studies feature a short background on the poet, the performer, and the historical context. Brief background information is then followed by the lyrics in Arabic and a French translation. Among the case studies featured are Min djibalina (From our mountains) by Mohamed Laid Al Khalifa from Algeria, Irdatou al-hayat (The will to live) by Abou el Kacem Chebbi from Tunisia, “Ana Afriqi ana Soudani” by Alsir Gadour from Sudan, Ounadikoum (I call upon you) by the poet Tewfik Ziad from Palestine, and other cases from Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria.
Institut du Monde Arabe. Hip Hop: Du Bronx aux rues Arabes [Exposition, Paris, Institut Du Monde Arabe, 28 Avril–26 Juillet 2015], ed. by Aurélie Clémente-Ruiz (Gent: Snoeck; Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe, 2015). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-89747; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: Issued as part of the exhibition Hip Hop, du Bronx aux Rues Arabes organized by the Institut du Monde Arabe in 2015. The book is divided into three sections: the birth of a movement, a new aesthetic, and rap and society. The editors approach hip hop not simply as a genre but as an aesthetic, a lifestyle in perpetual evolution and a continuous transformation. In the preface, the director of the Institut du Monde Arabe remarks on the recourse of young Arab generations to hip hop as a way to express frustration with current realities and to vocalize their aspirations. Articles by multiple authors covering various topics and aspects of hip hop history and its adaptation by contemporary Arab artists are included.
Massad, Joseph. “Liberating songs: Palestine put to music”, Palestine, Israel, and the politics of popular culture, ed. by Rebecca L. Stein and Ted Swedenburg (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2005) 175–201. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-31981; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: Analyzes the role of patriotic, nationalist, and revolutionary songs in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, approaching songs as a register for the changing dynamics of the Palestinian struggle and the various populations and demographics involved in it at different stages of the country’s history. Themes of the songs include the fight for liberation, the dream for Arab unity and solidarity, and the struggle for refugees’ rights. Songs are categorized in three historical phases. The first phase is marked by the growing support for pan-Arabism, the rise of Palestinian guerrillas, and the underground scene in the late 1960s and 1970s. The second phase comprises songs produced by non-Palestinians following the great defeat of 1967. The third phase covers songs that accompanied the first intifada (1987–93). Overall, resistance songs were subject to many transformations throughout the second half of the second century and beyond. Musicians and artists moved away from state-sponsored productions to underground scenes in Palestine and among its displaced population. Nowadays, Palestinian resistance and patriotic songs have reached a wide reception and have become a founding aspect of Arab and Palestinian popular culture.
Mérimée, Pierre and Jacques Denis. Intifada rap. Trans. by Tara Dominguez and Sarah Bouasse(Paris: LO/A Edition, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-95113; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: Presents photographs featuring Palestinian rappers, spoken word artists, and musicians, as well as photos of the broader urban spaces in which the alternative and broader Palestinian music scene flourishes. The photographer followed musicians in their everyday lives and captured aspects of their activity. The photographs are occasionally accompanied by brief written commentary and by quotes or lyrics by Palestinian poets and artists and Israeli activists. Hip hop artists featured include Saz (Sameh Zakout), Boikutt (Jad Abbas), Shaana Streett, Mahmoud Jrere of DAM, and members of MWR, WE7, and G-Town. Other non-hip-hop artists featured are Amal Murkus and Said Mourad (founder of Sabreen Band).
République Arabe Sahraouie Democratique. Groupe El- Ouali chants et danses sahraouis: Une culture de résistance (Nouakchott: Ministère de L’information de la République Arabe Sahraouie Démocratique, 1983). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1983-26413; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: Surveys the works, repertoire, and style of the Mauritanian music and dance company Groupe El-Ouali, and situates them within the broader landscape of cultural resistance in Mauritania in the 1970s and the liberation movement led by the Front Polisario. Groupe El-Ouali was formed by amateur musicians and militants and performed live concerts and disseminated their music on cassettes. The book covers dance styles such as the war dance Dance de ausred, which was performed during the resistance movement led by the Front Polisario against the Spanish occupation of the Sahara, and La touiza, a women’s dance. The book also includes lyrics of selected songs by Groupe El-Ouali translated into French. The songs express themes of revolution and independence, as well as relationships to the land, national identity, and the values of the nationalist movement.
Shalaby, Nadia A. “A multimodal analysis of selected Cairokee songs of the Egyptian revolution and their representation of women”, Women, culture, and the January 2011 Egyptian Revolution, ed. by Dalia Said Mostafa (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2017) 59–81. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-90149; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: Analyzes the music videos Ṣawt al-ḥurrīyaẗ (Voice of freedom), Yā al-mīdān (O Tahrir Square), and Iṯbat makānak (Stand your ground) by the Egyptian band Cairokee. The three music videos were released during the year following the breakout of the Egyptian revolution on 25 January 2011, and each reflects the popular mood accompanying the phases of the revolution. The creation and reception of meaning through these music videos is a product of lyrics, music, and other semiotic resources such as visual cues, photographs, camera angles, framing, range of shots, and gaze. The visual design of each music video is discussed to show how multimodal discourse is formed through the employment of various visual, verbal, and musical modes. Finally, the presence and the agency of women in the three music videos are analyzed following the same analytical model.
Skilbeck, Rod. “Mixing pop and politics: The pole of raï in Algerian political discourse”, The Arab-African and Islamic worlds: Interdisciplinary studies, ed. by Kevin R. Lacey and Ralph M. Coury (Bern: Peter Lang, 2000) 289–302. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2000-83623; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: Documents the rise of popularity of raï and of kabyle musics among young Algerians at home and among the country’s diasporas, covering the origins and early development of raï in the early 20th century and documenting its popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. Raï is a hybrid genre that merges Arabic and Bedouin poetry and incorporates local and Western instrumentation. Raï song texts can be categorized in terms of clean raï, which narrates stories of love, and dirty rai, which deals with forbidden sexual desires, alcoholism, and alienation. At the start of the Algerian civil war in 1991 raï became one of its battlefields, and while raï itself was not political, it became political insofar as it represents marginalized social classes through expressions of themes that are deemed taboo or unethical by society or political authorities. During the civil war raï artists were banned, and some were murdered by religious guerrilla groups. One important case study presented is the raï song El harba way? (To flee but where to?) by Cheb Khaled, which became the anthem of protesters during the political crisis of 1988.
Al-Sayyid, ʽUmar. Kalām al-ġīwān (Rabat: Ittiḥād Kuttāb al-Maġrib, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-50214; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: A comprehensive collection of song lyrics by the Moroccan group Nās al-Ġīwān, compiled by one of its members. The preface includes key information about the group and presents a critical take on various commentators’ views on the phenomenon of Nās al-Ġīwān, their musical career, and their popularity in Morocco. Formed in the 1960s, the group accompanied and contributed to the cultural, artistic, and political movement that was unfolding in Morocco. The 1960s and 1970s were marked by a growing popular protest movement that Nās al-Ġīwāne marked with their lyrical and musical contribution. However, one should not reduce the group’s artistic production to a political message. Nās al-Ġīwān merged musical and lyrical elements belonging to four cultures—African, Arab, Amazigh, and Saharan—providing a case study of how to properly reclaim musical and cultural heritage and identity. The concept of a Nās al-Ġīwān dictionary of terms is introduced.
Šalābī, Fawzīyaẗ. Qirāʼāt munāwiʼaẗ (Tripoli: al-Dār al-ʽArabīyaẗ li-al-Kitāb, 1984). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1984-28079; IMA catalogue reference]
Abstract: Approaches political songs from the 1960s through the 1980s as expressions of contemporary Arab consciousness. The difference between the Arab intellectual elites fueling the conscious cultural movement and the Arab masses who follow with little critical take is explored. Political songs that do not give lip service to intellectual elites, but rather engage and express the real suffering of the people, are highlighted, distinguishing between progressive songs (al-aġānī al-taqaddumīyaẗ) of politically and socially engaged people and political songs (al-aġānī al-siyāsīyaẗ) of authoritarian states and the Arab right. Case studies from Morocco (Nās al-Ġīwān), Tunisia (Aṣḥāb al-Kalimaẗ), Iraq (Firqaẗ al-Ṭarīq), and Egypt (al-Šayẖ Imām) are included.
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After her breakout performance at Lebanon’s 1957 Baalbeck International Festival (where organizers had initially worried that their sophisticated audience would find homegrown music distasteful) the music of Fayrūz went on to become a powerful emblem of Lebanese identity—a position that it holds to this day.
Fayrūz’s performance, which featured music by the Raḥbānī brothers, was the headline act of the Festival’s first Lebanese Nights series, and its resounding success ensured the continuation of the series, with the Fayrūz/Raḥbānī trio as its mainstay, until the Festival’s suspension at the beginning of the Civil War in 1975. During that time, the trio forged a music that both articulated Lebanon’s national character and aspired toward a future in which the country’s liminal position between the Arab world and the West would bring long-lasting peace and prosperity.
While this element of futurity was rhetorical and discursive, it was also profoundly sonic, manifested in the arrangement, instrumentation, and style of their work. The Fayrūz/Raḥbānī trio’s music was clearly positioned in relation to three major reference points that dominated nationalist discourse at the time: Arab nationalism, the West (conceived as European high culture), and Lebanese culture (conceived as local folklore).
While the style developed by the trio continues to shape understandings what it is to sound Lebanese today, Fayrūz’s voice has become symbolic of Lebanon itself. Notably, she did not sing there during the Civil War; she came back to perform in 1994, and returned to Baalbeck’s stage on the occasion of the Festival’s postwar resumption in 1998. Her wartime silence was publicly received as an act of resistance against violence on Lebanese soil and as a show of solidarity with the Lebanese people—further reinforcing the identification of her voice and persona with Lebanon as a country.
This according to “Hearing cosmopolitan nationalism in the work of Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers” by Nour El Rayes (Yearbook for traditional music LIV/1  49–72; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-16150).
Above, Fayrūz performing in 1971 (public domain). Below, the official music video for the Fayrūz/Raḥbānī song Lebnan el akhdar(لبنان الأخضر/Lebanon the verdant); the recording is the subject of a detailed analysis in El Rayes’s article.
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