Arabic music in 2014: Making sense of cacophony

Arabic music in 2014: Making sense of cacophony
Is technology ripping the heart out of Arabic music?
7 min read
05 November, 2014
Arabic music is undergoing a technological transformation [Getty]

Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part series on Arabic music today and the impact of technology. Read part two here. Read part three here.

Sitting in his office at the Qatar Music Academy in Doha, Yassine Al Ayyari looks livid - an expression that seems out of place on the face of this young(ish) ethnomusicologist and music instructor. I have come to seek his opinion on Ma3azef, a youthful and fun website which publishes – exclusively in Arabic - that rare beast: well informed music criticism centered on the contemporary Middle East. Ayyari, meanwhile, has something else bothering him and he wants to have a much broader conversation. He's a good raconteur, and I humour him, expecting to learn something.


Eager to demonstrate a point, he fires up Finale, a software package designed for music transcription, and directs me to look at a blank music score on his screen. “So what's the problem here?” he asks. I'm stumped. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”


     It's akin to a society of left-handed people who force themselves to train with right-handed scissors

“The thing is, this software cannot work with quarter tones”.


Also known as micro tones, the quarter tone sits between a note on a scale and its corresponding sharp or flat. While they've been more or less banished in Western music, and have caused many Europeans to squirm in their seats while played at a concert, the quarter tones are integral to the full experience of Arabic music. While the significance may be lost on many, it amounts to nothing less than technological heresy to Ayyari.


He asks: “Haven't you noticed that all the music produced today is either in the Kurd or Nahwand scales?”


Well, haven't we all?


The two scales are fair game for Arab musicians, but while any professional in the region would traditionally be comfortable with any multitude of accepted maqams, or modal structures, these two are rising to the fore not due to aesthetic considerations, but merely because they contain no quarter tones, and thereby lend themselves to the technological tools which now dominate the market. The formerly omnipresent Hijaz maqam - actually a family of related scales - is left by the wayside, since it is relies on quarter tones. It's a situation, Ayyari suggests, where the technological tools are dictating cultural norms instead of the other way around.


But is this not a part of the normal progression of societies, analogous to how some regional dialects are left by the wayside once national languages are codified? After all, Western music also went through a process of homogenisation and simplification. For this Tunisian ethnomusicologist, however, it is clear that technologies such as Finale should be “tools used as and when needed, and nothing else”. What has happened instead, according to Ayyari, is that these technologies, shaped by the needs of Western society and musical tastes, are unwittingly restructuring the musical tastes of the Arab public. It's akin to a society of left-handed people who force themselves to train with right-handed scissors.


Revolutions per minute


     Listen to Mashrou Leila [YouTube]

Where Ayyari is irate and a little pessimistic about what technology is doing to Arabic music, a Jordanian music buff who lives in London has a different take altogether. Maan Abu Taleb tells a much cozier story of how the spirit of “the Arab Spring” merges with technology to revolutionise the world around us.


Abu Taleb, who holds an MA in philosophy and contemporary critical theory, is one half of the dynamic duo behind the Ma3azef website. Its remit might seem mundane - the stuff of daily newspapers in many countries - but the fact remains that Ma3azef is a pioneer in bringing meaningful, relevant music criticism to an audience which it takes to be intelligent but not made up of specialists. Simply put, nobody else is doing it in Arabic.


While Abu Taleb shares Ayyari's misgivings about the way technology forces Arabic music into a mold for which it was not made, Ma3azef has been able to harness technology in order to advance Arabic music criticism. “We can publish an article on Moroccan music, and have it read in Morocco,” said Abu Taleb. “Technology has made the boundaries between Arab countries meaningless. Today, there is [artistic] cooperation between Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and the diaspora - this simply did not exist before.”


Beating the drum


Clearly, the technologies in question are different, but where Ayyari sees the relentless standardisation of blandness, Abu Taleb sees the forces of progress creating a nation founded on culture. So optimistic is Abu Taleb that he is willing to overlook one of the bugbears of many music fans across the globe: the disappearing live performance.


“Not being able to attend live performances is not that much of a problem,” he says. “With Soundcloud, I can find out what's going on in Egypt, Lebanon and even Jenin.”

Soundcloud has proven wildly popular in the Arab region, dominating the online music streaming scene. Unlike the North American Spotify, it allows all and sundry to upload tracks in a variety of digital formats. The inevitable result is that the quality of available sound clips is more varied, but because the service works well with the relatively weaker internet infrastructure in Arab countries, it has managed to build a critical mass of users who use it to stream their daily dose of music.

Along the way, the Berlin-based web service has also become a venue for budding Arabic music aficionados to discover rare recordings of long-lost classics and to be part of the newest trends: it's unlikely that the Beiruti group Mashrou Leila, possibly the most successful contemporary musical act among Lebanon’s young and well-heeled, would have sold out theatres in Cairo or become popular among the Arab diaspora in London, Montreal and Paris, had it not been for sites such as Soundcloud.


Surprisingly, it's not the cognoscenti who listen to Mashrou Leila who give Abu Taleb the greatest excitement. He maintains that the “alternative” music scene in the contemporary Arab context is a bizarre parody of itself. These are groups who “congratulate themselves for not being Rotana” - a Saudi-owned pop music label which promotes sultry, musically anodyne performers. At the same time, however, these artists “are not the music of the people, either”.

Although it may seem mean spirited, Abu Taleb has a compelling point. “Alternative” music in the West defined itself as an open, melodic rebellion against the dominance of corporate strength in the shaping of musical taste. In the Arab region, where corporate control of the music industry – as with other ideas of intellectual property “ownership” - never really took hold, “alternative” music has come to signify the sound of Anglophone and Francophone bourgeois 20-somethings. It's enough to make Ayyari's blood boil.


So, what does Ayyari miss listening to? Which part of Arab musical tradition does he want to hold on to, which bits does he worry will be obliterated? Here, he and Abu Taleb seem to part ways. Abu Taleb expresses his admiration for the new “electro shaabi” rage, a loud dance music trend combining tropes from the music of rural Egypt with drum and bass and techno, while Ayyari harks back to a time when people gathered to hear Sufi chants in their neighbourhood alleyways. An ardent romantic traditionalist, he clings to the notion that even the codification and transcription of Arabic music will never do the art of the region justice.


“Intonation is too important to Arabic music,” he insists, suggesting frustratingly that only the spontaneity of recitals in small groups are worthy of being called “Arabic music”.


Is that what he listens to on his days off though? “I like Bjork”, he admits.


He flits back and forth when I try to press him on Ma3azef: “I don't know”, he says. “It looks like a good website… but now is not the time to make judgments, now is the time to pose questions.”


Certainly, these might be questions which many now find uncomfortable: if the Tunisian Sufi chants Ayyari loved so much in his youth are to co-exist alongside the internet and Bjork, how much will they change? How much can it change and continue to remain the same?


Luckily, the career of one living Arabic singer in particular can be very informative about what happens when the force of recording technologies and the push of economics collide with Arabic musical traditions.


Read part II here: