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مشاهدة جميع الاصدارات : Some general observations of an outsider



AmbroseBierce
03-03-2006, 03:01
I'm not too sure whether this is the proper section for my mail, since strictly speking it is neither an article nor a study, just some general (generalizing?) observations that came to my mind in the last couple of months.

To begin with: I am relatively new in the field of classical Arab music, and, as some of you will have realized already, don't even understand the Arabic language. All that means my approach to this music is based on very subjective terms (though probably art in general can't be approached in an objective way anyway). Since many years I have been listening to a lot of classical Indian music - again from a similar position like now. Then I moved into Persian classical music, and now have shifted my main focus towards the Arab traditions, including Turkish music (plus some other musical interests in between). Through that I may claim some experience in listening and in observing a tradition, so that I dare to voice some general impressions - from an outsider's perspective.

It seems to me that with a few exceptions the "great" musicians, particularly singers, of Arab classical music all have passed away quite some time back. There a some good instrumentalists, there are some good singers (I like Aicha Redouane very much, and even Warda is not too bad), but where are the charismatic personalities in the classical field? I find quite a number of good orchestras in the Maghreb, particularly in Morocco, there are a number of good Sufi musicians (again mostly instrumentalists) in Turkey, there are a few sheikhs in Syria and Egypt who sing great religious music, but where is today's Umm Koulthoum, Asmahan, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Sali Abdel hay, Farid El-Atrache? Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't find them.

This is in remarkable contrast to the Persian scene. There you have excellent singers like Mohammed Reza Shajarian, Shahram Nazeri, Parissa, Alireza Eftekhari, Sima Bina, Marzieh, Mohammad Esfahani, to name just some of them. There are first rate composers and excellent instrumentalists in large numbers - to sum it up, Persian classical music is in good shape, alive and kickin' and developing without degeneration.

In the Indian traditions it is similar, particularly in South Indian (Karnatic) music there is an abundance of first class musicians in the age group of 30-50, both singers and instrumentalists, there are great composers, and again the classical music scene is doing fine. North Indian music is not that well of, but again there are some charismatic "elder statesmen" who have groomed a number of very promising students, so that I still see a future.

In contrast to that, the Arab music scene seems a bit depressing to me. Please forgive me if that sounds pessimistic - I know there are quite some who do their best to revive the great arts. Still it seems to me that the line of transmission is more or less broken.

Do you think I am right in this? If not, please correct me and point the promising artists out to me. If yes, why is it so?

I have the impression that this broken transmission in classical music is just one aspect of a big problem in Arab culture in general. Somehow the link to the past seems to be cut off - fairly recently, I think, and with it the natural pride and relaxed strength and self consciousness. The other day I read a very interesting essay by the Lebanese journalist and writer Samir Kassir (he was bombed to death in Beirut last year) on the strange relation of the contemporary Arab world to their past. This essay (published in Lettre International No.71) is based on Samir Kassir's book "Considerations sur le malheur arabe", Arles: Actes Sud 2004. When trying to sum it up, I find I can't really explain it concisely in English. In a way he describes a similar thing towards more or less all of Arab culture what I tried to say about music - maybe even worse.

Sorry to bother you with such talk, maybe this is not the right place for this anyway.

أبو علاء
03-03-2006, 13:08
Your thoghts are most welcome, Paul and I too thinks this is the best place for them in view of the present structure of the forum. Your observations are all but unfounded. I for one have been all the time saying something similar precisely when comparing the scenery of Arab music to that in the Western countries and even that of our neighbours the Turks and the Persians (not the Indians simply because my cultural music doesn't go that far). What you said about the broken link is absolutely right and the first but also ultimate aim is to try and help if not in the restauration of that broken link at least in preventing the cut you are talking about to become irremediable. You're also right in thinking that this only part of a far bigger problem which goes far beyond Arab music to involve the whole setting of Arab culture. The last stronghold is the area of religious singing including Quran recitation and liturgical chants as a whole but who knows how long it will resist and beware it is not linked to the resilience of religious trends in the society. In the contrary, some of those trends, namely political islamism are a real danger for this long standing tradition. As for the various efforts done here and there (you talked about Aisha Redhouane, but we can add Nida Abu Mrad, Ali Jihad Racy and Simon Shaheen, Nadi Al-farabi in Tunisia) they are isolated, of limited scope and very often there are is more good intention than real talent about them.

AmbroseBierce
03-03-2006, 14:21
Ah, I'm a bit relieved. Last night after sending my post I was not too sure how you would receive it.

You mentioned Abu Nida Mrad - he came to my mind also after posting and I thought I should have mentioned him. I appreciate what I have heard of him, though I'm not too sure how good he really is.

I'd like to add one more thing: Keeping the tradition is one important aspect to a living, flourishing musical (and generally cultural) scene. This is being done very well in Indian, Persian and of course Western (European) music. Another and I think equally important aspect is innovation, experimenting. This is much less developed in both Indian and Persian traditions, maybe because public funding is lacking. Here you can't just count on an established base of listeners and admirers, you need some freedom to just try and fail also, and try again. I have heard some promising things by Arabic musicians, mostly instrumentalists, and mostly working in the West, like Anouar Brahem, Mahmoud Turkmani, on a more popular level Rabih Abou-Khalil. Instrumentalists may have a better chance of finding interests in the West, since most of us have difficulties enjoying other vocal traditions (that can be exemplified again with a look to Indian classical music - Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma et al. becoming stars in Europe and America, the great singers being cherished by very few people only). With the other traditions (Persian, Indian) it is somewhat similar: innovative ideas and experiments come up mainly in Western countries. Modern classical music and jazz have opened the ears of Western music lovers towards other traditions, and world music has done the same in the popular field. Interest in other traditions is necessary for innovation, openmindedness of both the artists and the listeners.

It seems to me (please don't take me too literally - I'm sure there are a good number of exceptions) that in the Arab world only very easy, popular aspects of Western culture (and other cultures) are being accepted and adapted. I have wondered why there are so many interesting things coming up from the comparatively small community of Palestinians, and thinking about it now, I guess it might be because of Israel where you have a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and through that exposure to many well developed traditions.

It is significant that the one non-Western culture which really keeps its identity vis-a-vis the West, namely China, is currently developing quite a remarkable avantgarde cultural scene, be it in music, in theatre, in movies, in painting and sculpture. They're sure of their position, they act from a feeling of strength, not from a perceived backwardness. And they have no problem in accepting (and if they think so rejecting) Western cultural influences, but they use them creatively.

I have the impression that only 30 years ago the Arab world was well on its way to develop such a standing from inside. What has happened in between?

أبو علاء
03-03-2006, 15:29
I beg to differ with you on that second part of your thinking, Paul, if you don't mind. I mean, you're right in the sense that you can't confine such an enterprise in reviving the musical heritage by disseminating it and making it known to the largest public possible while keeping away from producing new things, adding, innovating. Yet, the first task is a prerequisite to the second in the sense that people have to know first what they have before they can think of adding to it and in which way they should do it. Now, what I don't agree with is this perception of innovation as an equivalent to producing something more "palatable" to the Western ear. This should be the least concern of any serious Arab, Turkish, Iranian and whatsoever creator. This is not right from an artistic, cultural, intellectual and simly logical point of view. And, believe me, this is certainly not the key to universality. Did the jazz or classical European music bother to get closer to the oriental ears to gain universality and legitimacy? In the contrary. I know you might argue that jazz is looking outward art, but in which direction and why? The problem with the people you're talking about and I happen to know quite well the work of one of them - that is Anouar Braham who is from my own country, is that they precisely based their whole work on the idea of being noticed in Europe and by the Europeans without paying the slightest attention, let alone respect, to that heritage, which is theirs and which is supposed the first gurantee of their legitimacy, their authenticiy,and what they produce is something baseless wich is totally cut from their artistic background. And here, I come back to your sensible remark concerning China. I don't totally deny outward orientations as one possible source of innovation, provided it is not the only one, but if you want it to make sense, you have to be in a position strong enough to bring in such feature or characterisitc of the other's art without having yours completely swallowed or better wiped out. The Arabs in the 2nd half of the nineteenth century brought in a great deal of Ottoman music in theirs (modes, instrumental patterns...etc) as well as people like Sayyid Darwish, Qasabji and even Salamah Hijazi in the first half of the twentieh bringing various elements from Western music, opera art and so on. And yet their works remained in the first place firmly rooted in classical Arab music tradition.

Najib
03-03-2006, 16:08
By sheer coincidence I am reading in the train these days Kudsi Erguner's book "Journeys of a Sufi Musician" as recommended by my dear friend Hakim.

I thought that Turkey managed to preserve its heritage, but the book showed me that what we see now (Sufi, ...) is just fragments of what was permanently lost with no chance of returning.

With regards to the Arabic music Paul, I really wish you can understand Arabic to listen to Lagrange's programs because they really highlight what did we loose. You think that the loss started 30 years ago, but it really started way before that.

He talks that in the thirties people were talking about the great singers of the twenties as if they were absolute history!

Yes Qasabgi, Zakaria, Sunbati helped the music to evolve whilst they were permanently rooted, but their problem is that they didn't have anyone (or they did not help create anyone) beyond Umm Kulthum. I have a fragment of an interview with Sunbati after Umm's death and shortly before his own death lamenting her absence with burning emotions.

Umm Kulthum was the blessing and the curse at the same time.

With regards to attempts of modernisation, I am way less harsh than Mohsen on the subject. Personally I love Anouar Braham, and I don't like Rabih Abu Khalil. But we should (mentally) allow attempts and let our ear judge whether they are good or not. Of course if Anouar Brahem claims to be an extension of the past I will join Mohsen in disclaiming his ideas. But it the guy is presenting me with a music to like or dislike, then it's a matter of taste.

Anyway there will be more on the subject I'm sure.

AmbroseBierce
03-03-2006, 20:11
I beg to differ with you on that second part of your thinking, Paul, if you don't mind. I mean, you're right in the sense that you can't confine such an enterprise in reviving the musical heritage by disseminating it and making it known to the largest public possible while keeping away from producing new things, adding, innovating. Yet, the first task is a prerequisite to the second in the sense that people have to know first what they have before they can think of adding to it and in which way they should do it. Now, what I don't agree with is this perception of innovation as an equivalent to producing something more "palatable" to the Western ear. This should be the least concern of any serious Arab, Turkish, Iranian and whatsoever creator. This is not right from an artistic, cultural, intellectual and simly logical point of view. And, believe me, this is certainly not the key to universality. Did the jazz or classical European music bother to get closer to the oriental ears to gain universality and legitimacy? In the contrary. I know you might argue that jazz is looking outward art, but in which direction and why? The problem with the people you're talking about and I happen to know quite well the work of one of them - that is Anouar Braham who is from my own country, is that they precisely based their whole work on the idea of being noticed in Europe and by the Europeans without paying the slightest attention, let alone respect, to that heritage, which is theirs and which is supposed the first gurantee of their legitimacy, their authenticiy,and what they produce is something baseless wich is totally cut from their artistic background. And here, I come back to your sensible remark concerning China. I don't totally deny outward orientations as one possible source of innovation, provided it is not the only one, but if you want it to make sense, you have to be in a position strong enough to bring in such feature or characterisitc of the other's art without having yours completely swallowed or better wiped out. The Arabs in the 2nd half of the nineteenth century brought in a great deal of Ottoman music in theirs (modes, instrumental patterns...etc) as well as people like Sayyid Darwish, Qasabji and even Salamah Hijazi in the first half of the twentieh bringing various elements from Western music, opera art and so on. And yet their works remained in the first place firmly rooted in classical Arab music tradition.

I absolutely agree on the necessity to know where you come from if you want to define new ways for the furute and not just trod in the footsteps of others. That's why I brought in China - there the arts have swallowed lots of what came from the West, but digested it and used what they thought to be interesting, changed it, experimented with it and have come up with something inherently Chinese again. That's what I call transcultural. And no, innovation does not necessarily mean to produce something more palatable to the West. Only most innovative trends tend to function that way, because innovative artistic production (or what is perceived as such) is cherished in the West and it finds an audience - if it is not too "alien". With regard to Anouar Brahem, I agree that several of his albums are simply jazz music with a "new" (i.e. new for jazz) instrument. But that is not true for all of his music, and quite unlike Rabih Abou-Khalil Brahem opens the ears of some of the jazz fans towards more traditional Arab music. Maybe Mahmoud Turkmani is a better example still for what I meant when talking about innovation on the basis of the Arab tradition. I have uploaded two very different pieces in the Masters of Oud thread on Zeryab, and if you like I can post some more samples. Still I don't want to say that this is what should be, but I'm happy to hear experiment. And I'd love to see more experimenting which is not leaning towards the West as an audience.

And to emphasize again: true innovation is impossible without a firm standing in the own tradition. Anything else would be mimicking and self-denial and I'm totally against that.

As for Najib's remarks on the loss of cultural continuum starting much earlier: I'm sure there is much evidence for that. At the same time people everywhere tend to lament the loss of earlier greatness (at least in certain recurring phases of their history). We have had the same thing here many times, and it makes me doubt whether there might be a bit of nostalgia and a bit of too little self consciousness in that. Here I sort of admire the Americans who manage to see themselves as the ultimate in history, which of course they are not. But they are so confident of themselves, that they manage to just ignore their defeats and look out into a future which they perceived to be even brighter. We could use some of that here in Germany and I think in many parts of the Arab world also.

One more remark towards the loss of tradition: Art and culture are changing constantly - everywhere, any time. We cannot deny that. Just one example from Europe: when we talk (correctly) about the high level of preservation of classical traditions in Western music, wehave in mind the large number of musicians playing e.g. Bach's compositions with incredible mastery. But we know that Bach was a master of improvisation, which all his interpreters are not. The art of baroque improvisation is gone forever and it cannot possibly be revived. You can lament it (I'd give anything to hear the improvisation contests between Bach and the lute virtuoso Silvius Leopold Weiss in 18th century Germany), but for what sake?

So, loss is inevitable, but gain must make up for it. That's why preservation is just half of culture.

أبو علاء
03-03-2006, 20:43
So, loss is inevitable, but gain must make up for it. That's why preservation is just half of culture

I do agree on the last assertion, but I can hardly see a more urgent task than preservation in the present circumstances. Innovation is all but our top priority for the time being. We've had plenty of innovations and innovators around since Mr Muhammad 'abdi-l-wahab and the show is still going on. The Arabs are the only peope in the world who have writers writing for Europ, directors making films for Europe, musicians playing for Europe. I love Jacques Brel and Brassens and they did not have to use the 'ud or qanun or compose in rast or bayti for me to listen to them and to appreciate them. I had the chance to attend a concert given by Shadjarian in New York and he didn't play oriental jazz to have the hall full... As for the Americans, I wouldn't take them as an example even from the point of view of Europe. Those people have all the reasons to look forward all the way because they have nothing behind. In a way, they are privileged as they have nothing to loose and everything to gain, but this is, fortunately if I daresay, not the case for the Arabs, Persians, Chinese and "old" Europe.

AmbroseBierce
04-03-2006, 12:46
I absolutely agree with you on the necessity of preservation. What is being done in forums such as this is one step towards that - digitalizing and making people acquainted with historical, archival material, disseminating it among those who are interested and maybe getting some more people hooked (like me for example). That is an absolute must - we need references to what was.

Still, and please forgive me, if I keep on pointing towards that, art is something which dies if it doesn't change. Alright, archives, museums, collections, are there to conserve the art of the past, but the art production must look forward or it becomes non existent. And it must have an educated public. I emphasize educated, otherwise there just pop (and I think you agree with me that pop is, OK, interesting, but basically trivial and boring) and commercial interest dictate the production of art - another form of the death of art. So, educated public. What you're doing here is part of this education process and so is Anouar Brahem for quite a number of people. So is even Natasha Atlas.

If you look at the Turkish music scene, people like Mercan Dede are the link to the younger generations, and I'm very sure that after listening to Mercan Dede quite a number of people start looking for the real thing. If we can help in this process (just look at thread no. 735: Candan Ercetin -> Ahmet Kaya -> Melihat Gülses), we do something useful.

Where I work we organize concerts of "world music" (I don't like the term, but how else should I call it?). When we have Farhang Sharif, the Iranians aged 20-40 are there. When we have Nuri Karademirli, the Turkish aged 20-40 are there. When we have Farhan Sabbagh, everyone is 50+. Though of course the structure of migrant communities in Berlin probably is not representative.

In coming May I am organizing a one-week-program of Arab culture (theatre, music, dance, literature, films, discussion) in collaboration with the local 'Institute of Arab Culture', for the first time. I'm very curious to see who will be coming.

أبو علاء
04-03-2006, 13:40
Paul, you can't imagine how much I appreciate the intrest yourself and other Europeans are showing for this stuff of ours. In fact, very often, the most dedicated and most learned people about Arab music were non-Arabs: George Farmer, Baron D'Erlanger and more recently Simon Jargy (his introduction to Arab music in the Que sai-je collection -in French- is a must) and Frédéric Lagrange. Some of them, maybe most of them have the same positions as the ones I tried to defend here. Yet, I do understand that the point of view of the outsider may and perhaps is bound to differ from that of the insider for many reasons more or less obvious. I do not disagree on your principle about the fact that art and culture as a whole are necessary lively phenomenon thus open to change, interaction with others and evolution. I just reject the dogma of evolution at any cost as opposed to rigidity and stagnation. This frenzy of evolution and change at any cost coupled to another dogma, that of universality understood as meaning openness towards the other, that other being almost in all cases the West is not to dissociate from the dogma of progress brought about by positivism and European Renaissance (which is now largely questioned in Europe itself) on the one hand and the contemprorary relationships (economical, political and cultural) between the so-called third World and the West. To comment an interesting remark of yours, we don't have a precise idea about the age of this forum's members. We are still in the beginning and there are so few of them, but some time ago, somebody had the idea to conduct a poll regarding the age of Zeryab forum members and I was positively surprised that I was the eldest of them all, I'm 48, and most of them were 20-30. I know Zeryab is different from our forum, but, still, it calims to specialize in Arab classical music. Isn't that fantastic? That people like Anouar Braham are part of the present artistic scene in our part of the world is a fact, but they can't be an introduction or even a bridge to the kind of music we're trying to promote here. In the best of cases, they can can promote their own music and their own vision which is one trend among others but they will never be representative of Classical Arab music nor could they serve as a transition from that very classical music to a new Arab music both authentic and looking forward.