Solo Improvisation (Taqsm) in Arab Music

Reprinted from the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, July 1993 (with changes in orthography to HTML standards).
Copyright 1993 by the Middle East Studies Association of North America

Solo Instrumental Improvisation (Taqsm) in Arab Music
Scott L. Marcus, University of California, Santa Barbara

THE MOST WIDESPREAD Arab music tradition is the urban-based music of the eastern Mediterranean region ranging from Cairo to Beirut, Damascus and Aleppo. This music consists predominantly of precomposed songs that is, pieces in which a composer has determined the form and content of the music to be performed. With such a repertoire, the musician's role is that of interpreter, charged with artistically rendering someone else's creation. The Arab instrumentalist is, however, accorded the opportunity to improvise his own creations in a genre called taqsm (singular and plural in this usage). Individual taqsm are not simply free-formed products of the instrumentalist's fancy; instead, the instrumentalist improvises according to a complex set of preestablished rules and conventions. Because taqsm gives the instrumentalist the opportunity to present his own creation rather than rely on another's composition, it is a highly valued musical genre.

Individual taqsm commonly last from three to five minutes but may end within a single minute or extend to eight or ten minutes, and rarely may be even longer. The length of a specific taqsm is often determined by the amount of time alotted to the performer, and also by the performer's mood at the time of performance.

A taqsm is multi-sectional, with sections separated from each other by moments of silence. The musical coherence of each section is achieved by the instrumentalist focusing on one melodic idea, usually a specific melodic mode (maqm; plural, maqmt) and, commonly, on only one aspect of a maqm's melodic features. (Each maqm has a unique scale and special melodic features.) The entire taqsm is thus a gradual unfolding of a specific mode's unique characteristics. Generally, such unfoldings follow an ascending progression, with the musician beginning at the bottom of a modal scale and slowly working his way up to the higher notes (often those in a higher octave). Showing more than one maqm in a single taqsm is also common. Listeners take special delight in the moves from maqm to maqm (modulations) and in the eventual and obligatory return to the maqm with which the taqsm began.

The various sections of a taqsm generally end with cliched cadential phrases called qaflat (sing., qafla), another source of particular enjoyment for the listener. Forceful qaflat are commonly met with cries of approval from audience members. It is commonly said that a good qafla can make up for a bad taqsm, but that a bad qafla can spoil an otherwise strong taqsm.

The taqsm genre thus gives the instrumentalist the opportunity to show his abilities and sensitivities as a composer. Listeners judge the shape and structure of a taqsm, the performer's ability to bring the improvisation to dramatic climaxes at appropriate points, his use of modulations and silences and his mastery of the various maqmt.

In addition, taqsm allows the musician to demonstrate the extent of his technical mastery of his instrument. Musicians take care to show moments of technical virtuosity (e.g., dazzling picking or bowing displays by string players) as well as moments of softer, more tender musical expression.

Young musicians learn taqsm performance by imitating performances of friends and any senior musicians with whom they come in contact. Commercial recordings have also come to play a major role as students often memorize the commercially recorded taqsm of the greatest masters. While this helps to develop technical proficiency and a knowledge of both the taqsm genre and the various maqmt, the aspiring musician must, in time, develop his own style, his own improvisations, for taqsm are, above all, an expression of individual creativity. The greatest performers have developed their own unique styles and approaches, so that their improvisations are clearly marked as their own.

Taqsm are an important part of most gatherings of musicians. At informal parties or whenever one musician visits another, the casual and spontaneous playing of one song after another will be broken occasionally by one musician or another launching into his own taqsm. This provides variety of sound and mood and allows for moments of highly valued personal expression.

In more formal concerts, the position and frequency of taqsm performances have changed over time. At the beginning of the 20th century, urban-based performances were structured in terms of suites (waslat, sing. wasla) of instrumental and vocal pieces. Taqsm were featured in the opening moments of wasla performances. A late example of such a performance is found on the cassette Layl wa Ughniyyat Layh Y Banafsaj featuring the Egyptian singer Slih 'Abd al-Hayy (1896-1962). In this studio recording, we find excellent examples of taqsm performed on the `d (the Arab lute), the violin and the qnn (a trapezoid-shaped zither). The recording begins with the `d taqsm. Next, a small ensemble plays a piece called "sam` Rst" composed by the Turkish/Armenian musician, Tatyus. The performance of the sam` is then interrupted by the violin taqsm, after which the sam` is completed. This is in turn followed by a short taqsm on the qnn which serves as an introduction to a vocal improvisation called layl. The qnn player intersperses additional taqsm phrases within the layl when the singer, Slih 'Abd al-Hayy, rests after completing individual sections of his improvisation. Finally, the singer presents the song "Layh Y Banafsaj" with instrumental and choral accompaniment. While full-blown waslat would have been substantially longer, commonly including a number of chorally performed songs called muwashsha hat, this Slih 'Abd al-Hayy recording provides a high-quality example of the common repertory context for late 19th/early 20th-century taqsm performances. Following common practice, the names of the individual musicians on this recording are not given, the only names given being those of the singer and the song's composer and poet.

From about the 1930s, the wasla lost favor in Arab music performance and was soon replaced by a new genre called ughniyya (literally, "song"). Of approximately the same length in performance as the earlier wasla, the ughniyya featured a multi-sectional song sung by a solo singer, with an instrumental introduction for the song as a whole and for each of the song's internal sections. The ughniyya has reigned as the dominant genre of urban-based Arab music up through the 1970s and 1980s. Taqsm were seldom included in such compositions and thus came to be relegated to more informal gatherings of musicians, to small parties and to dance routines where dancers liked the change of mood that taqsm offered from the often rhythmically driving songs.

It was in this setting the virtual loss of taqsm from mainstream performances that Fard al-Atrash (1905-1974) found a way to create his own personal niche, his own claim to fame, in terms of taqsm performance. A movie star, singer and composer of phenomenal fame, as well as a virtuosic `d player, Fard would commonly sing only his own compositions. When composing his songs, he would compose the instrumental introduction (muqaddima) in such a way that he would give himself a lengthy `d taqsm within the muqaddima. After the taqsm, his ensemble would finish the muqaddima and he would then sing the vocal sections of his compositions. This format proved so successful that Fard al-Atrash soon came to be the single-most famous `d player in the Arab world, and more specifically, the most famous performer of `d taqsm. In time he came to be referred to as malik al-`d, i.e., "the king of the `d." Among his most famous taqsm is one he performed in a live concert, during the muqaddima of his song "al-Rab". The entire song with the taqsm can be heard on cassette or CD.

One of the most interesting aspects of taqsm performance is the dynamic relationship that often exists between the performer and members of the audience. When someone in the audience likes a specific moment in a performance, he might call out any of a number of cliched words or phrases with which to show his appreciation ("Allah," "y habb," "y 'ayn" or simply the performer's name: "y Fard," i.e., Fard al-Atrash). The performer is thus encouraged and, ideally, moved to greater heights of creativity. Recordings of Fard al-Atrash's public performances are excellent examples of enthusiastic audience response. The above cited recording is no exception: wild cheers erupt with the initial phrase of his taqsm and reoccur frequently throughout the improvisation.

While the "Rab" recording is an excellent example of a taqsm set within the muqaddima of a lengthy song, those interested in hearing a number of taqsm by Fard al-Atrash are referred to a separate release of five taqsm extracted from various muqaddimat. Audience response is heard in each of these live taqsm. The quality of the individual recordings is uneven, with none having the clarity of sound that studio recordings can offer. However, this does not detract from the importance of this release as documentation of Fard's taqsm. (The tape begins with a studio recording of one of his `d compositions.)

Back-to-back listening to a number of Fard's taqsm clearly reveals the recurring features that characterize his style and technique. He is especially known for the displays of right-hand picking virtuosity with which he ended all of his taqsm performances. A consummate crowd pleaser, he still reigns as king of the `d for most in the eastern Arab world some twenty years after his death. In the present day, young `d players are often greeted by cries from members of the audience, calling out "y Fard" -- that is, they compliment the young performer by comparing him to the great one, Fard al-Atrash.

While Fard al-Atrash is without question the favorite `d player of the common folk, musicians commonly recognize Riyd al-Sinbt (d. 1981) as the consummate musicians' musician. A prolific composer and respected singer, Riyd al-Sinbt made a cassette of six studio-recorded taqsm for the Egyptian government's Sono Cairo label. Here the `d is ideally miked and thus has a deep, rich sound. Al-Sinbt's taqsm have a slower-paced, more relaxed style than those of Fard al-Atrash. Among al-Sinbt's characteristic stylistic features is his frequent use of lower octave drop notes (i.e., when playing a phrase in a higher octave, he periodically echoes individual notes by playing the same note in a lower octave).

Other important taqsm recordings include those by the Egyptian violinist Ahmad al-Hifnawi, the Iraqi `d player Munr Bashr and two Arab-Americans, Simon Shaheen and Ali Jihad Racy.


'Abd al-Hayy, Slih. Layl wa Ughniyyat Layh Y Banafsaj. Sono Cairo cassette 76062.
al-Atrash, Fard. al-Rab . Cassette: MCCO 128; CD: CXG 602.
_____. An Evening with the King of the 'Oud': Takassim Oud. Voice of Lebanon cassette: VLMC 103; CD: VL 501.
Bashr, Munr (Bachir, Mounir). Taqsm `d. Cassette: MC 505.
_____. Oud Concert. CD: AAA 003.
al-Hifnw, Ahmad. Taqsm wa Msq Ughniyyat: Huwwa Sahh al-Haw Ghalb. Sono Cairo cassette 76094.
al-Sinbt, Riyd. Taqsm `d. Sono Cairo cassette 78016.
Shaheen, Simon & Ali Jihad Racy. Taqsm. CD: Lyrichord 7374.
[All recordings are available at Rashid Sales Co., 191 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11201, (800) 843-9401]