Reprinted from the Middle East Studies
Association Bulletin, July 1993 (with changes in orthography to HTML
Copyright 1993 by the Middle East Studies Association of North America
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 taqâsîm (singular and plural in this usage). Individual taqâsîm 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 taqâsîm 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 taqâsîm 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 taqâsîm 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 taqâsîm 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 (maqâm; plural, maqâmât) and, commonly, on only one aspect of a maqâm's melodic features. (Each maqâm has a unique scale and special melodic features.) The entire taqâsîm 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 maqâm in a single taqâsîm is also common. Listeners take special delight in the moves from maqâm to maqâm (modulations) and in the eventual and obligatory return to the maqâm with which the taqâsîm began.
The various sections of a taqâsîm 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 taqâsîm, but that a bad qafla can spoil an otherwise strong taqâsîm.
The taqâsîm genre thus gives the instrumentalist the opportunity to show his abilities and sensitivities as a composer. Listeners judge the shape and structure of a taqâsîm, 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 maqâmât.
In addition, taqâsîm 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 taqâsîm 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 taqâsîm of the greatest masters. While this helps to develop technical proficiency and a knowledge of both the taqâsîm genre and the various maqâmât, the aspiring musician must, in time, develop his own style, his own improvisations, for taqâsîm 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.
Taqâsîm 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 taqâsîm. 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 taqâsîm 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. Taqâsîm were featured in the opening moments of wasla performances. A late example of such a performance is found on the cassette Layâlî wa Ughniyyat Layh Yâ Banafsaj featuring the Egyptian singer Sâlih 'Abd al-Hayy (1896-1962). In this studio recording, we find excellent examples of taqâsîm performed on the `ûd (the Arab lute), the violin and the qânûn (a trapezoid-shaped zither). The recording begins with the `ûd taqâsîm. Next, a small ensemble plays a piece called "samâ`î Râst" composed by the Turkish/Armenian musician, Tatyus. The performance of the samâ`î is then interrupted by the violin taqâsîm, after which the samâ`î is completed. This is in turn followed by a short taqâsîm on the qânûn which serves as an introduction to a vocal improvisation called layâlî. The qânûn player intersperses additional taqâsîm phrases within the layâlî when the singer, Sâlih 'Abd al-Hayy, rests after completing individual sections of his improvisation. Finally, the singer presents the song "Layh Yâ 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 Sâlih 'Abd al-Hayy recording provides a high-quality example of the common repertory context for late 19th/early 20th-century taqâsîm 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. Taqâsîm 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 taqâsîm offered from the often rhythmically driving songs.
It was in this setting the virtual loss of taqâsîm from mainstream performances that Farîd al-Atrash (1905-1974) found a way to create his own personal niche, his own claim to fame, in terms of taqâsîm performance. A movie star, singer and composer of phenomenal fame, as well as a virtuosic `ûd player, Farîd 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 `ûd taqâsîm within the muqaddima. After the taqâsîm, his ensemble would finish the muqaddima and he would then sing the vocal sections of his compositions. This format proved so successful that Farîd al-Atrash soon came to be the single-most famous `ûd player in the Arab world, and more specifically, the most famous performer of `ûd taqâsîm. In time he came to be referred to as malik al-`ûd, i.e., "the king of the `ûd." Among his most famous taqâsîm is one he performed in a live concert, during the muqaddima of his song "al-Rabî". The entire song with the taqâsîm can be heard on cassette or CD.
One of the most interesting aspects of taqâsîm 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," "yâ habîbî," "yâ 'aynî" or simply the performer's name: "yâ Farîd," i.e., Farîd al-Atrash). The performer is thus encouraged and, ideally, moved to greater heights of creativity. Recordings of Farîd 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 taqâsîm and reoccur frequently throughout the improvisation.
While the "Rabî" recording is an excellent example of a taqâsîm set within the muqaddima of a lengthy song, those interested in hearing a number of taqâsîm by Farîd al-Atrash are referred to a separate release of five taqâsîm extracted from various muqaddimat. Audience response is heard in each of these live taqâsîm. 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 Farîd's taqâsîm. (The tape begins with a studio recording of one of his `ûd compositions.)
Back-to-back listening to a number of Farîd's taqâsîm 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 taqâsîm performances. A consummate crowd pleaser, he still reigns as king of the `ûd for most in the eastern Arab world some twenty years after his death. In the present day, young `ûd players are often greeted by cries from members of the audience, calling out "yâ Farîd" -- that is, they compliment the young performer by comparing him to the great one, Farîd al-Atrash.
While Farîd al-Atrash is without question the favorite `ûd player of the common folk, musicians commonly recognize Riyâd al-Sinbâtî (d. 1981) as the consummate musicians' musician. A prolific composer and respected singer, Riyâd al-Sinbâtî made a cassette of six studio-recorded taqâsîm for the Egyptian government's Sono Cairo label. Here the `ûd is ideally miked and thus has a deep, rich sound. Al-Sinbâtî's taqâsîm have a slower-paced, more relaxed style than those of Farîd al-Atrash. Among al-Sinbâtî'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 taqâsîm recordings include those by the Egyptian violinist Ahmad al-Hifnawi, the Iraqi `ûd player Munîr Bashîr and two Arab-Americans, Simon Shaheen and Ali Jihad Racy.