Styles & Forms | Middle East | World

The story of Middle Eastern music in the twentieth century is the story of Umm Kalthum. Until the early part of the century, the area had been divided, conquered and ruled by invaders for two millennia. Kalthum played no tangible part in the struggle for independence, but her voice united Arabs wherever Arabic is spoken.

Beyond geographical boundaries, the Middle East is dominated by the music of Egypt, which imports musicians from and exports music to the Arab countries, and Turkey, which has the eastern Mediterranean world sewn up. But others such as Iran and Syria have strong musical traditions, particularly in classical music, while the influence of African Arabs such as the Sudanese oud maestro Hamza el Din should not be underestimated. Then there are the songs of struggle and survival, of reconciliation and peace, from both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And then, from the north, from Armenia, comes the most melancholy music in the world, a sound shaped by a massacre.

A Strongly Patriotic Repertoire

Umm Kalthum was born in 1904, the daughter of an impoverished village imam who taught her religious songs. By the time she was 19, the family had decided she should become a professional singer and moved to Cairo. The next two decades saw her rise as a singer and film star, improvizing emotional love songs that stretched past the 60-minute mark, but it was the 1952 coup that was the catalyst for turning her into an icon. Befriending Gamal Abdul Nasser, the head of the new republic, she developed a strongly patriotic repertoire that won the hearts of the people. She never forgot her roots, however, or the hard work she put in before she became famous. Once asked if she had ever been nervous in front of crowds when she was an unknown, her answer said much about her character: ‘No. They were scared of me.’

Three-Minute Fixes And Deep Melancholy

As Egypt opened up to outside influences in the 1970s, American rock and pop started to appeal to the youth. However, they already had their own equivalents: the rough-and-ready shaabi, which had grown up on the streets from the late-1960s, and al-jil, an Arabic techno-dance pop. Polite society was initially shocked by these working-class louts with their potent, three-minute fixes and Pop Idol-style aesthetics. But in countries where Umm Kalthum’s legacy mattered less, al-jil sounded like the next best thing, the London-based Transglobal Underground being by far the most famous exploiters of the sound of young Cairo.

It’s not all light-hearted frolics, however. In 1915, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were massacred by their Turkish neighbours. The survivors immediately fled their land, which is now part of Turkey, and the new rulers embarked on an elaborate operation to erase this episode from history. Twenty years later, Djivan Gasparyan would sit in his local cinema watching silent films and listening to the musicians accompanying them. The Armenian recorder, the duduk, is made of...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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