Music in Egypt - Seven Millennia of Performance

Egyptian Music

Seven Millennia of Performance

Author's Note: Once again I am relying on my readership to aid me in the creation and maintenance of this document. Music is a tricky subject at best, and I must confess that I am neither a theorist nor a musical academe. My experience in music is largely as a performer and a listener. Thus I am prone to missteps in discussions of theory and of musical history. I invite each and every one of you point out where I have been oblique, or forgetful, or just plain errant. I am hoping that you will aid me in adding to this article and make it a useful resource to anyone who wishes to know more about Arabic music.

A brief note on spelling is probably in order. When transliterating from the Arabic to the Roman alphabet, I have used the spelling that seems to be in the most common usage. For example, although some sources give Omme Koulsoum, the predominant spelling is Umm Kulthum, and so the latter is used in this document. I apologize in advance for any confusion this might create. -- DCS

Overview and Ancient Music

Music has been a part of Egyptian culture probably since its beginning. Tomb and temple paintings show a variety of musical instruments in both sacred and secular environments, and many of the dead were buried with instruments. This leads to the thought that music formed an integral part of not only Egyptian rituals, but also daily life and recreation. Sadly, no written pieces of music have survived, and no system of notation is known to have been developed by the ancient Egyptians. It would seem that music in ancient Egypt was, like so many of the arts at that time, passed down from one person to another in a form of "aural" tradition. Various universities and institutions are working to extrapolate what ancient Egyptian music might have sounded like based on present-day and known historical forms using recreations of instruments.

Instruments known to have existed in ancient Egypt are roughly the same ones as have been created by nearly all civilizations. Lyres, harps, flutes, pipes, horns (not "true" horns as we know them, but instruments similar to the didgeridoo of the Australian Aborigines, the dragon-horn of Tibet, and the shofar of the Hebrew people), and of course, drums, cymbals, and other percussion. As the ages passed, new instruments were added in as they were developed or introduced from other peoples. Given Egypt's importance in the ancient world, one can easily assume that at one time or another, every kind of instrument ever created has been played in within its borders.

The Arab musical tradition as it is known today developed between the AD 7th and 13th Centuries in the courts of Islam. The first great renaissance of Arab music occurred in Syria and the surrounding regions during the Umayyad Dynasty (AD 7th-8th Century). At that time Baghdad, in what is now Iraq, was a central city for musicians and performers, partly due to its ruler, the legendary Haroun al-Raschid.

Arabic music, insofar as can be inferred reliably, traces its ancestry in part to the music of the 3rd Century Persians and the early Byzantine Empire (AD 4th-6th Century). These traditions in turn can trace themselves back in part to the works of the Greeks, themselves great lovers of poetry and song. But both are traced back to the ancient Semitic traditions which may have their origins in the music of the ancient Egyptians. The 10th Century music theorist Al-Farabi translated the major works of the ancient Greeks on music into Arabic: Aristotle's Problems, Themistius' commentaries on the Problems, Ptolemy's Harmonics, and the Elements of Music by Euclid. This increased the effect of the Greeks on Arabic music, but also gave a foundation upon which to build a concrete theory of Arabic music, which Al-Farabi did.

Like Euclid before him, Al-Farabi was a mathematician and physicist, and so was able to examine musical structure from the scientific standpoint. But what was more, he was a musician and was perhaps better equipped mentally to study music as an art form and not cold mathematics. He focused not only on the science of sound but also the aesthetics and the enjoyment of music, a subject which the Greeks apparently had ignored.

Structure of Arabic Music, or, "I've got Rhythm

The musical forms of the Arab and Islamic world are the predominant form of music in Egypt in its recent history (two millennia is recent to an historian). However, there is some weight to the idea that Arabic musical forms are in fact the product of ancient Egyptian musical forms. Such a discussion is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article. The Arabic forms are the most easily accessible for study and their basic traits have continued relatively unchanged for several centuries.

Arabic music, like most other forms of the African tradition, is based largely on variation and improvisation of and upon a central theme. This makes it very similar in structure to jazz, which also has deep roots in African music. Central to the musical piece is a complex skeletal rhythm comprised of strong downbeats (dum), rests, and upbeats (tak). This base structure, the maqamat, can be played on a variety of instruments, though the drum and the guitar are the most common. On this framework, the performers build a sequence of unharmonized melodies, varying the original rhythm and improvising new ones.

An intriguing side-effect of improvisational music forms is the use of notes not actually present in the formal musical scale used by the artist. Arabic music makes extensive use of what are called microtones, or half-flats and half-sharps, resulting in music that has more notes than many Western forms (though jazz, with its portmanteau technique, is a notable exception).

A performance of traditional Arabic music is a union of performer and audience. A silent audience is seen by many Arab musicians as disapproving. Unlike Western audiences, the perfect audience in the Arab world is expected to clap, sing along, and make requests for the performer to repeat sections of the piece. Often, these requests are made during the performance, and a ten-minute composition may turn into a half-hour one as the musicians replay and embellish their melody for an appreciative audience. A performance of traditional music can be quite friendly and informal and hearkens back to the days before recordings when most Arabic music was played in coffeehouses.

The Turn of the Century and the Recording Boom

It was the invention of the phonograph and its later descendants that put music in the hands of the people at large. Obviously, before recordings, music was limited to performance only, and depending on the genre, this could greatly limit the audience. Orchestral pieces, for example, were the mostly the province of the rich due to the cost of maintaining facilities and performers and the high ticket prices to cover that cost. With the coming of recorded music, people could listen anytime they wished.

In 1909, Britain's Gramophone Company created its first record label, "His Master's Voice," whose famous dog-and-gramophone logo still exists as part of RCA. "His Master's Voice" began a massive campaign a few years later to record traditional Arabic music as well as the newer forms that were created. In 1914, Decca introduced the famous mass-produced "case" gramophone. Although the gramophone was still expensive, and only the richest individuals purchased them, many public businesses would buy them to play for their customers. It became quite common a decade or so later in Egypt for people to travel to the local coffeehouse to socialize and listen to the latest performances by artists such as Umm Kulthum and Mohamed Abdel Wahab.

Shortly before this time Arabic music began to change, especially in Egypt. Composers like Sayed Darwish were adopting Western elements into traditional forms, resulting in what was considered to be the first truly Egyptian music in centuries. The new music became more orchestral and modern while still retaining the power and freedom of the older. Many of these pieces are still alive today, being arranged for contemporary artists like Sabah Fakhri and Fairouz.

As recording technology became cheaper, so did records and players. More people could purchase them, and did. The gramophone became a household item much in the same way the radio would soon after. The "new" music of Egypt and the Arab world spread, bringing with it a strong cultural identity.

The Modern Day

However, the evolution of Arabic music was not one-way. Being one of the oldest musical traditions in the world still existing it naturally had its influence on other forms. Spanish music shows a strong ancestry of Arabic music due to the conquest of Spain by the Islamic empires (8th-15th Centuries), as does the "Mediterranean" music of Greece and Italy. The effects of Arabic music can even be felt as far as the United States as traditional maqamat surface in nightclub techno music and the Tejano music of the Southwest.

Modern Arabic music now fills all genres. There are musicians who perform traditional melodies and there are those that are closer to the Western conventions of pop and "Top 40." Throughout the years the Egyptians have never lost their love for music. If anything, it has intensified, and today Egypt is seen as a major focus for music in the Arab world. Lebanese-born conductor and composer Salim Sahab, now a citizen of Egypt, once said, "No matter how brilliantly an Arab singer or artist shines in his own country, he or she will never fulfill dreams before setting foot in Egypt."

Egypt's importance in Arabic music is shown by the fact that many of the great masters of Arabic music were Egyptian: Sayed Darwish, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Umm Kulthum, Mohamed Al-Qasabji, Zakariyya Ahmad, and Riad Al-Sunbati just to name a few. Egypt has also opened its doors to artists of other countries, some of them persecuted in their own lands. For example, when Abu Khalil Al-Qabani was accused in Syria of being a negative influence on the youth, he went to Cairo and there founded the first true orchestra for Arabic music. Egypt loves its musicians, and it is said that the funeral of Egypt's greatest singer, Umm Kulthum, in 1975 was larger than that of President Nasser.

Today the ranks of Arabic musicians are filled out with names like Ilham Al Madfai, Fairouz, and Magda El Roumi. Yet the name that is truly taking Arabic music to the world is that of Amr Diab. His talent for music has garnered him numerous accolades including the 1998 World Music Award for his song "Nour El Ain," making him only the second Arabian singer ever to win the award. His English version of that song, called "Habibi," was a top song in Europe and became popular in dance clubs in the United States. He has toured around the world and is an artist with broad appeal because his songs show a variety of musical styles, from traditional Arabic rhythms to European dance to the soulful ballads of the Americas.

The music of the Middle East is now coming full-circle as the modern musicians assimilate elements from many of the musical forms that had their beginnings in Arabic music. Guitar virtuosos like Ilham Al Madfai play with a deep, rich Mediterranean sound that comes from the Moorish Conquest, and the techno and rave music of Ibiza comes now to Alexandria and Cairo, not realizing that it is in fact returning to its homeland. The future paths of Arabic music will show that what is old really can be new again.

Links for Further Enjoyment

Seven thousand years of musical history is too much for a simple article like this, so I am including my list of source material so that you can go through it. Much of what I have learned about Arabic music comes from these sources. Take a look at them and learn even more. I am deeply grateful to these sources for providing me with the information I needed.

Internet Links


Danielson, Virginia Louise. The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1997.

Farmer, Henry George. A History of Arabian Music. Suffolk, Lowe and Brydon: 1929.

Faruqi, Lois. An Annotated Glossary of Arabic Musical Terms. Greenwood Publishing Group: 1981.

Liu, Benjamin M. and Monroe, James T. Ten Hispano-Arabic Strophic Songs in the Modern Oral Tradition: Music and Texts. Berkeley, University of California Press: 1990.

Adam Henein by Lara Iskander

Arabic Music by David Scott

Ahmed Askalany's Incredible Palms by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

A Bedouin Dinner in the Sinai by Julia Kaliniak

Cairo's Gold Mine of Used Books Still Offers Treasures by Dr. Maged El-Bialy

Children in Modern Egypt by Catherine C. Harris

Coptic Christians of Egypt, An Overview of the by Lara Iskander and Jimmy Dunn

Egypt's 1960s Remarkable Virgin Mary Sightings by Amargi

Egyptian Arabic by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza

Egyptian Food by Joyce Carta

Egyptian Hajj Painting by Sonny Stengle

The Egyptian Middle Class by Jimmy Dunn

Egyptian Porcelain Center: A New Showcase for Egyptian and World Artists by The Egyptian Government

The Egyptian Wedding by Dr. Maged El-Bialy

Eid: Celebration for the Young and Old by Mohamed Osama

Islam in a Nutshell by Seemi AhmadIslam

Koshary by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

The Legends of the Cretan House by Dr. Maged El-Bialy

Marvelous Melokiyah by Mary Kay Radnich

El Misaharaty: The Ramadan Drummers by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

Modern Egyptian Houses by the Egyptian Government

Modern Egyptian Pottery by the Egyptian Government

Moulids! by Lara Iskander

The Mysteries of Qurna by Sonny Stengle

Naquib Mahfouz's Classic: Bedaya Wa Nihaya, A Review by Adel Murad Naquib Mahfouz (1911-August 30th, 2006)

Never Mind, Just Crossing the Moon By Arnvid Aakre

On Understanding Egypt by Ralph Ellis

Party for the God in Luxor by Jane Akshar

Egypt's Rafat Wagdy by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

Ramadan in Al Hussein Square by Seif Kamel

Ramadan in Egypt by Sameh

Ramadan in Korba, Heliopolis by Seif Kamel

Ramadan Lanterns in Egypt by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

The 8th Annual Scupture Symposium for Stone in Aswan by The Government of Egypt with revisions by Jimmy Dunn

The Sebou Ceremony Welcoming a New Born Baby in Egypt by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

Sham el Nessim, Egypt Spring Festival by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

Sheikh Yusuf al-Haggag, His Mosque and Moulid In Luxor by Jane Akshar

Umm Kalthoum by Lara Iskander

You Don't Have to Go to the Khan El-Khalili by Dr. Maged El-Bialy

The Zar Ceremony by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

Last Updated: June 13th, 2011