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The Beauty and Danger of Arabic Music

The day I stop by Kuwait’s High Institute of Musical Arts, veiled Kuwaiti women and men in white dishdashas shuffle in and out of the austere, echoey front foyer, clutching their instruments. The conservatory occupies a nondescript, one-story building tucked away between an Islamic charitable trust and a chicken rotissomat in the coastal suburb of Salmiya. Its obscurity is appropriate. For every 3,000 Islamic seminaries in the Arab Middle East today, there is one institute of music—an outrageous imbalance for the part of the world where melody was born.

I’ve come to the conservatory to learn more about the musical history of the Muslim world. Many Islamists detest this history, because it threatens their vision of a homogenous Islamic past and opens the door to a more pluralistic future. In the late 1930s, when 40 percent of Baghdad was Jewish, the Iraqi National Orchestra was stocked mostly with Jewish performers—a fact to which many of the old timers I met in Baghdad readily attested. (My maternal grandparents used to share recollections of those performers, some of whom they counted as friends.) Arabic music has also been influenced by minorities hailing from Africa, India, Turkey, Iran, and the Kurdish mountains. If the Arab world wishes to acknowledge minority cultures’ rightful place in the mosaic of the Middle East, it might start by remembering their distinguished contribution to the region’s culture. For now, those memories survive in places like Kuwait’s High Institute. “We can trace our musical heritage back a thousand years to Abbasid Baghdad,” says Institute chief Bandar Ubayd, nursing a 13-stringed fretless oud on his lap. “But for the more urgent question of how we sing and play today, we have to look at local history and the movement of peoples immediately around us.” His eyes widen as he recalls a time, long before he was born, when Muslim clerics had persuaded area tribal leaders that music and visual arts were haram, or forbidden—making it unsafe to sing, sculpt, or paint except in secret. He backs up his speech with lean, meandering riffs on the oud, brushing the double strings with a plastic pick shaped like a nail file. They’re desert licks, humble but edgy, stripped of the showy flamenco frills often strummed by oud players along the eastern Mediterranean shores. “This instrument reached us relatively recently,” he explains. “It was in the nineteenth century that Abdullah al-Faraj first brought one here from India.” Faraj, a merchant’s son, came of age in India, where he spent over 40 years as a trader. Before returning to Kuwait, he learned to sing Hindustani ragas from local performers and picked up the oud from Yemeni émigrés in Mumbai. Faraj came home at the end of the nineteenth century, and started a clandestine school for Kuwaiti artists. Some senior oud players in Kuwait today are pupils of pupils of Faraj’s secret students. I watch Ubayd, himself a third-generation protégé, show off his pedigree by imitating the old master’s singing style. He performs a love poem set in an Arabic scale, ornamenting the angular melody with distinctively Indian-style pitch-bending.

“This sort of influence is natural,” he says, “when a person spends a lot of time in a place and is influenced by it. Faraj brought India’s artistic wealth back with him to Kuwait and spread it around. Much of what Khaliji music sounds like today stems directly from him.” Ubayd and his oud conjure Kuwait’s diverse sources of musical inspiration. Seve
n-tone Arabic scales give way to the more earthy pentatonic—a staple of African music—and Ubayd’s voice remembers the seafaring chants of east African slaves and sailors who settled in Kuwait. He taps out the complex polyrhythm of the lewa, a traditional dance that originated in East Africa, only to segue into the desert warrior drumbeats of indigenous Bedouin tribes. He recalls having participated as a child in Ardha performances—a men’s sword dance originally devised to instill courage before a fight—then demonstrates how Bedouin chanting and African rhythms eventually merged into the region’s first patriotic anthems. It’s enough to make an Iraqi Jew feel nationalistic about Kuwait. “What can you tell me about the performing brothers Salih and Daoud al-Kuwaiti?” I ask him. I can guess the answer, but I’m curious to hear how Ubayd spins it. “They were, of course, Jews,” he says. “They settled in Kuwait in the 1920s and lived here for years. They were influenced by our voices. They loved Kuwaiti art. But Baghdad was a city of art, and it had recording studios in the ’30s, so the brothers emigrated and found their home there.” His fingers fiddle for an elusive sound and eventually register a line or two, on the oud, of one of the brothers’ signature numbers. The music restores another memory: “There was a Jewish market here once,” he says. “We used to hear about it from our fathers. They had a place. They were present in Kuwait. Back then, there was not this stridency and chauvinism that there is now. All religions are from God.” Ubayd’s acknowledgment of our common Creator is also frequently uttered at the Islamic seminaries I visited last spring. But I haven’t met any man of God in the Arab East who felt it as deeply as this Kuwaiti music teacher, scion of a cosmopolitan Arabia that Islamists would bury forever.



Listen: To Iraqi oud player Ahmed Mukhtar's haunting composition Mantasaf-al-lil, which "describes a scene of Iraqi refugees…looking for a land to seek refuge in." (RealPlayer required) Watch: Video clips from Under the Olive Tree, a documentary about a Middle Eastern musical ensemble with Arab, Armenian Christian, and Jewish Israeli members.

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