On Jewish and Muslim musicians
of the Mediterranean

Amnon Shiloah

Comments, feedback

I. Introduction
Any attempt to present an overview of the musicians in the Mediterranean Muslim and Jewish worlds, with emphasis on their distinctive characteristics, role and type of activities, calls for treatment on several different levels. The various categories of traditional repertories are interwoven in a complex fabric of ethnic, religious and sexual differences expressed in art, folk, or religious musical genres. As if this tangled web were not enough, the question of past and present inherent in the thorny problems of stability and change must be considered as well. When seeking common traits or even concepts that may justify the mingling of such apparently disparate elements, one can invoke the following arguments:
  1. The absence of notated sources applies to all categories, resulting in the necessity to rely on oral transmission with all that is implied thereby. An important factor in oral transmission is, for instance what Blacking defines as "creative listening" about which he writes in his book How Musical is Man: "The societies where music is not written down, informed and accurate listening is as important and as much a measure of ensuring continuity of the musical tradition." One can invoke in this respect the Arabic concept sama' as a corroborative evidence. The term which means listening or audition is used exclusively in a religious context to designate music in worship.

  2. The general belief in the magic of words is combined with a fondness for poetry and consequently a predominance of vocal music and a predilection for various types of vocal production and subtleties of intonation. Indeed, in all musical categories, speech and melody are intimately connected, intermingling and complementing each other to various degrees. Speech and melody most nearly approach one another when the modulating voice is the carrier of both word and music. A major concern of sacred as well as secular music is the potential expressiveness of the human voice as a symbol of life, a reflection of the human soul and a medium of communication. Thus, a rich palette of timbres enables the musician's voice to interpret the various feelings and meanings contained in the text, whether it is sung melodiously or chanted.[1]

  3. Music-making is essentially individual, based on the skill of individual artists in the realm of sophisticated art music, or of the naturally gifted cantors and poet-singers who bear the bulk of all activities in the realm of religious and folk music. Hence the extreme importance of those individual musicians in determining the character and dimension of all musical production.

  4. However, the attitude toward music has always been ambivalent, as expressed in a series of contradictory feelings and concepts: predilection and mistrust, divine/devilish, exalting/disruptive, admissible/prohibited. This is the background that evoked the radical opposition to music and the harsh attacks against it led by the strictest theologians and jurists.[2]

Touching upon the question of attitude and concepts, it would be appropriate to mention at this point the statement made by Alan Merriam in his book Anthropology of Music:"The concepts held about music and accepted as cultural facts by individuals and groups of individuals underlie both the sounds of music and the attitudes and values associated with them. But concepts alone do not produce music; they must be translated into various kinds of behaviour which result in culturally acceptable music sound."[3]

With this statement in mind, I should like to shed light on a major concept concerning the definition of music at large and, by extension, the different categories of music mentioned previously. The term "music"--in its Arabized form, musiqi, borrowed from the Greek--was mainly used in a theoretical context; the Arabic term ghina' (cantus) was adopted as the equivalent of art music. There is no doubt that both musiqi and ghina' and their underlying concepts were translated into various kinds of behaviour, mainly after the development of a sophisticated urban musical art following the advent of Islam. One of the most interesting consequences of this development was the exclusive application of the concept and term ghina' to the new sophisticated urban art. As regards the folk and religious categories of music, conceptually speaking they were not considered as music per se, hence their various forms were given appellations that emphasize their verbal character or poetic genre. The musical component in these forms, which are usually used in contradistinction to the ghina', is said to be subordinate to the text.

Music-making is designated by the verb "to say"; a local style is lahja (dialect); a folk musician is called qawwal ( one who says), sha'er (poet) , 'asheq (lover), beytbig ( the Kurdish bard who performs narrative and didactic songs--beyt) naqqal (transmitter), maddah (eulogist), nashshad (specialist in the performance of nashid), etc. To this we can add the hebrew term paytan which designates the cantor who composed and interpreted the piyyutim ( religious poems) or the function hazzan (cantor) and its derivative hazzanut (cantorial music) which does not directly connote a musical term. Cantillation of the sacred texts is called reading or reciting in both languages, while sacred and religious music as a whole is treated in Arabic literature under the general term of sama' (audition) which implies listening to music and the music itself.

It is worthwhile mentioning that cantillation in both Judaism and Islam may sometimes embody a fairly well-developed and ornate form as apparent in certain forms practised by some Muslim mystical orders, and in synagogal items. This phenomenon confronts us with another important aspect: the frequent interaction between art and religious music throughout the ages, despite the radical opposition led by extremist religious authorities. In dealing with this kind of freer musical expression of individuals Blacking makes distinction between different kinds of musical expression which might be described as utilitarian and artistic uses of music qualifying the first as signal or sign of social events in which the effects of music are incidental to the impact of the social situation, and the artistic as those in which music is the crucial factor of the experience.

sound icon
1. Mevlevi hymn of Praise, 200 kB .AU

sound icon
2. Ten Commandments, 130 kB .AU

Paraphrasing Blacking, the artistic effects in some examples make the music an elevating factor of the religious experience, as in 1. excerpt from a Turkish hymn of praise (na'at) which opens the ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order; and 2. excerpt from the solemn reading of the ten commandments performed by three cantors from Damascus.

To further elucidate the concept treated above and the manner in which it is still translated into behavioral patterns, I shall now adduce three instances pertaining to our own times. Sa'ada, a female Jewish singer who came to Israel from a small village in north Yemen, was a descendent of a long line of recognized talented female poet-singers. On the occasion of a field recording she recounts to me with pride her kinship with the "Gadis daughters," the representatives of this lineage, while extolling their inborn poetic-musical talent in terms that emphasize their verbal skill.

"They had eloquent words for every case, every situation," meaning of course that their repertoire included songs for every occasion.. The second instance refers to Sakata's article on "Hazara women in Afghanistan" published in the book: Women and Music ed. by Ellen Koskoff. In this article, one finds the following pertinent sentence: "Whenever I made known in the villages that I was interested in studying their music, villagers would assure me that I have come to the wrong place; there was no music there."[4] I believe that the villagers' answer should not be understood as an attempt at evasion, but as a frank attitude consonant with the concept described previously. This is not a mere hypothesis on my part, but is attested to by my third instance. Several years ago I found myself almost in a similar situation when I approached a poet- musician in an Arab village in Israel with the intention of asking him about the rural music repertory. "If you want music," he contended , "you should look for it in towns; there they make music"; he was alluding, of course, to art music.

To conclude this section on general background, I wish to address myself to one of the rare attempts in Arabic sources to offer a theoretical definition of the issue discussed above. This definition occurs in the monumental Arabic book al-Muqaddima (Introduction to History) by the great Arab historian and sociologist ibn Khaldun (d. 1405). In the chapter he devoted to the science of music, after dealing with basic parametres of music using the term harmony as the equivalent of music, he writes:

Such harmony may be a simple one. Many gifted people achieve it by nature. They do not need any special instruction or craft for it, just as we find people who are gifted by nature for the meters of poetry, the rhythms of the dance, and similar things. The common people call such an aptitude midmar [lit. racecourse ,a metaphor which may mean instinctively or the reliance on the free or unbounded course of the creative imagination].

Many Qur'an readers belong in this category. In reciting the Qur'an, they know well how to modulate their voices, as if they were flutes. They thus evoke emotion through the beauty of their performance. Harmony may also result from pre-composed music. Not all human beings are alike in their knowledge of it, nor are they all equally able by nature to practice it, if they know it. This is the melodious music with which the science of music has to deal.[5]

To assess this interesting differentiation between the well-thought-out musical composition based on defined musical laws, and the natural-instinctive process of folk creation, in connection with the example cited of the Qur'an reading, ibn Khaldun continues: "The art of singing is something entirely unconnected with the Qur'an."[6]

In view of the various statements included in the above general background, it is clear that on the conceptual level there has been an awareness of those things that distinguish the two basic types and procedures of musical creation.

II. The musician in art music
If we put aside the texts devoted to the theory of music and its various technical elements, that is to say, works beginning with the production of sound and leading up to the rules of composition, we find it is no exageration to claim that the historical dimension including musical activity throughout the ages, as well as the advent or modifications of styles, were usually intertwined with the stories of celebrated individual musicians. Indeed, the biographies of famous musicians and their deeds form the bulk of our historical information. The classification of musicians, whether male or female, who belong to a professional class, and the rank they occupy in it, constitutes one of the favourite topics in the sources. The authenticity of the details reported in their biographical literature was underwritten by a series of witnesses. Thus, in a biographical item about a male singer, instrumentalist, singing-girl, or in the presentation of collections of songs by one or more musicians, one would invariably find a recurring pattern: a series of modular traditions or a series of events that conform to the nature of the narrative material. Each is introduced by a chain of transmitters and deals with practical details rather than general rules.

Most of the writings on music that belong to this category, including the most outstanding, The Book of Songs by Abu'l Faraj al-Isfahani (d. 950), make use of another significant concept--khabar and the technique associated with it, which is the oldest form of Muslim historiography. It consists, as Franz Rosenthal writes: "of a well-rounded description of a single event ... it does not imply any fixed point in time, nor is it ever restricted to mean an organically connected series of events. Each khabar is complete in itself and tolerates no reference to any kind of supplementary material. In its formulation there is preference for dramatic situation and colour as against sober fact . It is, then, primarily an artistic form of expression."[7]

The aforementioned monumental Book of Songs in 21 volumes contains a collection of poems from the pre-Islamic period to the ninth century, all of which were set to music; it includes biographical details about authors, composers, singers, instrumentalists and writers on music.[8] The Book constitutes a mine of information on the history of music, musical life and musical esthetics; for instance, it reports valuable details on the first Arab modal theory and on the quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns. Let me now draw from this important source one or two definitions of the perfect, ideal musician, (all the names in the following definition are famous musicians from the eighth century):

Malik ibn al-Samah asked ibn Surayj what the qualities of the perfect musician were. He replied : "The musician who enriches the melodies, has long breath, gives proper proportions to the measures, emphasizes the pronunciation, respects grammatical inflections, holds long notes for their full value, separates short notes distinctly and, finally, uses the various rhythmical modes correctly; such a musician is considered perfectí. Malik ibn abi'l Samah added: "I reported this statement to Ma'bad , who declared, 'if there were a Koran of music it could not be otherwise.'"
It should be remembered that, to a large extent, this definition echoes the intimate link between poetry and music that was still considered essential, but soon after a shift took place in the balance between them. The quest for a new ideal relatioship between the musical and poetic components gave rise to conflicting tendencies leading to a quarrel, as it were, between Ancients and Moderns. During the period known as the "Golden age" of Islamic civilization (ninth to tenth centuries), the definition is diversified and amplified. I have compiled the following definition from the then contemporary sources:
sound icon
3. Bitain (art music), 100 kB .AU
The ideal, perfect musician is a singer endowed with a natural disposition for music, one who has solid theoretical knowledge, the faculty of rapidly assimilating all music he hears and retaining it in his memory, who can move his audience and be moved himself. He must possess a beautiful, expressive voice in addition to great creative power evinced in improvisation or in the re-creation and embellishment of existing models.

Existing models may be transmitted so freely that the borderline between re-creation and the creation of a new composition is blurred--a phenomenon that touches upon another important concept: originality. Indeed, originality does not mean creation ex nihilo , but more the expansion or improvement of pre-existing models...Alongside the general acceptance of this concept, however, the culture developed criteria for distinguishing between reworking material and plagiarism, the latter being absolutely rejected.

The poet-musician in folk music
In the realm of performing practice, the folk poet-musician specialist has a uniquely important position: both narrator and spokesman, he articulates the moods, values and aspirations of his fellow men. As such, he has played a prominent role in the creation as well as the perpetuation of many of the song genres. Without in any way minimizing the role of non-specialists in cultivating specific song genres, it is arguable that the transmission and constant revitalization of all repertories depend largely on the presence and activities of those gifted bards who are found in tribal encampments, villages and towns from Central Asia to North Africa, and to some extent, even to black Islamized Africa.

Whether itinerant or permanently settled inhabitants, in verse and music they interpret the memorable events, customs and manners of their surroundings, enhancing joyous or sorrowful public and private occasions. Among them are professionals, semi-professionals or specialists in one genre or another; they either provide their own poems or paraphrase and present traditional heroic and didactic narratives as well as other song forms. It should be noted that poetic forms and genres are meant to be sung. For the folk-singer text and melody form an integral unit. The length of the lines is often determined by the melodic or rhythmic texture, while in some instances the text may determine the nature of the melodic and rhythmic events.

"Creativeness," however, often implies skill in adapting and rearranging existing material from the traditional store of poetic and musical motifs and formulae. This in no way detracts from the performer's interrelated talents as poet, composer, singer, instrumentalist, improviser and sometimes actor. Such a bard is also endowed with an exceptionally fine memory, has a good--or at least pleasant--voice, and a measure of dramatic talent.

A second poet-musician often takes part in the performance and alternates with the first: the resulting exchange of improvised verses and stanzas introduces an element of competition which stimulates their imagination, gives them time to rest and think, and greatly amuses the audience. For the poet-musician the presence of a large audience is also a stimulus--indeed, it is a necessary condition for improvisation; when he is by himself he finds improvisation difficult and even pointless. There is no formal teaching: a gifted individual with a natural predisposition for poetry and music, often belonging to a line of poet-musicians, listens to the recognised poets-musicians of his group, memorizes the songs he hears and occasionally starts creating songs based on these models until he becomes proficient in the interpretation of the repertory.

Although oral transmission has always been an essential feature of this tradition, educated poets now frequently record their poems in notebooks, and some collections have been published.

Female musicians
The phenomenon of women singing for other women on various occasions was undoubtedly a way of circumventing restrictions engendered by religious and social bias that limited their public musical activities. Jewish women for instance are circumscribed by the Talmudic injunction to the effect that "hearing a woman's voice is an abomination," and the great Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) includes among the cases in which music is forbidden : "when produced by women under certain conditions."[9]

Women's performances encouraged the emergence and crystallization of songs in which the women could express their world of experiences and the female values they upheld. The song of the women, like those of the men, reflect themes of every day life, including public and political events, individual personal experiences and various communal happenings. Among the latter, wedding ceremonies are the most important. Many of the wedding songs indicate an attempt to offer the frightened girl, who in traditional societies marries very young, a measure of psychological preparation and assistance at this crucial turning-point in her life.

The songs are sung in public on occasions of a folk nature and at semi-private gatherings of women, by either a group or one individual with a good voice. There are also professional performances by female musicians who are specialists in specific genres; particularly notable is the performance of funeral laments and dirges which are considered the province of women who excell as keeners. Professional performances, much like those we have seen with men, are given by one or two specialists--the main singer and her "assistant." They usually accompany themselves on the region's most characteristically feminine instrument, the frame drum. This phenomenon goes back to ancient times; one finds such instances in Biblical stories like that of Miriam the prophetess in the chapter Exodus.

In the Persian Gulf , larger all-female ensembles are known as 'adid. Another larger group is the Baghdadien daqqaqat (drummers), which at one time was a Jewish ensemble comprising four to five women beating various drums. The leader of such a little band was noted for her fine voice and, being a talented performer, she was the soloist.

sound icon
4. Female folk song, 100 kB .AU

sound icon
5. Mystery tune, 140 kB .AU

An important aspect still awaiting thorough and systematic investigation is the extent to which, from the musical stand-point, women's songs differ from those of men. In this respect Bartók's view of the unique and archaic nature of women's music should be noted.[10]
The Jewish Cantor and Paytan
Finally, we must deal with the issue of the infiltration of art music into religious music. Some of the highest achievements in terms of art music can be found in the synagogal and paraliturgical music of the Jews in important Near Eastern urban centres. Cantors have done more than anyone else to introduce features of art music into music used in the synagogue--and outside of it as well. The responsibility of the cantor and the paytan ( liturgical poet-musician) for the musical aspect of the prayers goes back as far as the earliest synagogues. Much like the pattern with which we have made aquaintance, originally, the paytan was a poet who composed and sang his own liturgies and appeared together with the lay reader. As time passed, there was a growing infiltration into the synagogue of features inspired from indigenous art music, particularly from the maqam tradition.

Only gifted and learned individuals could apply successfully the maqam principles to the prayer, liturgical poems, and even to the solemn reading of scriptures. Expert cantors used for instance their best talent when reading the Decalogue performing each commandement in an appropriate maqam. The smooth and rapid transition from one maqam to another, particularly in the case of the very short commandments, requires a high degee of artistic skill. In the highly regarded religious ceremony of Aleppan baqqashot (supplication) , a similar rendering extended by the technique of interpolating additional texts is applied to Psalm 92.

Indeed, in the course of singing this psalm, not only is the maqam changed in every verse, but other texts are introduced in the corresponding maqamat. This example is reminiscent of the tropes in Western music. In sum what has happened in the synagogal liturgy of this type is a degree of co-existance of folk tunes performed by the congregation and sophisticated art pieces rendered by the cantor or cantors.[11]

In my attempt to present an overview dealing with the complex theme of the musicians in the Mediterranean Muslim and Jewish world I have tended to stress concepts that in many ways determined the important role played throughout the ages by gifted individuals in developing and perpetuating the various categories and genres of the musical traditions.

Notes | Mediterranean issue home