Tunesday: traditional Arabic music

by Dawn Farmer

Tarab is a state of ecstasy and surrender one enters while listening, with Body and Soul, to music. Whether it’s the dancing strings of the oud, the weeping melody of the violin, the mystical call of the nay or the pulsating rhythm of the drums…


A few years ago I decided to try my hand at learning some of the folkloric dances of the Middle East. I had no idea what a fascinating journey lay ahead. As much as I study the dance steps, they are incomplete without appreciating the music. So to help me share this wonderful music with you I asked local musician Erik Brown to join us for an on-line interview. Erik plays the Tablah (drum) for the Seattle based group House of Tarab.

Dawn: Erik, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on Arabic music. Tell us a little about the House of Tarab.

Erik: The House of Tarab, or H.O.T. for short, was officially formed in 2006. The six members are Stephen Elaimy, Jane Hall, David Mcgrath, Sallah Ali, Andy Zadrozny and myself. Members of this group have been playing traditional Arabic music together for more than a decade.

The House of Tarab is considered to be a “takht,” or orchestra. Takht also refers generally to the arrangement of instruments and to some degree the style of music performed. In a very broad sense a takht usually perform classical Arabic music or Muwashahat (lyric poetry).

D: Can you expand on what makes this music traditional?

E: A fair amount of the music we play is traditional in the sense it is ancient and difficult to pinpoint either when or where it was written. One can find the same melody is several different countries, all in different languages, and each one of these countries will claim it as its own.

D: What instruments are we listening for?

E: The instruments involved are the oud, Egyptian lute, nay, contra bass, violin and percussion instruments such as the riqq, duff, tabl baladi and the arabic tablah also called doumbek, darabuka, derbekke amongst others.


Oud, Riqq, Nay and Tablah

D: What are the rhythms of traditional Arabic music?

E: That really depends on the genre of music. Most of the music we play uses 4/4 or 2/4 time signatures, occasionally a 10/8 or 6/8. Most these signatures have names that describe the region of origin, like Saidi for the upper region of Egypt. Others are named by a word that describes the rhythm such as maqsum which implies something broken or cut in half. Maqsum being half the count of a longer beat called masmoodi. This is very subjective as most countries use the rhythms and have different names for them, it’s all very convoluted.

The classical music uses all sorts of odd time signature. The thing that sets House of Tarab apart from similar ensembles, aside from the large repertoire of dance music, is the musical arrangement of the songs themselves. Sallah Ali was 2nd chair violinist in the Iraqi National Orchestra and is responsible for the arrangements. Sallah’s expansive knowledge of western classical music results in a sound that is more than it seems. His arrangements give the western ear something familiar to grab onto while maintaining the integrity of the Arabic scales.

D: Who has influenced your work?

E: Most notably the great composers of the Egyptian cinema era: Mohammad Abd el-Wahab, Farid al Atrach and Abdel Halim Hafiz. Then there are composers of more classical music like Riyad al-Sunbati and Ibrahim al Aryan. Sayid Darwich was a prolific song writer in the 20′s; he is responsible for a good portion of folk music that is beloved by Arab culture. There are many more too many to list, we list the composers in our album liners.

D: Traditional Arabic music is often accompanied by a dancer, frequently thought of in the west as a belly dancer. Does the music change for you with the visual interpretation of the dancer?

E: Definitely, the whole picture is different. When a dancer is involved the music becomes visual in her movements. I like to think of the dancer as the ambassador between the audience and musicians, basically the visual representation of sounds.

In a strictly concert setting the choice of music is often different, the delivery of the music is more subdued to give more weight to the pieces, tempos are often slower and generally the overall volume is lower.

D: Many things have changed in the world since the events of September 2001. Have you noticed any change in audience interest in your music?

E: 9/11 changed the world forever, but we find that people in general do not hold entire cultures or races of people accountable for the actions of the few responsible for the act. If anything western interest in the music has increased as way to better understand our world neighbors.

D: What are your current projects?

E: Playing more shows and attempting to reach a more main stream audience. There is so much this music has to offer it would be nice to see it in a broader environment. Of course learning new material is always on the table. We will most likely go back in the studio in 2010.

D: What is one thought you want to leave us with about Arabic music.

E: The world of Arabic music is vast to say the least. Our genre is one of many, so get out there and find out what there is to offer.

You can check out the sounds of House of Tarab on their web site. They have two CDs providing an excellent and accessible entry to this world of beautiful music. I highly recommend you pick them up for your world music collection.

House of Tarab band image courtesy of Jennifer Richard Photography.

7 comments on “Tunesday: traditional Arabic music

  1. Cool. I’ll have to look into this. I don’t have a lot of middle eastern music. I guess Loreena McKinnet has some some noticeable influences, but it’s certainly not a focus. Azam Ali and Vas are a bit closer, but sprinkle in some Indian sounds. I’m not sure what the heck you’d call Tinariwen, but they’re kinda in the same area…kind of an electrified version, I guess. And my student turned me on to Mohammed Reza Shajarian…though, I admit I haven’t listened to it nearly enough. Maybe this will give me the kick in the head I need to learn more about it. Thanks!

  2. Not sure if he qualifies as traditional Arab music, but I’m a big fan (thanks to a friend of mine from Jordan) of Kuwait’s Nabeel Shuail, even though I have no idea what he’s singing about. His voice is amazing. I also really dig Egypt’s Reda Darwish. At any rate, thanks for a fascinating post, Dawn!

  3. Ubertramp – Azam Ali also performs as part of Niyaz out of LA. Their self titled album is recorded in Urdu/Farsi. Nice stuff. I had not heard of Tinariwen – but I liked what I found on Last.fm. Thanks.

    Mike – If you like Nabeel Shuail, perhaps you would be interested to know more about the Khaliji style of music and dance. Also next time you are in Last.fm try Warda or type in belly dance and play the radio. You’ll get all kinds of similar artists.

    Happy listening.

  4. Yeah, they sound great. Thanks for turning us on to them, Dawn. A little farther east, I used to listen to a lot of Qawwali music: the Sabri Brothers and the late, great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

    Sometimes, I think Nusrat was lucky to have died before 9/11. It’s hard to believe Islamic fundamentalists ban music.

  5. Russ – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is wonderful, listening you can certainly imagine finding that inspirational place (what is it – wajad?)

    I feel the same way about the banning of many traditional dances.

  6. Thanks, Dawn! I love it, might be that i’m a sucker for anything with a doumbek…they have some of the brightest tones that you’ll ever hear from a drum…ah, i had a beautiful one, but i pulled it out of the soft-case after a trans-Pacific journey and it was in eight sad pieces.

    Too bad i’m 400+ miles away from civilization, the tunes make me want to go out for an Arabic dinner tonight.

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