Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: The Cello in Arabic Orchestras

Cellists in Umm Kulthum's firqa (orchestra) photo ca 1965

This week’s installment of the Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello will focus on the cello in Arabic Orchestras.

Stringed instruments have long been part of Middle Eastern art ensembles.  Whether the kamancheh, djoze, rebab, or eventually the Western violin, bowed strings have nearly always played an integral role in the sound of the ensembles from that region.  Once western instruments, especially the violin, were introduced many of the folk instruments began being replaced by the violin.

By the 20th century, and especially after the first Cairo Congress of Arab Music (1932) the rest of the Western strings began to be incorporated into the traditional art music ensembles of the the Middle East (due to the influence of Muhammad Fathi) and eventually larger orchestras started to develop and composers from the region started writing music for these larger forces while also adapting some Western composition techniques and music ideas and fusing them with the indigenous art music traditions.

The difficulty with incorporating Western strings into the Arabic Orchestra has nothing to do with the instruments themselves, per se, but with the tunings and scales (maqamat) and the standardization of ornamentation for a whole section of strings rather than one string soloist in a smaller takht ensemble.

Arabic oudist, Saed Muhssin, lays out some of the fundamental differences in tuning at his blog post, The Arabic String Section.  The primary difference for the cello is the A would be tuned to a G which gives the four string tuning CGDG rather than CGDA.  While it is possible to play Arabic music with a Western tuning, which I generally do since I prefer not to retune my instrument much, as he notes

While it is possible to play the notes in the alternate tuning, the resonance of the instrument is different. Furthermore, from string players who’ve done the switch after trying to play in western tuning, the fingering of some maqams is a lot more cumbersome in western tuning, and Arabic tuning lends itself to playing Arabic music.

he is correct in that the Arabic tuning is far less cumbersome for a lot of the maqams.  Once I get any of my spare  cellos set up for playing I will likely leave one in Arabic tuning specifically for my performances of Arabic music.

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“…it is often the quietest person who achieves the highest degree of ecstasy.”

Reading one of Eric Edberg’s recent posts reminded me of the quote in the title of this blog post.  Oliver Leaman, in his book “Islamic Aesthetics”, describes the role of the audience of musical performances (in the context of a discussion of audience response to the great Egyptian vocalist Umm Khulthum) under a section titled “The role of the audience in music” (Leaman 2004, 107):

To a degree the audience reacts as it has seen Sufis react, and this is often in a rather wild and free way. Yet in many of the leading writings on the topic the Sufis stressed the significance of remaining quiet and contemplative when listening to music, and if the music and dance throws one into ecstasy then obviously we might act wildly, but when when that stage is over we should be quiet and still, physically and mentally. As al-Ghazali puts it, in the Iha’ ‘ulum al-din it is often the quietest person who achieves the highest degree of ecstasy (wajd).

“[I]t is often the quietest person who achieves the highest degree of ecstasy [sic].”

I like that.

Al-Ghazālī (1058-1111 AD) was a Persian Sufi. His work, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (a Sufi treatise translated as “Revival of Religious Sciences”), is regarded by some to be the greatest work of Muslim (Sunni) spirituality after the Qurʾān. Sure, most Westerners know about Sufism through a passing knowledge of that other Persian Sufi, Rūmī (1207-1273 AD), but as is often the case what becomes popular in the West isn’t necessarily a representative (or the representative) proponent of a cultural artifact from another country or time (e.g. Zen Buddhism; Tai Chi; Trancendental Yoga).

“It is often the quietest person who achieves the highest degree of ecstasy.”

There’s also that Indian saying that “music is meant to clear the mind to allow for divine influences.”

With the raging debate about Western Classical music not “connecting” with modern audience being one reason for its decline it just seems a bit disingenuous since there are plenty of contexts wherein a performance tradition can and will favor silent reception of performances. It’s disingenuous since it sets up a false dichotomy between “Stuffy Art Music” and “Engaging Popular Music” and the “Silent and Passive” reception of the former as opposed to the “Noisy and Active” engagement of the latter.

Not that Classical music concerts aren’t generally silent so much as silence doesn’t mean passive. Or rather, the two aren’t equivalent. And neither are folks who are being noisy necessarily actively engaged by or with the music.

Sometimes it is often the quietest audience members who achieve the highest degree of engaged ecstasy!

on being a fannan asil…

I posted a bit about “authenticity” and the issues modernization and Westernization in indigenous Art Music traditions previously. Here’s a quote from Ali Jihad Racy’s article, “Musical Aesthetics in Present-Day Cairo,” that illustrates a broad pan-Arabic sense of some of the issues with descriptive phrases used in value judgments about musical activities:

Common in Cairo and neighboring Arab cities is the notion of asalah, which literally means “being genuine” or “being thoroughbred.” The term is both descriptive and judgmental. In a broad sense it means “having talent” or “having musicality.” fannan asil, “genuine artist,” must be well versed in usul al-fann, “the fundamentals of art,” which in part means being competent in the area of the maqamat or “melodic modes.” (Incidentally, the Arabic word usul, or “fundamentals,” shares the same root with the word asil, or “genuine.”) Accordingly, he must have an “Eastern spirit” and tarab in his music.

pg. 392

Perkfection Cafe & Bar

Ahel El Nagam (photo by Karen Bassett)

Ahel El Nagam (photo by Karen Bassett)

This is a prewritten post as I will be performing at the Perkfection Cafe & Bar with Ahel El Nagam, Louisville’s Classical Arabic Band, and the Gypsies of the Nile bellydancer troupe. If any readers are so inclined then please come to the show for live Classical Egyptian and Arabic music as only Ahel El Nagam can present and live bellydancing by the Gypsies of the Nile.

Show info follows:

Ahel El Nagam and Gypsies of the Nile
Perkfection Cafe & Bar
359 Spring Street
Jeffersonville, IN 47130

show begins at 7:00pm and ends at 9:00pm
The event is free and is all-ages appropriate

Ahel El Nagam is:
Denise – oud
Taletha – flute
Jimmy – electric sitar, mandolin
Melina – tabla

and special guest:
Jon Silpayamanant – cello, Arabic percussion

Gypsies of the Nile with Ahel El Nagam @ the Harvest Homecoming in New Albany, IN (2008)

Gypsies of the Nile with Ahel El Nagam @ the Harvest Homecoming in New Albany, IN (2008)