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.

We’ll probably have to thank Umm Kalthum (and other Arab vocalists) with the popularization of larger ensembles.  Here’s a video of her and her firqa (orchestra) in performance:

Notice that there’s no music–most of Middle Eastern Art music was an oral tradition, and even in composed pieces post-Cairo Congress, the musicians would often play from memory.  There’s also a lot of improvisational elements involved in the traditional art music from these regions.

The best example to show some of that aspect of improvisation in set pieces is by viewing this video of an Egyptian cellist I recently discovered, Emad Ashour, performing Mohamed Abd El Wahab’s Han El Wedd at the Cairo Opera House with the Cairo Opera House Orchestra.  The conductor is  Seleem Sehab.

The opening taqasim is traditionally improvised, though Mohamed Abd El Wahab would often write those in, but listen after the percussion comes in–many of the phrases are repeated, which gives an opportunity for elaboration and ornamentation on each subsequent iteration.  Also notice how often the orchestra will engage in a response to the soloists “call”–these instrumental fills are called lawazim and is a traditional part of the art music throughout the Mediterranean.

As the title of my post about Emad Ashour alludes (“What if the concerto developed in Egypt rather than Italy?”), I view this particular performance of Han El Wedd as almost the equivalent to a concerto for Arabic cello and Arabic Orchestra.  Obviously, the model comes from the long concert pieces many of the post-Cairo Congress composers started writing for specific vocalists like Umm Kalthum and Fairuz.

Other composers have taken a more Western route, such as Gamal Abdel-Rahim.  His Improvisation on a Peddler’s Tune for solo cello is a “completely scored taqasim” for solo cello.  The notes for it from the International Opus website (from where you can order a copy of the score as I have) states:

Composed in 1982 for his son-in-law, Egyptian cellist Kamel Salah El-Din, and published here for the first time, this piece is destined to take its place among the major 20th Century works for unaccompanied cello. Despite the free, improvisatory nature of the work implied in it’s title (“Taqasim” in Arabic), Abdel-Rahim crafted a carefully notated, technically challenging virtuoso solo piece based on a peddler’s song from the northeast Egyptian coastal town of Abu Qir. It allows the cellist to have great expression and use many colors evoking the sounds of Egyptian folk instruments, while exploring the Arabic microtonal mode (maqam) Bayyati. A unique addition to the solo cello recital repertoire, described as a landmark in modern Arabic art music.

Here’s a video of Mohamed Salah Mahmoud in live performance of the work:

While it has much of the flavor, and is using a traditinoal scale, we’re almost to the point in this composition that we have to wonder when have we finally obliterated the part of Arabic Art Music to the point where we have to question if this work is really a part of it or a part of a more Western compositional and notation style.  Maybe a question for another post.

But we can compare and contrast the Emad Ashour and Mohamed Salah Mahmoud performance with this one of cellist, Karim Wasfi, performing Iraqi composer, Mohammed Amin Ezzat’s “Janam” for cello and string orchestra.  The conductor is Mohammed Amin leading the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra:

While I think it’s a gorgeous piece, and makes a powerful statement , sometimes I get a little sad when I see/hear about works that touch upon their composers’ native traditions but in a very Western idiom.  It’s something Anne Midgette touched upon regarding another National Orchestra (Japan NHK Symphony Orchestra) from a country that’s currently suffering tradgedy:

The lone Japanese work on the program, “Green,” was commissioned by the NHK from the late Toru Takemitsu in 1967, and showed the fallacy of thinking that a Japanese composer represents Japan; influenced by Debussy

But again, this is another subject for a different blog post.  To finish up here–I give a video of a US based Arabic ensemble, the Arabesque Music Ensemble of Chicago (formerly Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble), which has cellist, Kinan Abou-afach as a member.

Kinan Abou-afach was born March 26,1977 in Damascus, Syria. He commenced his musical studies at the age of seven with the Ud (Arabic Lute), learning traditional Arabic repertoire and the maqam system (Arabic scale system). At the age of eight he began studying the Cello under Mr. Pavel Coupin at the Arabic Institute of music, he changed to Mr. Rasi Abdullaiev, one year later.

For the last four years he has been experimenting on creating a modern genre of traditional Middle-Eastern music based on his studies and experience in classical and modern music and apply it with the Arabic Maqam System (Arabic scales). The music is based on improvisational ideas that reflect the Middle-Eastern philosophy, which is performed with the depth and warmth of the cello and the rich-ethnic sound of the Ud , making these compositions unique.

Here’s a video of the ensemble with Abou-afach performing a Samai’i Kurd in 2006

Have a listen to their MySpace page–some gorgeous tracks there, especially Ana f Intizarak (one of my favorites and one that my Arabic band does, too).

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