LifestyleVideo January, 7th 2012 by

Music in the Middle East

Music in the Middle East

This is a subject that would need many pages beyond the scope of this publication but It could be informative and interesting in short summary as well. I would need to concentrate on the most popular instruments in these countries. Instruments of Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt include the harp, the lyre, the Oud, the reed flute and the hand drum. As shown in this image.

The Oud is the most important and popular instrument of music. This instrument and the Lute in Europe are of similar origins. The   meaning of Oud is a small thin piece of wood which could have referred to the wooden plectrum used in playing the Oud. It is most likely this instrument was introduced to Europe during the Islamic period in the Iberian Peninsula (Andalusia). Its history can go back thousands of years, to Babylonia and at a later period to the 18th dynasty in Egypt.

The Oud is without frets , that can be seen in the guitars and similar instruments, and at the same time all its strings converge together at the peg box end. The modern Oud has 5 pairs of strings and a single string. This development was a necessary changes in the 12th century to accommodate for the developing music of the time in this area.

Since the 19th century, the Oud became the social musical instrument for all occasions. The most famous of all the Oud players was Farid AlAtrash (1905-1974) who was Lebanese – Syrian and spent all his musical productive life in Egypt.  This link shows one of his recordings in 1960 playing what is called taqasim. Taqasim means the improvising and personal interpretation of the instrumentalist in accordance to a strict  pre-established rules and conventions. This is highly recognised and appreciated among the audience as a highly creative work.

Supported by the Oud, there is a certain type of singing, mainly in Iraq, which is called Maqam. This video link below shows, is unique in talents of Iraqi musicians. Please imagine the following combination of talents. Playing the Oud was Munir Bashir (1930-1997), Christian,  and  the singer was Nathom Al ghazali,(1921-1963) Muslem. Alghazali was married to the much loved and famous Iraqi Jewish singer named Salima Pasha Murad . Salima was the only known female to be titled Pasha showing respect and admiration. She died in Baghdad in 1974. The poem is by Al Mutanabbi (915-965 AD) who is considered to be the greatest of the Arabic poets..

This type of song is known as a Maqam, means “stand”, is sang here as Maqam Ajam meaning in do major. There are many types of Maqams. The Maqam style of singing is said to be the origin of the Spanish Flamenco..

The Harp

It is said that the music was created in Egypt among their gods thousands of years ago. In Egypt, some of the earliest images of bow harps are from the Pharaoh’s tombs dating some 5,000 years ago One of their famous instruments was the Lyre Harp which came to existence before 3000 BC. The Lyre could be the origin of the Irish / Celtic Harp that symbolizes Ireland. Today the Sufi Dhikir, meaning the repeating the name of God, is the closest contemporary music that relates to the ancient music of Egypt.

The instruments used in Egypt are numerous and include many of those used in modern orchestra instruments in Europe. The Egyptians listen to the normal pop music, in Arabic, while enjoying the traditional music in happy festivals or weddings.

Most of the Christian Copts music is related to church hymns and chants.

Egyptian singers and musicians are well respected and admired all over the Middle East. Two of the most famous are Um Khalthoom and Abdul Wahab. They composed the music and sang romantic Arabic poems relating frequently to impossible love.

Flutes and hand drums

Today the most popular music with the tourists in Egypt are belly dancers, dancing to the rhythms of the hand drum. The hand drum is also called the Dounbuk or Daff or Durbahha. This link is of Soheir Zaki, one of the most famous of the Egyptian belly dancers. Soheir is  dancing to the sound of the beating hand drums and the local flute. Such evenings are common on happy occasion all over Egypt and for the tourist trade .


We wish you a happy and joyful New Year

Nael Marar 

Nael George Marar

A cultured and a popular personality around Marbella and environs. He is a lover of the arts, and has had a distinguished professional career as an Electrical Engineer B.Sc, and Chartered Electrical Engineer M.I.E.E.

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What did you think of this article?

  • Munther Kubba

    Thank you for an excellent article and very enjoyable links.

  • Interesting article Nael! We may still have an arabic music but western [instuments] are more popular, don't you think so! By Looking back almost 35 years ago and growing up in Jordan the western music was very popular "The-DISCO"! Also, in our modern days the majority of arabs including the Saudies have adopted the new life style and the western music became part of their daily life! This remind me with the history of the TURKS when they occupied the Middle East for a century and almost changed the Arabic language. Today, the west is occuping most of the arab minds from music, clothing even the food we eat every day! One day the arabic music and the arabic language will be remembered as a history more than being part of our daily life!

    I kept 100s of an old cassetts and videos for the real arabic music and movies that my late mother enjoyed when she lived in Canada!

  • Isam Sayegh – Toronto

    Nael, I admire the valuable information you offered in your article. Thank you so much for sharing such a great post. I would like to add new generation names; Naseer Shamma from Iraq, and Ahmad Al Khatib from Palestine.

    Check – Oriental Classical Music link;!/pages/Oriental-Classical-Music/154984041233356

    Best regards

  • Suhail Marar

    Since Islamic art precludes painting (as pagan)

    That leaves only Music & Literature (writing, including Poetry) & architecture.

    Music is perceived by Muslim fundamentalists (Wahabis & Salafis) as the work of the devil.

    Nevertheless you have succeeded in conveying to your readers a good idea about Arabic Music & instruments especially the Oud (Guitar precursor).

    I hope you will continue by writing about Arab Arts & Culture in future articles.

  • Mike Al-Amiry

    Nael… You never fail to find the write topic and use the right narrative. I really enjoyed reading your article whilst listening to a beautifully played Oud. And many thanks for the links.

  • Mike Al-Amiry

    Nael, having listened to this virtuoso Oud solo for the third time, I just had to pop back in and point out the player's quick detour into Spanish music. For those who don't know Farid Al-Atrash, his surname actually translates to (the deaf)… If there ever was a misnomer!!!

  • Mike even more interesting
    Farid Altrash
    would mean
    " The unique deaf"
    I do not suppose he suffered Beethovenisim

  • ISSAM loutfi

    I was visiting my father and enjoying the article and the link,my father 104 years old enjoyed listening to mounir bachir and insisted that I thank you on his behalf ,thank you Nael .

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