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Jazz Arabic Music Interactive


As you know, the roots of jazz come from West African and Arab cultures.
The researcher Gunnar Lindgren wrote an article on this topic that was published on the Internet, (which Professor Andrew Shenton emailed to me). Lindgren mentions in his research that Blues come from the word “BLA” which meant “black” in old West African language. I also found that the roots from the word “blues” come from the Arabic language, because BALA AZRAQ in Arabic means dark blue which refers to what we might translate as sadness, catastrophe, or calamity.

I have heard here in our jazz course some of vocal melisma which commons in Arabic singing style practically in blues and cool jazz. In general the voice of the cool singing sounds like an Arabic sliding chant, especially the style of Ella Fitzgerald, or Chat Baker.
I noticed also that the instrumental performance included many ornamental tones, which the musician added to the skeleton of the main melody. The musicians enrich the melody when they articulate the tones in vibrato. They also add many protamento and glissando between the tones. e.g. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillenspie and Charlie Parker.
The following are some of the similar elements:
1. In common cases the tone pitches in Arabic music are of unequal temperament, making the intervals between the tones inexact, theses intervals are measured approximately in cent units such as: the 1/2 tone equal approximately to 100 cent, and the whole tone 200 cent. And also 3/4 tone (which only exists in the Arabic Quarter Maqamat) is equal to approximately 150 cent.
2. There are many tonal ornaments in instrumental melodies and some vocal melisma in singing styles.
3. The musicians exaggerate their use of vibrato.
4. The musicians exaggerate the articulation of portamento and glissando.
5. If the musicians repeat one melody in unison or coupled octaves, you will hear features of heterophony— each melody will have different details of ornamentation and timing of trill.
6. The syncopation of rhythm and spontaneous improvisation are common in both jazz and Arabic music.
7. The contrabass plays always in pizzicato (plucked).
8. Many musical pieces (both instrumental and vocal) have no scores, which means that the music is performed directly from memory.
9. Sometime the Arabic singer improvise vocalize in pronounce-syllabic “Ya Liel & Ya Ein” which means in Arabic Night & Eyes. This vocal Improvisation called in Arabic “Mawwal”.

The ethnomusicologist Sven Berger maintains that many European musical instruments have been developed from Arabic predecessors, especially pizzicato and arco string instruments (pizzicato means plucked and arco means bow). These instruments reached Europe by way of Spain.

I personally believe that the guitar developed from the lute, and the zither from the Qanun, and the Violin from the Rebab which in Arabic is called “Rababa.”
Furthermore, I think we all know that the harp comes from ancient Egyptian civilization.
The traditional ensemble of Arabic music consists of small group called “Takht” (2 violins, the cello, nay, oud, qanun and the req . In traditional contemporary Egyptian music, most composers use chamber orchestra called “Ferqa” (which consists of bowed-string instruments (without viola)). There are often solos by the guitar, nay, saxophone, oud, (sometime trumpet), and percussion section (mainly daraboka and req)
Description of some Arabic Instruments:

The Oud: is a plucked instrument with 6 doubled strings whose resonance box (called the “sound board”) is made of wood in an elliptical shape. (The strings are tuned from thicker to thinner strings in musical degrees: {C-1,F-1,A-1,D+1,G+1,C+2}. The player plucks the strings with a pick to produce a typical tremolo, a deep and mellow sound.
The Qanoun: is a plucked string instrument (like the typical zither) and is a descendent of the old Egyptian harp. It has 26 tripled nylon strings which are strung across a narrow trapezoidal sound board. The strings are tuned in about 3 and 1/2 octaves from G-2 up to D+2. The instrument is played flat on the lap of the musician. The strings are plucked with 2 picks attached to the index finger of each hand.
The Nay: dates back to ancient Egyptian civilization in the third century B.C. It is a simple wind instrument, made of a hollow bamboo pipe, with openings on two sides. The nay has 7 holes on the front and 1 on its underside. The player blows across the top opening of the pipe to make a sentimental and melancholic sound. The nay is made of several pipe-lengths to cover different ranges. A highly skilled nayist can reach as many as 3 octaves.

The Arabic Violin: is the same as the western violin but its strings are tuned to G-1, D+1, G+1, D+2. The technique, however, is completely different from western articulation, especially in the ornamentation, trill, portamento (which refers to sliding “glissando”), vibrato, and flageolet.
The Req: is the most common hand percussion instrument in traditional Arabic music. It is a typical tambourine, but the frame is covered on one side with a goat or fish skin. Pairs of metal discs are set into the frame to produce the “jingle” when the struck by the hand. The sound of the Req sets the rhythm of classical Arabic music.
Darabokka “tabla”: is a membranophone of goat or fish skin stretched over a vase-shaped container with a narrow neck, usually made of clay. The player places the “tabla” under the left arm and strikes the middle to produce strong beats (“Dum”) and on the edge for sharp-weak beats: (“Tak”).
Technical Terms presented in order of appearance in the text:
Arabic Musical Terms:
Arabic Music: Music that uses special musical scales which in Arabic are called Maqamat, (singular of Maqamat is Maqam).
Dum & Tak: Strong & weak beats in percussion, especially used by the Darabokka and Req.
Maqam: Arabic scale. (Maqamat is the plural of Maqam).
Gens: Tetrachord. (Agnas is plural of Gens).
Quarter Maqamat: Maqamat which involves 3/4 tones between some of its intervals.
Quarter tone: An interval between 2 semitones which moves up or down around 50 cent.
Three Quarter tone: An interval equal to about 150 cent.
Mawwal: Solo vocal improvisation (called in instrumental improvisation “Taqasiem”).
Takht: Ensemble consisting of 1 oriental violin, 1 oud, 1 nay,1 qanoun, 1 req and 1 singer.
Ferqa: Chamber orchestra consisting of about 15 players (generally the takht + chorus + String group without viola).

Western Musical Terms related to Arabic music:
Interval: The difference in pitch between 2 tones, measured in cent units. The temperate half-tone is equal to 100 cent; and the octave includes 12 half-tones equal to 1200 cent in total. Intervals are regularly counted from the lower tone to the higher. In Arabic music the microtonal interval is used commonly, the most important interval is the 3/4 tone which equals 150 cent approximately. Each interval has 3 parameters—1) movement up or down, 2) the degree (from the first to the eighth), and 3) the type of interval: major-minor-perfect-diminished and augmented. Tetrachord: The 4 scale-tones which contain the interval of a perfect fourth. (In Arabic music, this Perfect fourth could be a diminished “Saba” or an augmented pentachord-“Eqd”.

Melisma: Vocal ornamental tones added to the main melody of the song (common in Arabic vocal music).
Ornaments: Grace notes added to the main skeleton of the melody. In Arabic music this is usually not notated in the musical score.
Portamento: A smooth gliding from tone to another, primarily in string instruments with the exception the harp.
Glissando: The exaggeration of slower portamento—easy for strings, difficult for wind, impossible for acoustic keyboard instruments.
Vibrato: A sort of shaking of the pitch which makes the tone more beautiful, deep, warm and magnified; common for string and wind instruments, impossible for acoustic keyboard instruments.
Pitch: The perceived fundamental frequency of the musical tones. Each musical tone has a specific pitch which is measured in Hertz units. The tone A+1 is considered the standard tone for the orchestra. In the US the standard A+1 equal 440 Hz. In Arabic music it is a little lower, around 425 Hz.
Temperament tones: In western music the octave is divided equally into 12 half-tones. This means that all sharp & flat tones have the same pitch, like the equivalence of a C sharp and D flat in keyboard instruments. This system is called “equal temperament”. The 48 fugues of Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is considered the pioneer of the temperament system. In Arabic music the octave is divided into unequal 24 quarter-tones. This means that the sharp & flat tones do not have the same pitch. For example the C sharp is a slightly higher than the D flat and vice-versa. This means that the system of Arabic Maqamat is of unequal temperament. Therefore the tempered keyboard instrument like the Piano is not convenient to perform Arabic music practically the quarter tones Maqamat . The string & wind instruments can perform clearly the fine differences between the unequal intervals.
Cent: The unit used to measure the intervals. The half tone is equal to 100 cent, and the whole tone 200. In Arabic music the 1/4 tone is equal to approximately 50 cent and 3/4 tone is equal to approximately 150 cent. It is difficult for the human ear to recognize the fine difference in “intonation” between about (1- 10) cents, especially in very low & high registers.
Octave: The interval between one tone to another with half or double its frequency. The octave also exists on the 8th tone above or under any tone. In western music, the octave includes 12 tempered 1/2 tones. The Arabic scales—Maqamat—commonly have diminished octaves which contain only 22 unequally tempered 1/4 tones.
Heterophony: Subjective variations in the details of a single melody when it is performed simultaneously by more than one instrument or voice in unison or coupled octaves.
Subdominant: The fourth degree (IV) from the tonic (I) in a diatonic scale. This tone exists below the dominant (V). In Arabic music, the most important degree is the (IV) not the (V) like in western classical music. This degree is considered a vital tone to construct a melody. Also in the cadence, the melodic line reaches the tonic through the subdominant. (Baroque music might be influenced by this cadence, as in the plagal cadence in Bach’s fugues ).

Neapolitan: A major chord built on the lowered second “supertonic” of the scale in the first inversion (flat II6) or (N6). This chord will called a Neapolitan sixth chord. The traditional Neapolitan chord dates back to the 18th century composers of Italian opera. However, the original Neapolitan chord dates back to both the Maqam Higaz and Kord (similar Phrygian), which was distinguished by the lower second degree.

Lectures of Prof.Dr. Andrew Shenton in jazz course, BU College of Fine Arts, (May-June 2007).

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Originally posted 2005-07-30 09:18:15.