Unraveling the Complexities of Arabic Music


A thriving campus of artistic and internationally diverse students seems a likely place for discussion and performance of world music. Yet curiously, at Juilliard, student interest in the rich and varied cultures of their peers seems disappointingly minimal. To help remedy this, the World Music Series at Juilliard strives to inspire cultural exploration by exposing students, faculty, staff, and community members to a wide range of virtuoso world musicians and ensembles.

Renowned oud player and composer Simon Shaheen gave the Juilliard community an introduction to Arabic music in March.


Within the past year, the series—which is directed by faculty member Vivian Fung and presented by the L&M Department—has featured the Balinese gamelan ensemble Çudamani; Konnakol vocalist Lori Cotler with percussionist Glen Velez; Ologundê, a renowned Afro-Brazilian ensemble; and the virtuoso tabla player, Zakir Hussain. Most recently, the internationally renowned oud player and composer Simon Shaheen gave a fascinating introduction to Arabic music in March.

At an hour-and-a-half, the presentation was long enough to reveal the tip of the iceberg to students and arouse curiosity, but absolutely too short to provide a complete understanding of this consummate musician’s art. Shaheen began his presentation with a statement of common ground: “There are so many melodic systems. These correspond to certain geographic areas, and people get used to these systems.”  While the Western classical tradition relies heavily on the system of tonality that divides the notes within an octave into half-step intervals, Arabic music is based on the concept of microtonality. As an explanation, Shaheen asked students to imagine two consecutive keys on the piano (specifically E-flat and E natural), and then to imagine an even greater division of sound within those two landmark tones. The usage and slight shifting in pitch (higher or lower) of these smaller divisions, or microtones, depend then on the modal context.

In the tonal system, Shaheen said, he feels the “emotional drive” not in the melodic but rather the underlying harmonic structure. But with Arabic music, he said, “I can play any of 60 or 70 modes, and each one will have its own emotional drive.” The maqamat, or scales of Arabic music, are created through the marriage of smaller tetrachords (called jins)—units of usually four consecutive notes. Because of the limitless combination of jins and the resulting metamorphosis of microtonal relationships, Shaheen explained, the “art of modulation is infinite.” He demonstrated a number of commonly used maqamat on his violin and on a beautiful oud, a lute-like instrument which is the predecessor of the guitar and features an open fingerboard (with no frets), enabling the bending of the necessary pitches for microtonal scales.

Shaheen then spoke about the Arabic rhythmic modes, called iqa’at. In contemporary western notation, commonly used rhythmic patterns range from four to 14 beats to a cycle. “We always rely on the idea of rhythmic cycles,” Shaheen said. “The beauty of it is to feel the heavy beats and the off-beats, and to feel the phrasing.” The marriage of various maqamat and iqa’at and their unique, transforming relationships form the essence of Arabic music. The final element, according to Shaheen, is embellishment.

For Shaheen, a Palestinian, embellishment is “related not only to music, but to poetry, food.” He fondly remembers family meals—for which even the appetizers were beautifully decorated—at his home in the village of Tarshiha. “You can tell which village a woman comes from by the patterns and colors of her robes,” Shaheen told us, emphasizing the organic quality of embellishment in every part of his culture. Not surprising, then, is the significance placed upon embellishment and improvisation in Arabic music. “Why have eight or 10 or 15 musicians, when they are all playing the same line?” Shaheen asked. “Because each of the players will be doing a different kind of embellishment or rhythmic counterpoint. It is the art of heterophony.”

To demonstrate the synthesis of all essential musical elements, Shaheen improvised a brief and captivating work. Responding to questions after his performance, he described what he experiences during improvisation: “My instrument, my thinking, my ear become one creature … it’s very important to understand and immerse in the listening, the experience.” He continued: “I can never repeat one thing the same … and this is the glory of great jazz musicians.” Shaheen’s fluid improvisation seemed effortless, but he clarified the truth behind this mastery. “It is a study for life,” he told us. “You must first understand the modal system. You must study with a master. Ten to 15 years is natural.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of Shaheen’s career is his exploration of other cultures juxtaposed with his passionate commitment to the promotion of Arabic culture. Unfortunately, he was unable to share his achievements in stylistic fusion with the audience due to time constraints. In 2001, Shaheen and his ensemble Qantara received 11 Grammy nominations for their album Blue Flame, a dazzling fusion of elements from Middle Eastern, Latin American, African, and American jazz music. One track is actually an embellished and partially improvised version of “Tea in the Sahara,” a song released in 1983 by the Police!

Asked about his migration to New York City in 1980 to pursue graduate studies, Shaheen spoke nostagically: “People speak of culture shock, but when I came to America, there was no culture shock because I had studied so much—the geography, the history, the culture.” For Shaheen, the early part of the ’80s was the “end of this beautiful America,” where people actively sought to know and experience other cultures. Perhaps the interest generated by the World Music Series at Juilliard will succeed in stimulating cultural exploration, a vital component to understanding a global society.

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