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A Blend of Modernity and Tradition

Arab pop music has broken the realms of classical culture and is now competing with Western pop music since the previous two decades. “Maghrebi sounds” are gaining increasing popularity in the West with the success of “rap” genres like Khaled’s European hit “Didi” and the Egyptian group MTM winning awards and beginning to make a global presence.

The transition from traditional to pop has not been instantaneous and has been mostly triggered with the advent of satellite television and the media which have enabled Arabic pop music to become a “mainstream genre” (Pg. 142) which is produced using traditional Eastern instruments in combination with Western string instruments such as the guitar. With the recent success of Arab music at the international level, music and lyrics are being composed for access and popularity across borders, an excellent example of which is Dana International who won the “Eurovision Song Contest in 1998” is “a transsexual of Yemeni origin” singing songs which are a clever mix of Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish and English lyrics.

This paper aims to analyze the manner in which Arab pop music illustrates diversity and serves as a scene of negotiation between modernity and tradition, with regard to the tunes, content of lyrics and the visual representation of the singers. Arabpop “is informed by classical Arabic music” with “seventy ‘maqamat’ or scales with tonal intervals” (Pg. 144). Arabic pop music is a transition from classical music and is distinct from Western music with the melody being a central aspect of the music rather than the meter or rhythm (Pg. 144).

Umm Kalthoum is widely revered as the most celebrated singer of the “Golden Age” of Arabic classical music and has left “the biggest impression on subsequent generations” (Pg. 144). her impact and influence on Arab music is immense as she was path breaking with her musical contributions in which she often spoke to her lover illustrating her deepest feelings, which is “even today the convention in pop songs” (Pg. 145).

The importance of music in Arabic culture can be gauged from the fact that the “Arabs are mad about music” and music is spoken of and heard everywhere (pg. 147). A quantum leap from an earnest beginning about two decades ago, Arabic pop music is now a “multimillion dollar” industry which began with the fame and success of Ahmad Adawiya, the “first pop star” of the Arab world. He initiated the transition o Arabic music from “traditional songs of lament’ to pop music “of the people” with “raw urban scream”.

An excellent example of traditional transition to Western Arabic pop is the visual transformation of singers like the Syrian Asala who was “once a dumpy looking singer of long poems” has “shaped for the video era with good looks and well crafted pop tunes” to suit private albums and the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, who belly danced her way to glory and popularity amidst much controversy (pg. 151). A popular trend among Lebanese musicians is the mixing of classical Arabic songs and music with modern techno beats to suit pop music lovers.

Classical Arab music is being modernized at a rapid pace which is increasing sales of these altered classical albums by umm Kalthoum and other great artists. While there has been much uproar over this trend of “deformation” of the Arab Heritage, even the sales of original compositions have been triggered by the new technique of creating remixes from traditional and classical music. The new generation is now exposed to the great classical era of the Arab music world and is beginning to take active interest in original forms of music and classical combinations.

Arab pop music took a quantum leap forward with the organization of the IFPI held in Dubai in 2004, the first major awards in music for the Arab world. The winners were elected through satellite and multimedia channels like the internet and text messaging from cell phones. Traditional forms of music like the Egyptian Shaabi music are kept alive with the host of Shaabi stars and even with non-Egyptian singers like Fadi Badr.

The Egyptian singer Hakim is renowned for his “Shaabi meets Arabpo” music. Shaabi music is originally featured through its illustration of “life’s problems and histrionic complaining” and is now “cleverly exploited to craft an image of authentic Egyptian” who is extremely troubled with the troubles of Egyptian poverty and life and is “repackaged” as Arab pop music which is loved by many and is an extremely popular form of music.

This repackaging of a traditional form of music has enabled the traditional music of the Arab world to remain in the mainstream despite the penetration from the western world of music. In spite of touching words and poignant music, the packaging and illustrations such as the covers of albums and publicity hoardings feature Hakim’s “infectious grin” to invite consumers.

Thus, advertisements and visual arts are being considered a serious aspect of the music industry now than ever before. Another important form of music prevalent in Arab pop is the Algerian “Rai’ which addresses the emotions and sentiments of the normal middleclass public and is a big hit. The most important part of Rai music is that it is a “deconstruction of Arab-Islamic music culture” which adopts some features of the traditional music and reformulates it as pop music.

an excellent example of this form of music is the Pakistani singer Fath Ali Khan who sounds all at once, “modern exotic and erotic” to the Westerners while the other form of music sounds “traditional and appealing” to devotees of that form of music (pg. 157). The instruments used in Arabic music whether classical or pop forms are a blend of many cultures, communities and traditions, which gives the Arab music the international appeal for which Arab pop is gaining increasing popularity and fame.

The instruments used in Middle Eastern are comprised of an assortment of drums like the “tabla or darbuka”, string instruments like the ‘violin’, ‘rabab’ and, the ‘oud’ which is believed to be “a direct ancestor” of the European instrument “lute” (pg. 161). The ‘Oud’ is a typical and traditional form of Arabic music, classical as well as contemporary pop. Arabic Pop also includes several aspects of Indian music such as the clapping feature in the Qwali music of north India.

Thus, modern Arabic music takes its form, shape and inspiration from classical forms of Arabic music and inculcates features of western music which have given rise to the modern and popular Arab pop. Music is an important aspect of Arab culture as has always been and is a blend of the traditional and the modern to make it more appealing with several important modifications in the tunes, lyrics and the visual representations which have today become a crucial aspect of the music world. (You may contact me on dearpk(at symbol) yahoo. co. in)

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