Safeguarding Arab music: A new exhibition in the French port city of Marseilles

David Tresilian , Friday 18 Dec 2020

A new exhibition in the French port city of Marseilles shows what is being done to safeguard the heritage and traditions of Arab music

Already hit by further restrictions as a result of a second wave of the Covid-19 coronavirus after many months of relative freedom, the French Mediterranean port city of Marseilles, like the rest of France, was once again put under lockdown at the end of October in a bid to halt the spread of the virus.

This means that while some residents and visitors to the city were lucky enough to have had the opportunity to visit the present exhibition at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM) in Marseilles over the summer, further visits must now take place online. Fortunately, institutions in France and other countries have been creative in thinking of alternative ways to reach out to audiences during physical closures, and the MUCEM has been no exception.

Entitled Orient Sonore, or “oriental resonance,” the exhibition explores what is being done to safeguard the traditions of Arab music and particularly early recordings made in the Arab countries in the early decades of the last century. While it has become temporarily impossible physically to visit the exhibition, the MUCEM has done a marvelous job of streaming much of the material it contains online, recreating some of the experience of the exhibition for digital audiences.  

Music can be notoriously hard to present effectively even to physical visitors in museum settings, and it is to be hoped that the MUCEM’s temporary closure during the lockdown will draw new visitors to its Website. Many happy hours can be spent there listening to notably well-curated clips from early recordings of Arab music.

Organised in cooperation with the Foundation for Arab Music Archiving and Research (AMAR), a Lebanese NGO set up to safeguard early recordings of Arab music, the exhibition is housed in the MUCEM’s dramatic temporary exhibition spaces, their darkened environment providing the ideal backdrop for videos of musical performances. Divided into two main parts, it looks first at the heritage of early recordings made of Arab music from the end of the 19th century onwards and then at some possibly little-known Arab musical traditions, captured in the exhibition through filmed performances.

 The technology required for recording music started to become widely available in the final decades of the 19th century, even if fidelity and recording lengths were still not high. The American inventor Thomas Edison’s wax-cylinder method of recording speech was soon pressed into service to record music, meaning that by the 1920s the Middle East like other parts of the world was seeing the growth of a thriving recorded music industry.

As wax cylinders started to give way to shellac ones and eventually to more familiar 78 rpm discs, the recorded music industry took off in the Arab world, with consumers quickly becoming used to being able to buy recordings of their favourite singers and musicians in a way unthinkable only a few years before.

This helped Arab music to become available to more and increasingly well-informed audiences, since these could now hear music from other parts of the Arab world as well as from their immediate home environments. It also had important consequences for the way Arab music was performed, produced, and listened to, as the exhibition explains.

The AMAR has a collection of some 6,000 early recordings made in the Arab countries from 1903 onwards, and a selection of some 60 of them are presented in the exhibition, digitally remastered from the original 78 rpm records.

Extracts are available for streaming on the MUCEM Website, partially making up for the absence of the displays for online visitors. Those who visited the exhibition before the present lockdown would also have been able to see some fascinating documentation from the period, as well as vintage gramophones, records made by early western and Arab recording companies, and photographs of singers and musicians.

In the second part of the exhibition attention turns to Arab music threatened in a different way, this time not by the possible loss of vintage recordings but instead by changes in taste among sometimes dwindling audiences and in the larger listening environment.

As a result, while the first part of the exhibition reports on efforts to safeguard the history of Arab music, the second looks at what is being done to keep traditions alive in the present, hoping to pass on to future generations musical skills and performance practices that in some cases may be threatened by extinction.

NEW STYLES OF LISTENING: Writing in the book accompanying the exhibition, French Arabist Frédéric Lagrange and Lebanese writer Fadi El Abdallah describe some of the changes that took place in Arab listening practices in the early 20th century and the ways in which these affected musical composition and styles of performance.

Towards the end of the 19th century, new musical entertainment venues started to appear in cities across the Arab world, complementing more traditional ones like family occasions and wealthy private parties. Some of these were modelled on European venues, with Cairo in particular swiftly developing cabarets and concert halls where increasingly famous singers would give public performances to paying audiences in a way quite different from previous traditions of musical performance. This was as true of popular traditions, in which music was mostly used to accompany family and other occasions, as of elite ones in which the houses of the pashas had often served as the backdrops for private performances.

With the development of new venues came new singers, new composers, and new and increasingly professional orchestral players, all eager to exploit what was becoming a celebrity music market in which successful singers and musicians could not only build a local following, but could also become famous across the Arab world thanks to the development of a market for recorded music and soon also of growing radio and cinema audiences.

Music, as well as musical performances, became increasingly scripted as a result, and the scores of famous composers of the period, perhaps at first pre-eminently the Egyptian composer Sayyed Darwish, became available for purchase in a musical notation borrowed from Europe and scored for orchestras that had by now incorporated a range of European instruments to replace or complement local ones.

The era of celebrity composers, singers, and interpreters thus arrived, among them the Egyptian composer and singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab, active from the 1920s onwards, and from the 1930s the enormously successful singer Umm Kulthoum. Their fame was reinforced by the new technologies of the time, with Abdel-Wahhab’s compositions now being heard at home on records or over the radio, or, after the introduction of sound films in the late 1920s, in the cinema as well, for example. This new ubiquity and the new ways of listening encouraged by the new technologies also impacted musical form.

Songs became shorter to fit on 78 rpm records or be slotted in as musical numbers in radio shows or films, and repertoires developed, with hit songs being taken up and reproduced in cover versions or played in private gatherings, much as they are today. This tended to reduce the space given to improvisation – though this never entirely disappeared – and it also meant the disappearance of traditional instrumental formations to be replaced by “oriental orchestras” able to produce a wider range of effects as well as the volume required to fill larger concert halls.

“The early decades of the 20th century saw the end of the wasla (the classical concert), an unintended consequence of the development of the recording industry and the technical limitations that this imposed,” Lagrange and El Fadi write. “Then there was the growth of the shorter taqtuqa-style song… which itself gave way to the ughniya, sometimes a formal version of a taqtuqa, sometimes a monologue, and sometimes a qasida [poem written in formal Arabic] set to music and not improvised as had been the case with the classical school.”

Other essays in the book accompanying the exhibition describe these changes in detail, among them contributions by Egyptian musicologist Tarek Abdallah on changes to instruments and instrumental formations and Arab musicologist Ali Jihad Racy on the impact of early recording technologies. Thanks to the MUCEM’s Website, online visitors to the exhibition can hear some of the effects of such changes in a series of excerpts of recordings made at the time and now remastered by AMAR.

Among the oldest recordings from Egypt is Munira al-Mahdiyya, star of the Ezbekiyya cabaret in Cairo before the First World War, singing Ya sahi al-sabr (the patient one) in a recording released by Baidophone, the oldest recording company in the Middle East set up by the Baida brothers in Lebanon in 1906. There is also Sulayman Abu Dawud singing Habit gamil haram wasli (I loved a girl who refused me) in a recording from 1905, Ismail Sukkar singing Taallam bukaya (learn how I cried) in a recording from 1912, and Bahia Mahallawiyah giving a rousing performance of Marmar zamani (my time has passed) in a performance recorded in 1905, along with many other recordings from Egypt and the Arab countries.

Passing to the second part of the exhibition on the safeguarding of heritage music in the present day, visitors have the opportunity to watch musical performances filmed by director Fadi Yeni Turk in Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, with some extracts also appearing on the MUCEM Website.

“The transmission of oriental heritage takes place by oral means rather than by theory,” Yeni Turk writes in his contribution to the book accompanying the exhibition, describing the “mixture of sadness and bitterness” of the traditional khashshaba musicians of southern Iraq, the subject of one of his films, in the face of threats to their form of music.

The other musicians Yeni Turk encountered – religious singers in Upper Egypt, Yezidi singers in northern Iraq, marju (instrumental) musicians in southern Algeria, pearl-fisher singers in Kuwait and Bahrain, and traditional musicians in Yanbu in Saudi Arabia – also spoke of the threats to their traditional forms of music, whether from globalisation as audiences disappear to forms of music brought in by the Internet and new communications technologies, or as a result of the disappearance, like for the Kuwaiti pearl-fishers, of the forms of life that once supported traditional music.

“One thing that struck me was the geographical isolation of the places I visited to make the films,” Yeni Turk writes. “I saw ways of living and recorded types of music that had survived into the present by a kind of miracle thanks to oral transmission. In the near future, they will perhaps disappear or be changed or reorganised” out of all recognition.

L’Orient sonore, musiques oubliées, musiques vivantes, Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, Marseilles, until 4 January.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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