"Arab listeners experienced sadness evoked by maqam saba, distant desert by maqam hijaz"

Music of the Arabs by Habib Hassan Touma

A book review by Sami Asmar

Reprinted with permission from Al-Jadid Magazine
Revised for web version

Habib Touma's book Music of the Arabs is currently available in English by Amadeus Press after translation from the original German edition, with an accompanying (optional) compact disk. It is a nicely written personal perspective of Arab music by the Palestinian-born composer and ethnomusicologist working at the International Institute for Traditional Music in Germany, as well as an excellent reference for researchers in the field. It contains a large bibliography of books, papers, and discography in addition to an impressive glossary with a guide to transliteration and pronunciation of Arabic terminology and numerous illustrations and pictures not too common in print.

Dr. Touma superbly describes the historical development of Arabic music from the pre-Islamic period up to the nineteenth century. He proceeds to provide a good overview of traditional Arab musical instruments and the various genres of secular art music (e.g., nubah, muwashshah, etc.) and religious music (e.g., adhan, dhikr, etc.) He often includes technical details and analysis accompanied by musical notation that may only interest researchers and academicians, not the casually interested reader.

The book's approach to the conceptual heart of Arab music, the maqamat, centered around the development by Al-Farabi, is excellent but a little bit brief for such an important topic. I had hoped for a deeper discussion of the ideas rather than numerous, though useful, listing of all the possible maqamat.  Touma amply discusses the emotional content of the maqamat and described an experiment wherein Arab listeners experienced "sadness" evoked by maqam saba, "distant desert" by maqam hijaz, etc. Simplified as this experiment may be, it captures commonly accepted notions about evocation of particular emotions by Arab maqamat. The latter are the modal structures that guide compositions, especially improvised pieces called taqasim.

Music of the Arabs, however, would not serve as a good introduction to readers not already familiar with the subject; it is advanced reading. Throughout the book, Touma emphasizes regional folk music and rejects commonly accepted other musical forms of the Arab world due to possible western influence on them. While I completely endorse his viewpoint of trying to maintain the purity of Arab music, I feel it is unrealistic to completely dismiss what the Arab people consider their primary musical experience simply due to personal preferences.

Another reservation about this book is that it emphasizes Touma's own research in the folk music of North Africa and the Gulf states. While he addresses these two regions in great detail, from which we can learn a lot, he chose not to approach other regions of the Arab world or other musical styles with satisfying consistency.  Touma also stresses his dislike of western influence on Arab music possibly leaving some readers with the impression that all non-folk musical productions are dismissed as illegitimate Arab music including the works of greats like Mohammed Abd al-Wahhab. In fact, this includes anybody who sang or performed with an Arab orchestra since, according to Touma, the traditional Arab takht is the only acceptable ensemble.  While composers and singers like Sayyid Darwish, Abd al-Wahhab, and Um Kulthoum get mentioned in the book only in passing, Touma spends several paragraphs and a picture in praise of Munir Bashir. Although the latter is a great Iraqi 'ud player and world-renown composer, it is a puzzling presentation of the big picture of the music of the Arabs, perhaps Dr. Touma favors musicians over singers. For a contrasting perspective, see Victor Sahab's book "The Seven Greats of Arabic Music," for example.

When reaching the historical development into the twentieth century, Touma dives into an editorial on the "irresponsible behavior of many Arabs" who felt that European culture is superior to theirs. He later dedicates a strongly worded chapter to the "problem of cultural identity" in which he opposes the fixation on the "musical new." Again, I agree with the spirit of his thesis and salute him for it due to the abundance of junk on the deafening speakers of night clubs and the idiotic "video clips" claiming to be Arab music. The next generation of unenviable historians will have to face that question.

A problem with the translation to English needs to be pointed out. Throughout the book, the term "Arabian" music is used where it is the modern convention to use "Arab" or "Arabic" (less preferred) music.

I enjoyed the book despite the didactic style of the late Habib Hassan Touma (d. 1998) who will be missed due to his great contributions to Arab musicology.  Arab music is one of the richest known art forms and has been written about in many books in Arabic and other languages. In English, one can find journal articles and, at best, chapters in books of world music. This makes Music of the Arabs one of the few published books in English dedicated to this subject. As such, it provides a great service and a valuable resource.


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