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  • UNESCO Collection Week 59: Iraq and Egypt: Sounding Out Two Cultural Hubs

    Sound artist, composer, and ‘ud player Hasan Hujairi discusses the interconnectedness and uniqueness of different Arabic regional musical traditions in this week’s UNESCO releases, Egypt: Cairo Tradition - Taqasim and Layali and Iraq: Iqa’at Traditional Rhythmic Structures.


    by Hasan Hujairi

    Within the idea of a collective Arab musical canon, both Egypt and Iraq figure prominently as centers of musical tradition. Egypt: Cairo Tradition - Taqasim and Layali and Iraq: Iqa’at Traditional Rhythmic Structures certainly do not aim to be representative of all musical traditions found in Iraq or Egypt, yet they demonstrate the centrality of both maqam (or “mode”) and iqa’a (or “rhythm”) to the Arabic tradition, especially in improvisation.


    Both albums, especially to me as a musician from Bahrain trained in the ‘ud (fretless lute), have several significant meanings. On a basic level, it is a fascinating coincidence to see how musicians of both regions use common techniques such as the mawwal (a form of stretched out vocal performance that is usually used to introduce the maqam of the song it precedes) and different forms of percussive improvisations. The recordings from Egypt also seemed to adhere to more pedagogical, classical standards. Examples of this include “Samai’i El-Aryan,” performed by a takht ensemble, and several taqasim (the plural form of the word taqsim, meaning a virtuoso improvisation that usually does not adhere to a fixed time signature). Both albums also feature several works based on maqam bayyati, one of the common modes used in Arabic music. In the recordings from Cairo, this maqam appears in the taqsim and samai’i forms, while the recordings from Baghdad offer an abuziyya vocal performance in the same maqam. However, the character of the maqam seems quite different across the two cases, perhaps due to region-specific idiosyncrasies.

    I would also like to add that Egypt: Cairo Tradition - Taqasim and Layali was recorded by Jacques Cloarec and first released in 1972, one year after he produced an album that presented different examples of maqam recordings from the Arab world. Iraq: Iqa’at Traditional Rhythmic Structures was first released in 1979, just one year before the Iran-Iraq War, which continued until 1988. On some level, I felt that although I was listening to traditional music that is still practiced today, the historical context of the recordings was especially meaningful. Iraq: Iqa’at Traditional Rhythmic Structures was recorded by Habib Hassan Touma. One year earlier, Touma released an important record of fidjeri music from my native Bahrain. This music is closely linked to the traditions of pearl diving, which was practiced for a very long time in the Persian and Arabian littorals of the Persian Gulf.

    Egypt: Cairo Tradition - Taqasim and Layali highlights different forms of what may be considered “classical” Arabic approaches to taqasim, mainly through examples of the mawwal and solo improvisations on the ‘ud, qanun, and nay. The third track, “Samai’i El-Aryan,” is one of the most well-known pieces in the Arab world and is often taught to practitioners of traditional musical instruments.

    This particular samai’i is in maqam bayyati, and the recording presented here demonstrates how it can be played by a takht ensemble, a group often comprised of qanun, nay, ‘ud, and percussion. The first track of the album, “Layali & Mawwal,” is another example of how a taqsim works, although this time with the voice rather than one of the takht instruments. Overall, this collection demonstrates what could be considered a more formalized approach to music practice in the Arab world that is not necessarily specific to Egypt, although Egypt does have much to do with the development of such forms. Perhaps my conclusion reflects the nature of how music is taught in the Arab world, and not only in Egypt itself.


    Iraq: Iqa’at Traditional Rhythmic Structures includes some interesting recordings in its own right. The selections made for this album focus on folk music from Baghdad and Basra, as opposed to more formalized genres and arrangements also famous in Iraq. The first track, “Mukhalif,” is based on a maqam specific to Iraq.

    The voices in the track convey intense sadness, yet the juxtaposition of the drumming and clapping also gives it a forward motion. The call-and-response chorus towards the end of the track and the interlocking clapping are also worth noting because they show a connection between southern Iraq and the Gulf region to its south, suggesting just how interconnected the region is through maritime nexuses. This connectivity comes to the fore once again in the track entitled “Fann Khammari,” which is of a genre connected to pearl diving music that is performed throughout the Gulf region, demonstrating again the region’s interconnectedness. Another highlight is the track entitled “Murabba,” the only track on the album with a female vocalist.

    The rhythm used in this track, jurjina, is particularly connected to Iraqi folk music, and is generally upbeat, driving the music forward. This contrasts with some of the sadder vocal performances included in this collection such as those found in the ”Abuziyya” and “Mawwal” tracks. The latter two tracks demonstrate other forms of vocal improvisations around a generally understood set of iqa’a and maqam, which is exciting for those familiar with this form of music because one is always looking forward to what the performers will do next. The lyrics, and whether they are performed in local dialects or formal Arabic, also add an extra layer of meaning to each performance. Ultimately, central to this particular set of recordings is the approach to rhythms in Baghdad and Basra, which shows a connection with the Gulf region in the south along with Iraq’s own approach to percussion and performance practice.

    Hasan Hujairi is a musician and composer from Bahrain. He is currently based in Seoul, South Korea where he is pursuing his doctoral studies in Korean music composition. He is active as a sound artist and often presents electroacoustic compositions and sound art installations in various art festivals around the world. Hasan is also an accomplished ‘ud player.

    UNESCO Collection Week 59: Iraq and Egypt: Sounding Out Two Cultural Hubs | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings