Sunday, 31 December 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Meetings with Mozart, Ney, Oud, Percussion and Qanun

Classical music from the West has always inspired many singers/musicians in the East. Here is Omar Kamal, a Palestinian singer, known popularly as the Arab Sinatra, singing Fairouz’s cover of Mozart’s Symphony 40. Have a listen:

Fairouz, as everybody knows, is from Lebanon, one of the most revered singers across the Arab world. Lebanon has contributed a large number of talented musicians, something about the topography?…or maybe the water?…anyways, here is a young, superbly talented violinist from there with Made in Lebanon. Divanessa, was born in Canada and educated in Lebanon, click on her name to find out more.

Since we are on the subject of music, just thought I’d mention here that the solmisation in Arabic, which is called Durrat Mufassalat (meaning ‘separate pearls’) goes daal, ra, meem, fa, saad, laam, ta, these are letters of the Arabic alphabet associated with the seven notes. There is apparently no documentary evidence that the current form of Western solmisation, which happened during the medieval times, is in any way based on the Arabic one. So I am not saying a word further about Arabic influence, ha! We deal only in hard proofs.

Music is such a primal thing, I mean, I’ll bet that there was someone breaking into song long before we had alphabets or even before man was really Man, you know? The great apes can sing, and they do, as signals to other members of their group. In India the primordial sound is thought to be is ‘Om’ a syllable that is sung. All our poetry, which was religious to begin with and predated other literature, was chanted. Man probably hummed before he learned to speak, who knows? he was probably tuneful before he was articulate. Or perhaps I should say Woman.

I can totally imagine Neanderthal and Australopithecus mums crooning to the babies to make them sleep, can’t you? while the dads used frantic but silent gestures ('don’t just stand there! throw me that spear for heavens sakes, man! this springbok’s getting away!') at the hunts to avoid noise. Can this be the underpinnings why women are verbal and men are visual? Anyhoo. I digress.

But this be the thing - did you know, from the Far East to Europe, the entire old world in other words, uses the same number of notes as the basis of music? We name just seven basic notes, though there are many cultures which use half-notes or quarter-notes in between two. In Indian music there are the komal and tivra and shuddha to denote the in-betweens, but the names of the notes add up to the same number, with the name for the first and the last note repeated.  Daal-ra-meem-fa-saad-laam-ta. Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti.   I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni. The more I dig into things, the more gobsmacked I get really. 

Incidentally, the traditional Arabic ensemble did not include the violin, it’s an import from Europe, but has been made a part of the Arab orchestras from the 19th century onwards. The stringed instrument that is traditionally included in the Arab ensemble is the oud, which can be traced back to Persia some 3500 years ago, a short-necked, fret-less six/seven stringed instrument. Similar instruments have been found on ancient Egyptian paintings/frescoes from the Pharaonic era. The Arab armies brought it back to Arabia either from Egypt or from Persia in the 7th century and made it uniquely their own. The Moors then took it to Spain where it was known as the lute (al-ud), and from there it branched off and evolved into the modern day six-stringed, fretted guitar.

The oud is the main accompaniment to a traditional Arab song, it is also played solo. Listen to an eminent Iraqi Kurdish oud player Naseer Shamma in this clip below

And to these Palestinian oud players, brothers Joubran:

The other instruments that form the Arab ‘takht’ (ensemble) are the Ney – an end-blown flute and the percussion, which is usually the goblet drum - Darbouka, also called Doumbek.  Another prominent string instrument in the Arab ensemble is the trapezoidal zither - Qanun, that's often also played solo. Listen to this Qanun piece by a famous instrumentalist:

The qanun is also the ancestor of the Indian santoor, incidentally.

The Alex Trilogy

Just my quick review of this book -

This is Alexandria from the perspective of real, feet-on-the-ground for generations, Egyptian working-class residents, as far away from the expat-bubble rarefied-prism POV as one can possibly get. Set during WWII, the author has used quotations from other authors/poets - al Niffari, Rumi, Cavafy and Durrell among them, as chapter banners to anchor each chapter, and the reader, in place. Of personal interest also were the glimpses of Indian soldiers fighting the war in Egypt seen from a non-Indian POV. 

This is not a light page-turner, it's a huge, sweeping story of friendship, of overcoming religious differences, of hardships, of working class people, of war in faraway places upending lives in ways small and great. Above all, it is the story and the history of Alexandria from eyes and nose close to the ground. It needs some work and concentration to get at the novel, and I make a habit of often getting distracted by futile thoughts of what's lost in translation when reading translated Arabic, can so do without it! It's a densely packed, teeming, aromatic and rich-complex read - if you are interested in a POV that contrasts Durrell's and the more aloof Eurocentric version, go for it.

The book was longlisted for the IPAF award, I'm not sure these longlists or shortlists should be the reason for choice, a reader's criteria can be vastly different from the juries', but anyhoo. Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, a multiple awardee, has gone on to write two more books set in Alexandria forming his Alexandria trilogy. (Echoes of the Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz?!) Birds of Amber and Clouds over Alexandria followed NSiA. Read an interview of the author here.

So...that's the last post for the year. It's been a tumultuous one...2017 has been a tough cookie! Though I am grateful that I have a cookie, chewy or otherwise!  But glad to make a fresh start :) 

Thank you all who stopped by here and made my online life a respite and a refuge from the not-so-nice bits of my offline one. Wishing all of you a very happy and fun and fulfilling 2018 -



  1. True art (whatever genre) ignores boundaries of culture, religion and gender. And the Arabs are often so very good at blurring those boundaries to amazing effect.
    Thank you so much for educating me this year. I hope that the next is kinder and gentler - to you and to the world.

    1. Me too! And you're absolutely spot on about the Arabs and art, they just can't be neatly boxed.

  2. I agree with Elephant's Child - I always enjoy your blog. I learn, I think, and your words and poems are lyrical. You create your own music of sorts. 2017 has been a challenge. Let's see what's ahead for 2018. At least in blog world, we're in this together. That counts for a lot. Cheers and good health to you and yours.

    1. That's very heartening to know, thank you! Hoping for a better year all round.

  3. I hope you have a wonderful 2018.
    This is a really great post. I love how music can be so universal, how it can bring people together, even for a short time.

    1. Thank you. Music can and does transcend language barriers.

  4. My first exposure to Mozart was the 40th Symphony! The fact that I purchased it was a fluke. It just happened to be on the other side of an LP I bought which contained Schubert's Symphony #8, the so-called "Unfinished Symphony". I was quite young, and was imagining that an "unfinished" symphony would just stop right in the middle of the melody!

    Incidentally, I got turned on to classical music in the first place because I wanted to know why Schroeder in Peanuts was always talking about Beethoven!

    1. That is so in character - finding classical music via cartoon! :) Mozart's 40th has inspired many, not just the Arabs, also in Indian Bollywood music, though the connection is less obvious than here.

    2. By the way, Nila, I'll be posting that article about the song "Tar and Cement" this coming Sunday, and right now I have a poem posted which I originally wrote eight years ago, and unlike most of my poems and stories, this one is about me!


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