Gilded Serpent presents...

Raqs Sharqi Improvisational Taqasim:

Part I :The Musical Intersection of Raqs Sharqi and Tarab

Carl captures Titanya

by Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan and Yosifah Rose Craver
posted July 15, 2012


In an era before recorded Arabic music was readily available and choreography-based instruction became emenent, Oriental dance (often referred to as “Raqs Sharqi”) was an improvisational art–performed almost exclusively to live music.

The Oriental dancer (as an improvisational artist) performed in collaboration with live musicians, and the shared goal of both dancer and musicians was to create authentic shared emotional experiences (known as “tarab”) both for themselves and the audience.

Najia Marlyz, a veteran Middle Eastern dancer and writer who performed to live music at the Casbah Cabaret , O Aitos, El Morocco and many other public and private venues in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area (1970s until the early 1990s) recalls in her article “The Taxim from a Dancer’s Perspective: Tarab or Tyranny?” (2006, The Gilded Serpent):

“The true collaboration between the dancer and the musician playing the taqasim creates a superior performance. Similar to the dance that emerges along with the drum solo, the dancer expresses what she hears and the feeling (tarab) it produces.”

The important traditional concept of tarab as an authentic emotion-based response to Arabic music is being lost within western-based Belly dance communities because the focus of most instruction today is on choreography and technical dance drills. Therefore, our intention in this article is to reintroduce dancers to the nearly-lost art of musical collaboration and improvisational dancing with taqasim. (1)

What is a “Taqasim”?

According to Dr. Scott Marcus, ethnomusicologist, University of California Santa Barbara in his book “Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture”

“Taqasim is melodic improvisation by a solo instrumentalist or a solo vocalist. This melodic improvisation may serve as a musical introduction for a new modal tonal scale (called a ‘maqam’) before a song begins, or it may serve as a musical break during the middle of a song. Furthermore, a unique improvisational solo performance that is played without any rhythmic accompaniment and is a separate musical performance from any particular song is also a taqasim. Traditionally, it is played in a slow and contemplative manner without a fixed rhythmic meter; however, due to the influence of other musical traditions, a contemporary taqasim may be played with a greater variety of tempos and may include rhythmic accompaniment."

Some dancers may feel intimidated by the free-flowing nature of a taqasim when there is no beat to follow, no backup music, or singing. Other dancers may feel completely liberated by the taqasim’s absence of structure and feel inspired to dance in a similarly unstructured way. While the taqasim is not actually an invitation for a Grateful Dead style free-dance, it is an ideal place in the music for a dancer to focus on personal emotional expression. Each dancer may hear and respond to the form differently; and thus there are many equally valid ways to approach dancing to a particular taqasim.

What is Tarab?

  1. The root of “tarab” is an Arabic verb that means: to be moved with joy or grief; to be delighted; to be overjoyed; to be transported with joy; to be enraptured. The plural noun tarab means: pleasure, delight, touched, affected; enraptured, transported, pleased, and charmed.
  2. In his book Dr. Marcus describes tarab as “an ecstatic state”.
  3. Tarab, as it relates to live Middle Eastern music, is a heart-felt emotional reaction to the music that ideally affects everyone involved in the music: the musicians, the listeners/audience members, and the dancer(s).

Although some musicians may also find this article informative, the primary purpose of this article is to introduce dancers to the underlying musical concepts of taqasim and to help them to strive towards dancing to taqasim with a genuine heart-felt expression of “tarab”. Therefore, the first part of this article is a review of the key elements of Arabic music, including the concept of heterophony in the instrumentation, rhythms, and musicality of the taqasim. In Part II [comings soon!], this article will offer dancers specific ideas of how to incorporate musicality into their dancing to empower them to dance in collaboration with a taqasim targeting the goal of creating an “Ahh!” moment of authentic tarab.

Musicality and Dance Movement

Five Key Elements of Arabic Music

There are five elements that set Arabic music apart from Western music:

  1. monophonic vs. harmonic,
  2. melodic modal maqamat vs. Western scales,
  3. embellishment or melodic ornamentation vs. fixed melody,
  4. complex rhythmic modes in Arabic iqa’at (singular iqa’) and diversity of time signatures;
  5. maqamat based melodic improvisation.

Modal and Monophonic Music

Beyond the five key elements of Arabic music, the first and most important is the concept of homophony or heterophony. The concept of Western harmony does not traditionally exist in Arabic music. In a traditional Arabic ensemble (or “taht”) the musicians all play the melody, sometimes in different octaves or with individual ornamental flourishes, with the only exception being the occasional drone played under the melody.

Monophony means “one voice.” Much of the music of the Middle East is generally monophonic with everyone playing the parts in parallel rhythm, pitch, and melody. The majority of popular Western music today is melody-dominated homophony.

Typically, in Western music, a vocalist leads the melody, while instruments like piano, guitar and bass guitar normally play a harmonic accompany in support of the the vocal melody. Sometimes, during the performance of a song, a particular instrument such as the guitar may take a lead melodic, during an instrumental break while the other instruments provide chord-based harmonic support.

The Melodic Mode

In Western music, a musical scale is a sequence of musical notes arranged according to pitch with fixed intervals between the pitches (Muallem, 36). Furthermore, the Western scale occurs between a note and its octave; therefore, it can be said that the Western scale is built upon eight notes–with the most common being the minor or major scales such as the well-known C Major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, often sung as do, re, me, fa, so la, ti, do). In contrast, Arabic music is built upon musical modes known as maqam (singular) or maqamat (plural).

While maqamat also are built between a note and its octave, the intervals between the sequential notes may vary depending upon whether the maqam is played in an ascending or descending sequence.

Carl captures OreetIn Arabic music, the octave is divided into 24 quarter-tones that are, in theory, of equal distance (temperate); however, in actual performance by musicians , the intonation of quarter tones may vary from region to region within the Arabic world. Thus, a whole musical tone in Arabic music may be divided into four quarters. These quarter tones (such as B½ flat and E½ flat in the commonly used Maqamat Rast and Bayati) help to elicit emotional responses from those listening to the music. According to Dr. Scott Marcus, “Each maqam is felt to have its own unique, yet generally inarticulated, mood or character.” Thus, each maqam is capable of creating an aural mood to which listeners may respond on an emotional-level.

Author Habib Hassan Touma in his book, “The Music of the Arabs” states that: “the vocal or instrumental performance of a maqam is inherently linked to the realization of a mood or emotional situation” .

He further states that for example, the maqam Sabah will evoke sadness, pain, and feelings of loss in Arab listeners. However, Western listeners and dancers who are not familar with the cultural knowledge of Arabic maqamat may not react to with the same intense emotional reaction.

According to Yosifah, “Because each of the maqams has inherent emotional qualities, as the musician plays the taqasim and modulates between maqams, the taqasim becomes a musical vehicle for unlimited emotional expression. Tarab, a maqamat-mediated and shared transcendental experience, is the ultimate goal for both a musician playing a taqasim and a vocalist singing a vocal improvisation (‘maawal’). There is nothing quite like it in Western music.“

While there may be variations of vocal styling and the tempo may vary in Western music, the process of creating an emotional expression does not exist in Western music as it does in Middle Eastern music.

She notes that truly gifted Arabic vocalists while improvising a mawaal can seamlessly modulate from maqam to maqam (i.e. from Bayyati to other related maqamat within the D (“Duka”) family such as Hijaz, Sabah, or beyond and then back to Bayyati). During a mawaal, a vocalist may repeat simple words and traditional poetic phrases (i.e. Ya Layali! Ya Lay, Ya Lay, Ya Layl!–Oh, my night! Oh, night! Oh, night! etc.) while modulating between maqamat to create a hypnotic effect and elicit a powerful emotional response from the audience. The Arabic audience traditionally verbalizes their tarab experience by responding with "Ahhhh! Ya Salaam" and appreciative "Ya ‘ayni!" comments through out the mawall performance. (“Ya ‘ayni — Oh, my eye!” roughly translates to “Oh, beautiful one!” because when something is truly beautiful, it captures your eye!) In contrast, Western audiences traditionally observe a musical performance in polite silence and wait until it is finished before responding with applause or vocal approbation.

Yosifah suggests listening to example of performances by the Egyptian queen of tarab, Om Kalthoum.

or mawahweel (plural of mawaal) by the famous Syrian vocalist Sahbah Fahkri

She also notes that tracks 9 – 19 of the CD which accompanies Dr. Marcus’ book, “Music in Egypt” contains exceptional example and analysis of the mawaal.

Dancers should be aware that traditionally, Arabic music was taught and learned by ear. Additionally, each maqam belongs to specific related families of maqamat thus taqasims are usually built upon sequential movement between related maqamat. Furthermore, each specific maqam has associated traditional musical motifs or patterns which are traditionally used in particular sequences during a taqasim improvisation. These three fundamental principles of Arabic music give a certain level of “predictability” to taqasim performance.

Thus, dancers who dance to and listen to enough examples of masterful mawaal and taqasim performances can begin to anticipate signals of musical changes that usually occur during a taqasim performance.

Furthermore, dancers who truly immerse themselves in Arabic music over time may unconsciously respond to taqasims with authentic tarab which will enable them to authentically dance Raqs Sharqi with heart-felt emotional expression.

In closing, as a musician and a former dance professional, Yosifah offers this advice to dancers:

My advice to dancers in approaching taqasim is to forget choreography. Instead, they should immerse themselves in listening to Arabic music; furthermore, they should listen with their heart and soul instead of analyzing it with their brain or counting measures or beats! The dancer should feel the music and let it speak directly to her heart and soul and dance with corresponding emotion. When the qanun trills, what does that tell their heart? When the oud plays those low, droning vibrating notes, what does that tell their soul? If a dancer opens her heart and soul and truly allows herself to feel the music, she may feel profound sadness, aching longing, emotional pain, as well as pure joy and happiness in the music. This willingness to open your heart to the music is the key to dancing authentically to taqasim. However, there shouldn’t be anything premeditated, calculated, or manipulative about it. If the dancer feels the music as she dances to it, in essence, she channels the music–she embodies the music.

A dancer should not fake emotions to simulate tarab because then she will just will look like a poser.

Audiences can tell when a dancer is just pretending or play-acting as if she were having a tarab experience. In contrast, when a dancer clearly feels the emotions that she is expressing in her taqasim dancing — then real tarab takes place and her movements flow as a part of the music. That is when the Arabic audience members will praise the dancer with “Ahhhhh! Ya Salaam!” or “Aywa!” which is the Egyptian colloquial word for Yes!

Resources and Footnotes
  1. Authors’ Note: This term meaning “musical improvisation” has many English transliterations from Arabic including: taksim, taxsim, taqasim, takseem, and taqaseem. We have chosen to use the transliteration used by scholars of Arabic music such as Dr. Scott L. Marcus, Associate Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Barbara in his written works, including his most recent book Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-19-514645-X.)
  2. These definitions are from the Hans Wehr, Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Arabic-English.
  3. “Music of Egypt,” Dr Marcus
  4. (p. 18, Music in Egypt, 2007
Marcus, Scott L. Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. London: Oxford UP, 2007. ISBN 0-19-514645-X
Muallem, David. The Maqam Book: A Doorway to Arab Scales and Modes. Kfar Sava: OR-TAB Music Putblications, 2010. ISBN 9655050553X
Touma, Habib Hassan. The Music of the Arabs. Portland: Amadeus Press, 2003. Print. ISBN 1-57467-081-6

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  1. Terry

    Jul 15, 2012 - 06:07:02

    Absolutely, brilliant!  Wonderful article, Thanks Yosifah and Ma*Shuqa.
    I will share with my students as an excellent resource.

  2. Kamala Almanzar

    Jul 17, 2012 - 12:07:38

    This is fabulous – just hits the nail on the head, and I will also share with my students. Thank you for explaining the unexplainable!

  3. marwachile

    Aug 16, 2012 - 05:08:59

    Absolutely wonderful article!! 

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