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The Influence of Tarab on Raqs Sharqi

Improvisational Taqasim For Raqs Sharqi Part 2


by Ma* Shuqa
posted August 14, 2012
Part 1 here

According to Yosifah, “Because each maqam has inherent emotional qualities, as the musician plays the taqsim and modulates between maqamat.  The taqsim becomes a musical vehicle for unlimited emotional expression. Tarab is a music-mediated and shared transcendental experience which is the ultimate goal for both a musician playing taqasim or a vocalist singing a maawal.  There is nothing quite like it in Western music.“

Yosifah suggests listening to examples of mawaaweel (plural of mawaal) by the Syrian vocalist Sahbah Fahkri.  She notes that he often modulates (for example over E 1/2 flat or B flat to B 1/2 flat) in his vocal improvisational mawaaweel with seemingly effortless vocal mastery, he moves from Bayyati to Saba to Hijaz and beyond… It is not just the lyrics that he sings, because these are often repetitive and fairly simple; instead, it is his powerful control over the emotional qualities of the maqam that allow him to create a hypnotic and powerful emotional response in his audiences which becomes apparent as they respond to his maawal with "Ahhhh!" and appreciative comments. 

While there are certain general patterns in the maqam scale, within these patterns, the musician freely varies his playing, sliding into and out of the melody and scale by quarter tones and notes.

Taqasim Musical Embellishments and Improvisation

While embellishment is one key element of improvisation in Arabic music, the main form of improvisation is called taqasim. It is used to outline and introduce the maqam, and to showcase an individual player. It consists of short, simple melodic phrases, often traveling throughout the register of the particular instrument. A taqsim usually contains at least one modulation from one maqam to another. Thorough presentation of the maqam through skillful modulations make up the artistry of the taqasim.

Musical Embellishment

Unlike western music, where an embellishment is used to highlight a note or series of notes, embellishment in Arabic music is woven  into the music organically; a melody is almost never played in its simple form. 

The difference between Western music and Arabic music is like the difference between simple and bold designs in a carpet designs of European cultures, and the intricate, complicated, and elaborate designs and embellishments in a Middle Eastern carpet.

Improvisation is musical embellishment that varies with the individual, the maqam, and the type of instrument.

Intricate rugA player never repeats any melodic phrase the same way twice, using embellishment as an improvisatory element in the music. A group of musicians each embellishing a melody slightly differently gives the music a hetero-phonic quality and a richness of timbre unlike monophonic music. The most common types of embellishment are trills, turns, and slides.  Various combinations of these three embellishments are used along with mordents and grace notes to decorate and embellish Arabic music as it is performed.

Mordents and grace notes are keys to improvisational playing in Arabic music.  Mordents and grace notes are played above and below the main note, with specific rhythmic placement. mordents are an ornament made by a single rapid alternation of a principal tone with a subsidiary tone a half step or whole step below. In a double mordent there are two alternations while in an inverted mordent the subsidiary tone is a half step or whole step above the principal tone.

gracenoteGrace notes are beautiful embellishments that decorate or improve by adding detail; ornamentation that adorns the music.  Musically, grace notes may be syncopated accents, trills, etc. to a melody – often added to improve it by adding details that touch up the original musical score.  In performance, dancers may hold a sustaining note, or slow a movement then hit the accented grace note only–without mirroring movements of the mordent notes. 

On the other hand, performance style should sparingly mirror mordent notes and grace notes.  Performing movements to all the mordent note variations and also hitting every grace note is inappropriate; too much of a good thing spoils the dance style.

Trills are fast, starting on, below, or above the note, involving light finger movement and clear articulation. This trill sound is produced by the qanun player through movements similar to those of a harpist who strums the strings.  An oud player would trill by playing a right hand with quick pick-strumming.  Trills made by the nai may be a fluttering sound made by quick finger pulses over a long sustained note.

turnMusical Turns (not dance turns) move as in western music from the note to its higher neighbor, but in Arabic music return back to the original note, to the lower neighbor, then back again. You can visualize turns as though drawing a musical treble clef sign with a quill pen; or the lilting movement of wisps of smoke coming up from a campfire that moves and turns from a combination of the rising heat from a fire and the gentle breeze on the night wind. Arabic music is played as though the notes are swept up and away, then sent around and down again by currents in the wind as a feather might drift along with the wind.  Dancers should focus on moving with fluidity in movement and with varying speed and energy to match musical turns.

Turns and trills are often combined in various ways. With all of these ornaments, the movement in the left hand is efficient for oudists or violinists. For example, if one were to look at an Arabic violinist’s left hand, one would see hardly any movement! The left hand makes a tiny hammer-like motion, but at the same time, the touch remains light, with the focus being on the upward finger movement and the long sustained bowing of the violin, which may be captured by the dancer in a sustained movement and body undulation layered with shimmies or even some tiny stomach flutters or body vibrations.  trill

Truly, the musical slide is what separates Arabic string playing from all other types. The slide is short and fast, imitating a vocal sigh. Think of someone responding and communicating understanding without words but murmuring “Ah, ah” but voicing the “ah” with a sliding pitch that may drop down in pitch before turning up at the end.  For example, the beginning introductory accented notes in the song “Habibi Ayni” are an example of the use of the musical slide.  The typical “Ta-dah” which is a higher note to lower note sound ending much Western music, is used in Arabic music also but usually as a slide.

Dancing with one’s eyes closed will help in hearing the slide and turns in music. This technique is especially useful when sliding into graceful half-steps. Musicians will gradually work up to sliding greater distances, but keep in mind that the slide is always fast. Slides can be made between any two notes; however most slides happen between the more expressive intervals in a maqam; for example, between E flat and F sharp in Hijaz. Slides can be made both up and down scale, and combined with trills and turns, such as, the slide accented notes in the song “Habibi Ayni” are up slide notes.

Unlike western music, in which an embellishment is used to highlight a note or series of notes, embellishment in Arabic music is woven into the music.

Once you become aware of mordents, grace notes, trills, turns, and slides as characteristic of Arabic music as a dancer, you will become accustom to these musical devices and improvisational music will sound more familiar.  As a result, you will be frustrated less with these musical variations and will be able to capture the beauty of the soloist taqasim vocalists and musicians in your dancing.  When your dancing reflects the five key elements of Arabic music, your Arab audience will give you smiles of approval and you may hear vocalizations in the audience of “Ayy-wah, ya Habibi!” (Yes, oh, my beloved!) as they acknowledge your dance proficiency, excellence, and grace. 

Culturally and Context Appropriate Musical Interpretation

You may recognize the difference of culturally appropriate interpretation (for example, when you hear someone speak a secondary language that is not their native tongue). You hear the variation in speed and presentation from normal conversation, and the differences in:

  1. expected pronunciation,
  2. linguistic fluidity,
  3. limited vocabulary
  4. or inappropriate use of words and phrases. 

The same is true of Arabic music played by musicians of other cultures; sometimes the interpretations are noticeably different.  My advice is to listen and learn; observe the characteristic patterns, pauses, preciseness and the flow of the music that may be matched by the dancer in layered movements, poses, and flowing dance movement.

However, be aware neither the concept of tarab or taqasim give the dancer artistic license to share personal private moments or overtly erotic movements, but rather the opportunity to be one with the music, interpreting gently the musical constructs of Arabic music (mordents and grace notes: slides, trills, and turns, as well as the pauses and breaks in the music) require dance that has culturally appropriate movement and is audience appropriate. 

Listen and observe dancer movement and composition in performance with these guidelines and you will begin to understand the difference between beautiful and culturally appropriate dance movement or a performance that merely takes a pedestrian approach to movement that may be reliably on the beat and rhythm, but lacks sufficient artistry and tarab.

Dance movement improvisation in taqasim becomes a thing of beauty as a dancer displays the sounds of the vocalization and music. Envision the potential for dance movement to taqasim.  Recall the movements of the white feather in the opening scenes of the movie ‘Forest Gump’; the feather floats and falls, is uplifted by the wind and swirls on the currents of the wind all to the matched dynamics of the musical overture.  Informed, educated, and wise dancers use their movements to correspond to what they hear in the music. Be aware that there is no need for constant movement that corresponds to every beat or note in the music.  It is also culturally acceptable for the dancer to pose or sustain and suspend a movement which also captures another level of performance expertise. 

If performed correctly to capture and mirror these special aspects of taqasim, then a dancer may perform with tarab–the soul of Arabic music that captures the cultural context and feeling.

In closing, the improvisational music in Arabic music known as taqasim offers dancers a unique opportunity to rediscover and explore improvisational dance as they respond as dancers on both an authentically emotional and musical-level. With a general knowledge of the structure of Arabic music, a dancer is better equipped to listen for embellishments and mirror them in her movements, thus giving her tools to add polish and musicality to her performance. 


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