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Emotion Inspired by Song

Interpreting Arabic Orchestral Music


by Alia Thabit
posted February 15, 2013

When we talk about Arabic orchestral music, we’re talking about songs that are often known as tarab songs, Um Kalthoum, Farid al Atrach, Mohammed abdel Wahab, and so on. This is music from the classical genre that has crossed over into dance, though not originally written as dance music. While some of it is instrumental, much of it has lyrics. The lyrics are often exquisite poetry, and thus difficult to translate, as Arabic is a particularly rich and suggestive language. There are, however, several sites that have kindly developed archives of lyrics. [See Resources below]

Because of the poetic nature of the lyrics, these songs are emotionally complex, and this influences the interpretation of the song. They are also musically complex, with multiple parts. They are a far cry from the verse – chorus – taqsim structure of the repertoire associated with Vintage Orientale or folkloric music such as baladi or Sai’idi. They are also different from, though similar to, the Oriental dance genre of the Mergence (pronounced merjensee), which is a dancer’s emergence or entrance music, as a Mergence has been written for dance yet also includes many different moods and rhythms.

1. Complex Structure

Tarab songs typically have multiple sections, many more than we, as dancers, usually hear. Coincidentally, there are often dance gems in those other sections. Most of what we think of as Um Kalthoum songs, for example, are the overtures to songs that last forty-five minutes or more. It is well worth while to start collecting original full-length versions of these songs and getting a feel for them in their natural form. The stops and changes are often striking, and there are musical themes that reappear and morph over the course of the song.

These songs are best danced after careful listening, to have a sense of the structure as a whole. The first time I ever heard Alf Leila wa Leila, I was performing to it. The same goes for Darit il Ayyam.

….and here is the proof (above)

Having heard the songs even once or twice would have made it a lot easier, because they are often asymmetrical in form, have dramatic, musically complex structure and accents, sudden shifts and stops, and abrupt changes in mood and rhythm. In this way, they resemble the Mergence, but because they are connected to their lyrics, they take on another layer of emotional energy.

2. Emotional Content

Safaa Farid, an accomplished singer and orchestra leader in Cairo, encourages dancers to know the meaning of the words when they dance to tarab songs. And he means each word, so you always know what the singer is saying, even if you are dancing to an instrumental version of the song. This grounds you in the emotional experience the song provides, whether that is the pain of unrequited love, a nostalgic memory of a lover or a time long past, or a looking forward to future possibility.

The emotional content is not dependent only upon the lyrics; the music itself is fraught with emotional timbres. These elements influence the dancer’s choice of persona. In everyday life, our emotional state colors our every move and facial expression. We bring that quality into the dance, so that the dance becomes infused with a body line and facial expression that resonates with the content of the song. (And there is a big difference between expressing the emotional content of a sad song and moping around on stage because our puppy ran away. Once we get on stage, we must be completely present for the audience.)

3. Orchestral Flourishes

Heterophony is the process by which each musician ornaments the melody line. While it varies from orchestra to orchestra, in general, the freedom of the artist to embroider the music is alive and well. Abdel Wahab’s band had to play the music the way he wrote it. Um Kalthum’s orchestra, however, were never given written scores. Her musicians learned the songs by heart, the better to bring their hearts and souls to their interpretations. Plus there are many, many moments of small taqasim from the various instruments, and the interaction between the singer and the lead instrument (often the kanoun, which is thought to best approximate the human voice, or the violin). We also have the tradition of lazima, small flourishes, often a high-pitched filip played at the ends of lines to ornament the space before the beginning of the next line. These are lovely for accents, gaze and directional changes.

4. Dancing

So, that’s a lot of stuff. How do you dance to all that? Well, here are three strategies. All work with choreography or improvisation.

  • Literal (Form): This method’s goal is to articulate every note and flourish of the music. It is prioritizes musical complexity and form, including moves, and lots of them, over emotional content. Though there may be some reference to the song’s lyrics, it is usually highly stylized. Dancers who favor this have whiz-bang technique, and they want to show it off. It is a tour de force when well done, and suitable to many people’s style.
  • Literal (Content): This focuses on the meaning of the song. It emphasizes the lyrics and acts them out, including mime and specific references. For example, if the song mentions tears, the dancer may draw a finger down from the eye, showing the tear track. This method prioritizes emotional content over musical complexity, but often incorporates both. When done with genuine emotion, it can be quite moving.
  • Impressionist: This method acknowledges both musical and emotional complexity, but emphasizes the dancer’s artistic expression over literal representation. The dancer may articulate only some of the musical and lyric content, choosing to fully articulate some moments and surf over others, or may forgo the literal meaning of the lyrics to articulate the emotional timbres of the music itself.

Everyone has their own style, and can adapt the above methods to suit themselves. What’s most important is the feeling. Listen to lots of music, and let yourself be moved. Even if you don’t know the words, you can still access the feelings. When you get on stage, express these feelings honestly to the audience. They will love you for it.

Here are some songs you might enjoy:

Alf Leila wa Leila
this is the whole thing, so you can see what I mean about the overture)


Enta Omri


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  1. Anthea Kawakib

    Feb 15, 2013 - 10:02:06

    Alia, great article; I never realized that about the difference in the bands (#3); makes sense! Very interesting –

  2. Zumarrad

    Feb 15, 2013 - 04:02:15

    Love this! And it’s so true about those lurking dance gems hiding in the full-length versions. If only more of them were revealed in dancer-friendly versions! (Or we all had access to amazing accomplished bands who would happily play them for us!)

  3. Williams

    May 16, 2013 - 03:05:57

    Great post! We will be linking to this great post on our site.

    Keep up the good writing.

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