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The Gulf has a rich musical heritage – it needs an audience

The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra during a concert held in the General Assembly Hall at United Nations headquarters Creative Commons/UN Women/Ryan Brown
The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra during a concert held in the General Assembly Hall at United Nations headquarters

When the Saudi National Orchestra made its New York debut in September, a centrepiece of the 80-member ensemble was a large green oil barrel. 

While serving as a wry reference to the US-Saudi special relationship, it also made a serviceable drum. For an evening, the pounding rhythms of majrour, samri and liwa brought the traditional sounds of Arabia to the city that never sleeps.

The success of the global tour, which also took in Paris and Mexico City, testifies to a growing appetite for the music of the Middle East.

From fusion and flamenco to modern film scores, Arabic strains can be heard running through the popular music of Europe and the Americas. Singers like Umm Kulthum and Fairouz have become staples of global café culture. 

Western music lovers may be less aware of a classical tradition that stretches back beyond 1871, when Verdi’s tragic opera Aida had its world premiere in Cairo.

Archaeology, Art, Painting Set design by Edouard Despléchin for Act2 sc2 of Aida by Verdi 1871 in CairoCreative Commons
The set design by Edouard Despléchin for Act 2 scene ii of Aida by Verdi 1871 in Cairo

As the pop stars and folk musicians of the region enjoy their heyday, contemporary Arab composers are also on the lookout for new listeners as well as patrons.

“I believe that the talent is there, and I believe the interest is there. The music simply needs to find its audience,” says Oliver Butterworth, co-founder of Al Farabi Concerto, which promotes the works of composers from the Middle East.

The donor-funded enterprise is named after the Islamic philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi, who explored the theory and aesthetics of music. His descriptions have helped musicologists trace the evolution of the modern European orchestra to its early Arab influences – the guitar and lute to the oud, the violin and rebec to the rabab, as well as almost every type of drum.

Traditional roots

Many young Arab musicians start out on these traditional instruments. Syrian-born Kareem Roustom, whose orchestral works have headlined at the BBC Proms and the Salzburg Festival, first learned to play the oud before becoming interested in contemporary classical music after moving to the US.

He describes his work as “rooted in both worlds” – a recent clarinet concerto Adrift on a Wine-Dark Sea references both Homer’s Odyssey and the plight of Syrian refugees. 

“When you emigrate there is a hole, something that can never be filled, and I keep returning to this theme,” says Roustom. “The point of departure is Damascus. But those creating art in the diaspora benefit from an infrastructure here, and even more so in Europe. In the Middle East it’s really hard now for young performing artists or people who want to write music.” 

Many composers lament the decline in government funding for the arts. When Cairo’s original opera house burned down in 1971, it took nearly two decades to build a replacement.

The new venue in Zamalek still hosts orchestras and music from abroad, but rarely showcases local classical works, says Egyptian-Austrian composer Amr Okba. “The economy is struggling. The little support that exists is for popular music that turns a profit.”

Concert, Crowd, Person Marcel Khalife in performance at Bozar Esma Alouet @alartemagazineCreative Commons/Esma Alouet @alartemagazine
Marcel Khalife has a unique technique on the oud

Classical music is expensive. The annual budget for a professional symphony orchestra may run to $50 million or more. Even so, wealthier Gulf states are beginning to invest in new venues and encourage the arts through events such as the Abu Dhabi Festival.

The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra in particular has gained widespread recognition, though most of its players and composers hail from abroad. Nurturing homegrown talent remains a challenge. 

“If a Gulf state held a biennial competition for Arab composers, with contestants from across the region, this would certainly be noticed internationally and be a major step forward,” says Butterworth, who notes how other countries such as Russia and China have invested heavily in classical music as a form of soft cultural power. 

Regional adaptation

Arab composers face certain artistic hurdles. Traditional takht (ensemble) players may not read notation at all, making it hard to integrate them into classical orchestras. Arabic melodic modes, known collectively as maqam, can also be hard to adapt for foreign ears. The renowned Lebanese oud player Marcel Khalife often records his music twice, once using Arab quarter tones and another time using western tonality.

“Contrary to received opinion, music is not a universal language,” says Roustom, whose mission nonetheless is to introduce listeners to different musical heritages – including their own. As well as exploring Syrian folk traditions, he has also been arranging Palestinian songs for learners of different abilities. “I wanted to have a body of music that young people can play and say ‘this is mine’,” he says.

Besides preserving these older traditions, the aspiration for many Arab composers is to craft a new vernacular that reflects life in the modern Middle East.

“The Gulf is building venues, it is hiring orchestras, and if you keep doing this for 20 or 30 years, maybe you can build something permanent,” says Okba. “If you start in the schools you can teach a generation of young people to develop a taste for music, for their culture. It is not just about making money, it is about building civilisation.”

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