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Middle Eastern Dance & Music Information
Persian (Iranian) Dance & Music  |  Afghan Dance & Music  |
Central Asian Dance & Music  |  Caucasus Dance & Music  |
Dance East & West  |  Dance, Music & Culture Bibliography

       Please out of respect for traditional dance and the Arab people, we ask that these facts about dance be for information only and not to be misrepresented by night club or show-off dancing but only to be further studied to be possibly eventually performed by very serious folk and ethnic dancers in a respectful egoless manner. No part of this copyrighted material which is drawn from publications by Eastern Arts may be used in any way without written permission from Eastern Arts, Thank you.


MAQAM - Arabic modal system
DABKI - line or group dance of the Arab world
OUD - Arab lute
DARBAKKA - ceramic or metal hand drum
NAY - end blown flute
DEF - skin covered frame tambourine with cymbals
TAQSIM - non-rhythm improvisation
MAWAL - non-rhythm introduction
KAFFIYA - Arab headcloth worn by men
QAL - cord used to secure kaffiya
GALABIA - gown worn by men
BEDOUIN - nomads of the Arab world
BALADIYYI - dance of village folk

       The Arab world encompasses many political boundaries today, and the one thing they all have in common is Islam. Since the Moslem prophet, Mohammad, introduced Islam in 632 A.D., Arab influence has been felt throughout the East. Islam had traveled as far East as Indonesia and West to Spain and even the Balkans. Much pre-Islamic art in the Arab world depicts dancers and musicians of various periods. From these pieces of art we learn about the instrumentation and the dress of various periods and peoples and witness instruments still seen today and ancient variants on the dress.
       Dabki, is the Arabic word meaning "tread" or "stamp", and is debka as used by Israelis. This word typifies the style of this dance, since all variations include some type of stamping or treading. Some say this suggests the closeness of the Arab people with the earth. With the current western influence in Arab music and dance, the traditional dance style of this culture is in grave danger of disappearing, since social circumstances change and technological advances reach the Arab villages and the innocent people become "Weststruck", unintentionally abandoning their old traditions. The dabki remains however, steadfastly in tradition. The dabki danced in Arab villages is a traditional folkdance. With an unknown origin and no composer to credit, the dance is a functional dance, in that it serves the whole community as an integral part of it's life, and it is part of the behavioral environment absorbed by every member of the community from childhood. The dabki characterized festive ceremonies and occasions which concern the whole population. In researching the purpose of the dance as customary, or about aspects of the dance, most informants can only say that, "That is how it is." The manifest function and the latent function of the folk dance is not often realized.
       It is said that many Israeli dances are based on the Arab dabki which can be observed in some of the older dances. However, Israeli folkdance has taken on a needed personality of it's own. Since different ethnic groups in the new state of Israel brought different styles from the Diaspora, there had previously been no specific Israeli style. The effort has been made to develop an integrated Israeli style from various areas; Yemenite, Kurdish, Russian, Polish and of course the style found in the Arab population in the area. Even though a special institute has been formed to encourage the composition and propagation of Israeli folkdances, they nevertheless lack the traditional roots of many folkdances which represent a specific ethnic community. Since immigrants are still arriving in the country who have no knowledge of the "folkdance", we see it changing into a performance art without the deep rooted motivation of other folkdances.
       Regarding Arab folk dance, it is not customary in Moslem villages for men and women to dance together, according to Noa Eshkol, noted dance researcher, only on special occasions would a female relative join the men dancing yet they would not touch one another. He goes onto explain that most all of the dances are in the form of line dances where dancers hold hands with their neighbors. the legs are never fully extended at the knees, which is characteristic of the Arab body image and is in complete contrast to the Israeli style where the leg is fully straightened as an essential feature, probably reflecting the influence of the western ballet, which is admittedly a part of Israeli dance today.
       The Arab dabki dances are sometimes done to melodies which have words and are frequently sung in praise of the beloved or of longing for the absent loved one, a practice very common in Persian song texts and in other areas East. This can be seen from the translations of some of the titles of the dances. Many of the dances are done in the formation of a circle or a variant circular path. The dances are performed at weddings, circumcisions and other social events.
       One dance known as Baladiyyi, the name derived from the word village or township, is done often by women only but is done by men in many areas also. Another dance called Shamaliyyi, is the name from the Arabic word for the North Wind. In the Arab Peninsula this is cool and refreshing, in contrast to the searing heat of the East Wind, and by poetic tradition it brings tidings from the absent loved one. Another Arab folkdance name, Aarif at-tul, which means "the tall one", refers to the fair beloved as in the accepted custom of usage of the masculine gender in this reference and may carry a similar symbolism to the "cypress" in Persian poetry, which is tall and straight aiming toward the beloved. Another dance studied at Jisr az-Zarqa, a Moslem village, is a ceremonial dance which is accompanied by two professional singers and the male dancer who sings a chorus. The dancers also clap hands, are formed in a straight line in front of a bridegroom who is seated on horseback with a bouquet of red roses in one hand and a gaily decorated umbrella in the other. The women dance dispersed freely in the space before the men. The men's dancing included two variations and the women's three variations.
       Common clothing for men include a long shirt, kemis, or gown called galabia. In many areas the men wear headcloths known as kaffiya, usually of red and white or black and white, sometimes with short cotton fringe, and secured with a black circular braid called qal. Women's dresses vary from area to area and are of course, modernized in the cities, but are often fashioned after the traditional dress still seen by the Bedouins. The basic design is a straight chemise fashion, most often decorated with colorful, elaborate embroidery on the bodice and even on the seams and hems. Clothing is sometimes adorned with gold jewelry. The nomadic Bedouins have a variety of styles in the embroidery and in the jewelry since they are influenced so much by the areas in which they travel. Tattooing is very common among the nomadic women, especially on face and hands and often has a religious or superstitious significance, even though Islam does not necessarily condone the practice.
       A particular style of women's dance in Saudi Arabia, which is done both among the elite and the Bedouin, is performed at women's parties preceding wedding ceremonies. These parties go on for several days before the ceremony and include many, sometimes hundreds of women from the extended family. The parties involve women musicians and poets singing about different topics, sometimes created right there on the spot. the guests usually get acquainted with family members, gossip and relate news while partying. The type of dancing done involves simple traveling steps, often to the quick pieces of music. Women dance in pairs often mirroring each other with movements of the shoulder and chest done in a subtle vertical drop or vibration. Hip movements are rarely seen. They lift their long full dresses slightly and dance demurely back and forth across the dance area. A vibration known as kahraba, literally meaning electricity, is very often used with the basic walking steps. This is done to produce a quick but subtle vibration of the dress. It has been called a cross between a shudder and a shiver, so very minute, and is done vertically. As the rhythm changes the women may start to toss their hair with a variety of head tosses. The most striking variation is a rapid head toss in which the hair is tossed in a figure eight pattern,m in double time to the rhythm. Sometimes the dancers fall to their knees for this head toss movement. Traditionally the right index finger is held at the right side of the nose and sometimes at the right side of the face. There is much room for individual style, some are quite gentle while others are more fierce in their style, though all do the same basic movements. The same dance is seen at women's parties whether in the cities or by the nomads, with the city women displaying a more tamed version. In some parts of North Africa the women's dances are most often are done in celebration of an event, usually pre-nuptial parties.
       The one thing which is sure is that the women's solo act that has been pawned off as 'Middle Eastern' dance in America is merely Hollywood / Vegas sexually oriented sensationalism that has no relation to anything the majority of Arabs would ever do or allow to be associated with the name 'Middle East,' especially after the recent resurgance of Islamic values.


       Arab music has been called a dialect of Persian music, heavier than it's Persian counterpart. The Arabs claim their music is based on a mixture of millennia old substratum forms from pre-Islamic Hijaz, Yemen and Mesopotamia added to Bedouin pastoral and tribal styles. Pre-Islamic Arabs, as well as other Semitic and Hamitic peoples, shared a similar form of music with common characteristics discernible today. Many concepts were derived from the cultures of Babylon, Assyria and Egypt, where choral and instrumental ensembles were part of religious worship. Early pre-Islamic music was performed mainly by a female vocalist and caravan songs were the rule among Bedouins. After the Islamic conquests, various outside cultural influences made themselves felt, among them Syrian and of course Persian. Although the Arabs had almost entirely adopted the Persian music system even before Islam, Persian influence made itself felt in the Arab world.
       After the Arab conquest, Persian musicians took their music to Arab cities where they were welcomed by people who denounced the Bedouin way of life and sought refinement. Baghdad was the center of good taste during the Abbasid period. Due to the Arab respect and love for poetry, vocal music seemed to dominate with verses set to music, known as aswat, accompanied by a single instrument such as oud, deff, tabl or qadib.
       During the Syrian Umayyad caliphate, 661-750, songs were composed by artists of various nationalities. Yunis al Katib, in 765 authored two works on music, Kitab fil Afhani, (Book about songs), and Kitab al Naghm, which was one of the first such works on Arab music. In these works, only the names of the modes and rhythms were given and there was no musical notation. Originally, in accordance with the idea that every verse should contain a complete thought, each bait, or verse, was sung to the same short melodic pattern, although the melody was never repeated exactly, but improvised and embroidered by the artist.
       In 750, the center of the Islamic culture shifted from Syria to Baghdad, and then later became the headquarters for the Golden Age of Islam during which the empire stretched from the Atlantic to the river Oxus. The proximity of Baghdad to Persia, as well as extensive Persian influence in Iraq even before Islam, partly accounts for the Iranian characteristics noticeable in Iraqi music. At this time of the Abbasid caliphate, high sums were spent on music and musicians. ON one occasion, a virtuoso called Ibrahim al Maurili received a gift of 150,000 pieces of gold - which was more than a respectable sum for a musician of any era.
       The Abbasids obtained the caliphate with the help of Persians and Khorasanis, who thus won choice positions in the new government. The caliph's military power was augmented by an influx of Turkomans who brought in their musical styles as well. It wasn't long before Khorasani singing girls who were also tambur players, became popular in courts and homes, and as a result the oud took second place to the tambur for a time. When the Turkoman Seljuk sultans ruled Baghdad, 1118-1194, they introduced two new instruments, the anqa, a long-necked tambur, and a new type of harp known as the salbaq. Instrumental music became very popular, more than ever before.
       The scale fixed by 13th century scholar, Safiy-yod-din, in use since the 8th century by the Moslem world, is the scale on the fingerboard of the tambur of Khorasan. The scale of the tambur of Baghdad, the original scale of the Arabs of earlier times, is completely different from the Iranian scale that the Arabs adopted after Islam. Since Safiy-yod-din the pure scale of 17 degrees in the octave and two octaves has been admitted by all musicologues in the Moslem world.
       Under Mongol rule, many Persian officials were given important posts and their musical preference helped spread Persian influence on music. But since Mongol rulers preferred the Eastern sound of the Kirghiz steppes, a sort of synthesis between Perso-Arab and Mongol styles occurred. Of course, the Mongol style of the steppes is just a dialect of the Indo-Iranian musical language. Later when Timurlang (Tamurlane) took Baghdad, he sent the musician Adb al Qadir, to his capital Samarkand. Qadir fled back to Baghdad, Timur again sacked the city and in his wrath killed everyone but Qadir. The Tartars followed the Mongol pattern of allowing Persians to administer the musical and literary affairs of the realm.
       The Arab modes are codified in the 12 primary modes or maqamat, and 6 submodes, awazat. The oud is one of the most prominent instruments in Arab music. It is a relative of the Persian barbat, with a long neck and a large body. Another common instrument in Arab music is the qanun, a plucked zither which is said to have been invented by Farabi, inspired by the Persian santur. The Arab qanun spread all over the Arab world, Turkey and from there to parts of Europe. Darbakka or darbukka, is a pottery or metallic drum with a head of either snake, fish or goat skin. It is held vertically between the knees, or horizontally on the lap. The bottom is open, and the head is struck by the hands and fingers in the center or near the rim to achieve different sounds. The deff is a round frame drum played with the fingers. The ney, as in Turkey, is a long cane flute which is played by blowing across the open end to derive a tone that approaches the sound of the human voice.
       See Dance East & West for further information about this subject.

                                                              ARAB DABKE DANCE

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