In our fifth article following our armchair travels, we move ever westwards across the globe to the Middle East. The ‘cradle of civilisation’ covers a vast geographical and cultural area and includes the countries of Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.
The Middle East forms a land bridge between the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe and migration, trade and religion (including Islam, Judaism and Christianity) have played a major role in the music of the area. However, as Islam is the religion of the majority, folk music differs less here than in other parts of the world and in fact, music is seen as the great unifier of traditions.
Middle Eastern music includes the Iranian traditions of Persia, the Hebrew music of the diaspora, Armenian, traditional Turkish and Assyrian music as well as Cypriot music, Egyptian Coptic ritual music and Andalusian (Muslim Spain) music.
In this article, we will try to gain a clearer glimpse of the music of the Middle East past and how music has evolved into the present day. We will then shine our spotlight on 3 pianists who were born in the Middle East and who are combining their heritage with their passion for music.
Music of The Middle East Past
In ancient Egypt (3,000 BCE) and Mesopotamia (3000 – 2,300 BCE), music was highly developed particularly to honour and celebrate the gods. Musical scenes are often depicted in Egyptian tombs and many musical instruments including harps, oboes and lutes have been excavated, preserved by the dry desert conditions.
Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, which can be traced back to the Islamic Golden Age of the 8th – 10th centuries drew heavily on the writings of poets such as Rumi. The Mevlevi Order also known as the Whirling Dervishes used Rumi’s teachings combined with whirling as a form of physical meditation and remembrance to God. Listening to the music while repetitively turning symbolised the orbiting of the solar system around the sun. By forgetting oneself and focusing on God the supplicant was able to abandon their ego and desires. Rumi declared "There are many ways leading to God; I have chosen that of music and dance."
The Bible provides us with the richest source of information on the music of ancient Israel. Music was used to celebrate events such as the victory over the Egyptians at the Red Sea, the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem and the return of battle heroes by dancing and drum-playing women. A class of highly trained musicians and priests called the Levites also provided temple worship. However, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, attitudes towards music changed and ceremonial temple worship was replaced by individual prayer.
In Kabbalist traditions, all musical ideas were interwoven with specific Kabbalist symbols that reflected creation. Kabbalists believed that the power of sacred music could influence the celestial realm and therefore that sacred music and prayer caused a resonance in the upper spheres.
The most popular of all the ancient musical instruments was (and still is) the oud. The oud is a pear-shaped lute with 4 strings. Iraqi legend tells us that it was invented by Lamech, the 6th grandson of Adam. The legend also gruesomely reveals that the oud was inspired after Lamech saw his son’s sun-bleached skull. Historically though, the oldest pictorial record of the oud dates back to the Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago.
The Arabic word ‘oud’ means ‘wood’ and it is thought to refer to the narrow strips on the back of the instrument. Medieval scholars lifted the oud to near-divine status and in the 9th century Muhammad al-Miwardi, an Iraqi jurist claimed that it could cure illness. Since then, the oud has kept a special place in Arabic culture and in Iraq, the oud said to ‘lie in the country’s soul’.
Music of The Middle East Present
Peace in the Middle East is rare: from World War I (1914- 1918) to the fall Ottoman Empire (1923) and the meddling of the British and French colonial empires; from the Six-Day War in 1967 to the 1979 revolution in Iran; from the wars in Iraq and Syria to the civil war in Libya; from the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian tensions to the Suni-Shi’a arguments… the list of tensions goes on.
However, despite all the conflicts, the 20th century has seen a revival in music and the interwar period between World War I and II is often viewed as a ‘golden age’ for Middle Eastern music. This has often been fueled by musicians fleeing war-torn areas and subversively turning to songs to comment on war. E.g. the Dardanelles or Gallipoli Campaign (1915-1916) gave rise to a powerfully sung lament for the lost lives of young soldiers, “some engaged, some married, smashed like broken jugs” in the bruising fight against the Allied invasion attempt.
Arabic music, which is an acquired taste for the western ear is mostly vocal and also considered to be a collective rather than an individual experience. While the radio and television now frequently broadcast music, the public performance is more valued as it combines both the atmosphere of the venue with the sound of the music.
However, some Muslims believe that it is haram (forbidden) to listen to music, whereas others believe that only singing is halal (permitted). Still other Muslims believe that playing any instrument is lawful as long as it is used for permitted types of music.
Jazz is a relatively new genre of music to the Middle East. It was only 2018 that Saudi Arabia launched its first-ever jazz festival where the crowd sang along to Lebanon’s Chady Nashef’s rendition of the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’. This was an unusual moment in the Islamic country after the religious police the previous year had condemned concerts that featured singing as harmful and corrupting.
Pianists from The Middle East
Self-taught pianists such as Daleen Khalid, Suliman Al-Mayouf and Eman Gusti are all up and coming musicians, but in this article, we will focus on Tarek Yamani, Anat Fort and Ayham Ahmad.
“The first time I heard jazz music, it changed my world”, confesses Lebanese jazz pianist Tarek Yamani. The teenager had been listening to ‘New York Minute’ by Herbie Hancock in a deserted record store in Beirut. “The rhythm just moved me from inside out!”
Yamani was born in 1980 in Beirut and started learning the piano as a child. As a teenager he then gave up the piano and played the electric guitar for 4 years, composing and experimenting with hard rock, heavy metal and rock. He then enrolled in the American University of Beirut's computer engineering programme, but quickly became dissatisfied with this direction. He left to again focus on music, playing with the rap band Aks'Ser. After discovering jazz in the record shop at the age of 19, he turned his focus to listening to the music of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Ahmad Jamal and Thelonious Monk – all while teaching himself the rules of jazz rhythm and harmony.
In 2005 Yamani won a 4-year scholarship to study music at the Prins Claus Conservatoire in Groningen, The Netherlands.
In 2010 he won the Theolonius Monk International Jazz Composers Competition with his composition ‘Sama'i Yamani’ and in 2012 he released his debut album called ‘Ashur’. The name references the ancient capital of Mesopotamia, showing Yamani’s interest in the history of the Middle East. The composition was a jazzy reinterpretation of the Sufi tradition and he replaced the traditional bass with the tuba. Tom Carter, the president of the Thelonious Monk Institute, wrote in the awards letter: "The judges felt your composition was exceptional in how it weaved Middle Eastern melodies and modalities into the framework of jazz composition, essentially showing how jazz truly is a globally inclusive art form. Your talents as a jazz composer will ensure the vitality of the next generation of jazz composers."
Since then Yamani has composed musical scores for films and in 2013 he launched Beirut Speaks Jazz, a unique platform to raise awareness of jazz in Lebanon. "Jazz represents, in my opinion, freedom and spiritual union," he says. "It is one of the most sophisticated and highest forms of musical expression because it is rooted in rhythm and improvisation. Jazz is elegant and rural, complex and simple, African and non-African, and it is like any real art, transcendent of all common human notions of unlikeness such as gender, race, religion and ethnicity."
Anat Fort is an Israeli pianist and composer, who was born in 1970. She began studying the piano at the age of 5 and as a child she regularly improvised on the piano. However, it was not until she was a teenager that she discovered jazz. This fascination led her to study improvisation on the jazz program at William Paterson University in New Jersey, USA and in 1999 she formed her 1st band and self-produced her debut CD called ‘Peel’.
Her playing brought her to the attention of the record label ECM and her album ‘The Long Story’, recorded in 2004 came out in 2007 to rave reviews worldwide. In 2010, her next album ‘And If’ was selected as one of the Ten Best Jazz CDs of the year by Slate magazine, which described it as “turbulent but spare, knife-edged but tender, brimming with melodic hooks that loop in sinuous shapes and a slightly klezmeric insouciance”.
She returned to Israel in 2009 and since then she has collaborated with vocalist-composer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb to produce a CD of lullabies in Hebrew called ‘Two More Dreams’, which came out in 2017. She teaches improvision and has also completed a PhD in composition at the Bar–Ilan University, Tel Aviv. In December 2018 she won the prestigious Prime Minister Jazz Composers Award in Israel and became the first woman ever to win the prize.
Ayhan (Aeham) Ahmad
Ayham (Aeham) Ahmad is known as The Pianist of Yarmouk. He was born in 1988 in Damascus, Syria and at the age of 5 his father taught him to play the piano. At the age of 23, he graduated from the Music Conservatory in Damascus and Homs, but due to a shrapnel injury in his right hand, he was unable to reach the status of a concert pianist.
For 3 years he risked his life by playing the piano in the streets of Yarmouk to bring a little hope and joy to the people living there. The civil war in Syria had reached the bustling city of Yarmouk in 2013 and the refugee camp that subsequently sprang up there was caught in the fighting between government forces, rebels and militants. About 200 people died from malnutrition and lack of medicine. He had no money to buy milk for his baby and he only weighed 45kg (99 pounds).
It was in the spring of 2015, due to an imposed ban on music, that the Islamists burned his piano in front of his eyes on his birthday and he stated, ‘the piano was my friend, it is as if they killed my friend.’ From then his life was threatened and he was forced to flee Syria without his wife and 2 sons as it was too dangerous for them to accompany him.
His flight led Ahmad thousands of kilometres along the migrant route, from Syria via Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Croatia and Austria, and in September 2015 he finally reached Munich, Germany. He was allocated to the Hessian capital Wiesbaden.
Since then he has performed in countless concerts across Germany and audiences have been wowed by his versatility from Beethoven to Bach and from original compositions to traditional songs. In Munich, he performed at the concert ‘Stars Say Thank You’ for refugee helpers and in Cologne during a demonstration against sexual violence. In December 2015 he was awarded the 1st International Beethoven Prize for Human Rights.
When asked where he finds the strength to continue despite all that has happened to him, he replied, “I think that the answer lies in my piano. It's my heart, my life."
And so in our armchair travels of The Middle East, we have examined the music of the past and seen how the conflicts of the present day have impacted the music of the present and even how war has shaped the lives of the musicians in the region. However, despite the devastation, pianists still bring hope and unity to people, and music has the ability to reach across the divide that separates us from one another.