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FROM OUR ARCHIVES — Kuwait’s musical heritage: The heartbeat of a nation

p7aThere is something about music. It has a kind of magic that can capture an emotion or moment in time. Traditional Kuwaiti music is enchanting in the sense that it can evoke the founding chapter of Kuwait's history and tie the native listener inexorably to his or her past. The drums in the sea songs of Kuwait begin to sound like crashing waves of the glorious but terrible sea and I begin to feel the tide pull the salt in my blood back home to the source of my forefather's successes and struggles, celebrations and suffering.
The magnetic power of Kuwait's traditional music exerts its pull not only on native Kuwaitis, but on anyone who hears it. Lisa Urkevich, PhD in ethnomusicology and professor at the American University of Kuwait can attest to that. Dr. Urkevich arrived in Kuwait almost six years ago to study the influence of Saudi desert traditions on Kuwait, but as she tells it, "A couple of my friends told me, 'You have just got to see the sea bands!' and that was it." She began her study of Kuwait's folkloric music tradition, in which music of the sea is paramount.

Art of the sea song
The sea was once the very life-blood of Kuwaiti society in particular and Gulf society in general. Al-Fan Al-Bahri, or the Art of the Sea Song, is an art in which Kuwait's roots are intertwined with Bahrain. Kuwait was once dependent entirely on the sea for its prosperity, either through trade or pearl diving expeditions, which often lasted months at a time. On the ocean, music served many purposes that were both psychological and emotional and practical as well. During working hours, the 'nokhetha,' or ship captain, would tell the professional musicians what to play so the men on board would know what to do. This was a more respectful alternative to giving them direct orders.

Dr Urkevich discovered that Kuwait's seafaring society is absolutely unique because it is composed of 20-30 percent of professional musicians, a statistic unheard of anywhere else. Dr Urkevich understood that statistic as an aspect of the Kuwaiti love for music and synchronized clapping (Sharbukka), where boys and young men spontaneously sync up the rhythm of their clapping. I always thought that kind of behavior was the most natural thing in the world because it was absorbed culturally and socially. For Kuwaitis, that is exactly the case. The link with our seafaring past now seems obvious and wonderful.

Al-Fan Al-Bahri is a very specific art. The two main types of Bahri music are work songs and celebratory songs. According to Dr Urkevich, Kuwait is the only country in the Gulf with three bands who are capable of singing the entire repertoire of sea songs: The Bin Hussein band, the Mayouf band, and the Amari band. Bu Saoud, manager of the Bin Hussein band, explains that there are two main categories of sea songs: work songs and celebratory or entertainment songs.

'Sangeen' and 'yamaal' are two types of work songs. They are both beautifully expressive and serve explicit purposes. Bu Saoud described sangeen as the most difficult of sea songs. "Sangeen is sung when the sailors are putting the ship out to sea. The physical effort required and the music of sangeen are both very challenging. Bahrain, Daman, and Qatar are all seafaring societies which share in Kuwait's bahri musical heritage, but sangeen only exists in Kuwait.

Al-Yamaal is a type of work song that also comes in a number of versions. Different kinds of yamaal are sung when the sailors row the vessel, trim the sail, or begin to pull the ship back towards the anchor dropped earlier in the day. Al-Yaamal gives the sailors a unified rhythm to synchronize their efforts, but it also gives them a moment of pause during which the men let out a kind of grunting exhalation which steadies their breathing and gives them a small break from their exhausting exertion. The sound of exhalation during Al-Dawwari, the type of yamaal used to pull a ship back to anchor, seems to travel through the years so that even the modern listener feels the weight of the ship in their muscles. The grunt also resembles that of a camel, tying the men to their desert origins even in the midst of their months-long sea journeys.

Al-Uns, which is the celebratory branch of sea music, comes from the Arabic word meaning 'happiness.' It also has a very revealing structure. Al-Uns takes places when the men arrive home safely from sea. They get together for an evening of singing, playing instruments and dancing to celebrate their successful journey.
Al-Uns begins with music played using desert instruments, then sea instruments and finally urban instruments, Dr Urkevich explained. Although there is a lot of variation and creativity in the music and how many songs are played, you cannot skip between the different categories of music. The simplest example is the oud as an urban instrument. An oud would not survive at sea because the humidity ruins the strings, and it would not survive in the desert because it is fragile and would break if packed on a camel's back for travel. The oud, therefore, is a symbol of city life.

War dance
In the traditional tribal societies throughout the Gulf, music and dancing was also used to exhibit military power and intimidate the enemy before battle. Men dance the 'Ardha, which comes from the Arabic word "ardh,' which means 'show.' This fits the event perfectly. Different cultures dance various forms of the 'Ardha. Saudi 'Ardha is danced with a sword in hand and sheath hanging from the dancer's belt, which is connected to the criss-crossing ammunition holsters on his chest.
In Kuwaiti 'Ardha, which is more typical of sea faring cultures, the dancer does not wear a belt or ammunition and usually dances with both the sword and sheath in hand, sometimes using the two to mimic a bow and arrow. 'Ardha is sometimes performed to honor an illustrious guest, who joins in on the display at the end.
The rhythm of 'Ardha, like that of other traditional Arabic music, may seem off to listeners who are used to Western music because the beat is asymmetrical while traditional Western music emphasizes the symmetrical. Dr Urkevich, picking up on comments made by bedouins about how traditional music matches the camel's unique gait, strapped a recorder to a camel's saddle and found the animal's rhythm did in fact correspond with the asymmetrical rhythm of Arabic music.

Baddawi, like 'Ardha, is a chance to show off and is very competitive, not only between larger families or tribes but between the individual dancers themselves. Baddawi dancing is an opportunity for a young woman to exhibit her availability and eligibility for marriage. Baddawi is a high energy dance and therefore, it requires health and stamina to perform it well. Furthermore, long lustrous hair is an important accessory in baddawi dancing because it also reflects the health and vitality of the dancer.
The footwork of baddawi is fairly uniform and echoes a graceful Arabian steed, but the hands tell a story of their own. When the hand is raised sideways above the head and moved in a slicing motion, it resembles the swords used in men's 'Ardha, true to the battle tradition. If a young woman's arm is raised and her hand's palm is opening and closing as if to say, "Come here," that is in fact the message. It is a way for a young woman to advertise that she is eligible for marriage. If a young woman seems to be using her raised hand to make a 'shooing' motion, that shows that she is not available for marriage proposals.

Sawt of Kuwait
Sawt, which literally means voice and was traditionally used in the Arab world to mean "song," is the name given to a Kuwaiti music genre developed in the 19th century. Sawt is the classical music of Kuwait and the music of the educated class. Dr Urkevich referred me to Ahmad Al-Salhi, founder of zeryab.com, to learn about the art of sawt. Al-Salhi's site is a treasure trove of all kinds of traditional Arabic music, and even reaches beyond the Gulf and Arab states to include Turkish music.
Sawt music is strophic, meaning the same rhythm is repeated, but different words are sung over it. "Sawt is unique in that it is based on the oud, while traditional Gulf music is generally based on percussion instruments. Sawt is also an individual art as there is only one singer with his oud. Another thing that characterizes sawt is Al-Merwas (a kind of drum) and the rhythm of the music," Al-Salhi elaborated. Sawt is also unique in that it always ends with a 'towsheeha,' a couplet that varies according to the rhythm of the source poem.

Although this may sound like a recipe for monotony, the simple consistency of the music joined with the poetry of the lyrics and the richness of its artists allows sawt to reach the core of human experience. There is something beautifully simple and elemental about this high art.
Originally published in the Kuwait Times on February 20, 2009.

By Sarah Alzouman

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This article was published on 15/08/2014