Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Arabic Percussion

Last Monday two guests artists, Met’hat Mamdua and Khaled Abu Higazzi came to my Arabic music theory class class to give a lecture on Arabic percussive instruments. Mr. Met’hat is a very accomplished tabla player, who plays for Arabic singers all around Egypt - including Amr Diab! He also is involved in a Turkish band that recently played at the Sakia el Sawy this month. Mr. Khaled, who gave most of the lecture, specializes in the riqq and also performs regularly with ensembles and Arabic singers. After the lecture, which is summarized below, both musicians accompanied the class for rehearsal for our concert next Thursday.

Khaled started off the lecture by introducing the main percussive instruments of Arabic music. There are three main instruments, the tabla, the duff, and the riqq. The tabla is a goblet shaped hand drum that can come in up to four different sizes. The largest size is called a dahola, and the smallest is played by acclaimed percussionist Raquy Danziger. The standard Egyptian tabla weighs about six to seven kilos. The drum head, or the ra’ima as it is referred to, used to be made of fish skin, but now is made from synthetic materials. The reason for this change was the constant hassle of retuning the fish skin head as the material would stretch. Drummers would have to heat up their drums on heating pads to make sure the drum head would not stretch to be out of tune. Now, with the synthetic head, drummers do not have to have that hassle or worry about temperature change as much as in the past.

Players lay the tabla on their lap with the head of the drum facing in towards the opposite knee. The doum, or the strong beat, is normally played with the right hand giving an even base tone. The tak, or the weak beat, can be played by both the left or the right hand and in many different styles that include the normal tak sound on the very edge of the drum, or within rolls, pops, and snaps. The third type of sound is ‘es’. Es is the filling of silence between the doums and teks, or the heartbeat of a darb (darb is Arabic for rhythm).

The next instrument Khaled introduced was the riqq. The riqq, or the Arabic tambourine as it is sometimes called, is a small frame drum played upright with two hands. The doum and tek are opposite of the tabla as the doum is played on the edge of the drum frame, and the tek is caught in the middle of the drum. The es is mostly emphasized by the galagel, the five groups of four sets of cymbals set around the frame of the riqq. Like the tabla, the riqq used to have a ra\ima made of fish skin, but now it is synthetic. Another interesting feature of the riqq is that its frame is tunable. Players may tune a riqq higher or lower for different sounds throughout a piece.

The third instrument introduced was the duff. The duff is a large frame drum that keeps the heart beat of a darb. Duff players do not play ‘es’, rather they play the doums and teks of a darb whilst the tabla and riqq players elaborate. The duff is mostly recognized with the zeffa, a wedding procession in which a distinct darb is played for the bride and groom as they walk together through family and friends being presented as newly weds. A cousin to the duff, the maz’har is a duff with cymbals. The maz’har is slightly smaller than the duff, but both are considerably bigger than the riqq.

Arabic percussive sections change according to the type of ensemble. The two most popular ensembles are the takht and the firqa. A takht is a small chamber ensemble that consists of a qanoon (similar to a zither), kamanga (violin), ney (wind instrument), oud (the grandfather to the lute), and percussion instrument, most often the riqq. In these ensembles and smaller firqas the riqq is the lead percussion. When in larger ensembles, such as a firqa, the tabla becomes the lead instrument for the percussion section. In addition to this, the riqq is usually featured in pieces with longer darbs, while tablas are mainly used for shorter darbs and solos.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pics of Mohamed Ali Mosque in the Citadel

Just an afternoon at the citadel, after we went to al-Azhar park and saw an amazing Sufi show...which I may post on youtube at some point.

Photos from Ibn Tulun Mosque

Photos from Ibn Tulun Mosque in Said el Zayeb, a section of Cairo. It was a beautiful mosque and we had an amazing view from the minaret.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Trip to Dubai!

This past weekend I had an amazing eye popping trip to Dubai, aka the adult Disney land of the Middle East.

Yes, I have a ton of stories not shared yet on this blog, but I highly doubt I will get to them all. I will try to post my pics of my trip to the mosque Ibn Tulun and Islamic Cairo as soon as they can load.

For now, here's Dubai!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Only in Cairo...

I love Cairo, but Cairo and I have a love hate relationship. Some days it is so hard as an American to function in this city….every little errand takes days to take care of. No one here makes to do lists – its too daunting to see on paper and that list will never be completed. My current battle is the kitchen in my new apartment. There is a pipe that’s broken inside the walls and I know this because we’ve had floods not only from under the sink but also under the stove. Explaining this concept to my bowab (the door man and maintenance man in Egyptian apartment buildings) and to the plumber was absolutely impossible. They’ve ‘fixed’ the problem about 4 times now, each taking days because timing and their willingness to see their job didn’t fix the problem.

But with headaches such as this, and others such as being stuck in an elevator or having your taxi’s car break down, there are some moments in Cairo that are truly magical. Tonight for instance, my friends and I went to the café at the Om Kuthoum hotel to some shisha and hang out. We got to the café at around 2:30 in the morning after a party we attended. We’re sitting down and chatting when we notice a group of people sit down to the left of us. There is an older man with the group who is blind, and some other very distinguished looking people with him, notably a woman who sits to his left. This man began to sing in an improvisational style that hushed the entire outdoor café. It was as if everyone’s hearts drifted to this man’s singing. The waiters were complete engaged in this man’s voice, and no one could do anything for a couple of minutes. The most beautiful thing about it was as he began to fade off from his song, the woman to his left picked up the improvisation. Her voice was just as beautiful. I’ve heard about this kind of passing of poetry, but to see it at an outdoor café with such talented voices was just amazing. It was a moment that made me remember the charm of Cairo and the beauty of the Arabic language.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A journey into the Samaii Rhythm

On Friday, October 31st, I attended a concert at the Culture Wheel in Zamalek. The featured band was a group of musicians originally from Alexandria called the Samaii band. This concert was a showcase of songs all played in the darb Samaii, which is a 10/8 rhythm used in Middle Eastern music. The Samaii rhythm is most recognizable in the West by the Lebanese song Lamma Bada Yatathana. The concert lasted for only one and a half hours, and there were a total of 17 songs performed, with only one or two featuring a different rhythm. Below I will try to recount the songs I heard with the help of the program notes. The entire concert was in Arabic, as well as the program, so translations may not be correct. The band was quick to start its set right at 8 PM…a rarity that you see in Egypt!

The band itself consisted of five musicians. They sat in a semi circle with the main singer sitting in the middle of the musicians. To the far left of the stage was the violinist, whose name was not included in the program list. Next to him was one of two oud players, Abdu el-Qadr el-Amir. After Mr. el-Amir, the main vocalist, Fajr el-Jazawy was seated in the middle. The next musician and the second oud player named Hassan Aly was seated next to Ms. El-Jazawy, and finally on the far right of the stage was the riq player and only percussion for the ensemble, Daha el-Jazawy, Fajr’s sister.

The program notes for the concert was a huge help to my Western ear to decupher each song. It contained the name of each song, the maqams for each, the darb (if it was different form the Samaii), and the composers and lyrists for each. The songs were labeled into four different categories. The first was “musiqi” which referred to a piece that had no vocals. The second was a “mushaa” which, from what I could find, is a more poetic song. The literal translation from my Arabic dictionary was “a post-Classical Arab poem made of stanzas”. For these songs, the chorus, verse, and instrument solos were much more apparent than the non-vocal pieces. The next category was simply songs, no exact label, just the title of the song. I was not familiar with any of these songs, but they seemed to be more modern. The last category was the arrangement, which is called “tanweyat”. There were two of these pieces throughout the night. Again, I could not decipher the different pieces from each because I was not familiar with the songs, but it was noticeable through the number of choruses and verses.

The first piece played for the evening was simply entitled “Samaii Musiqi” and featured no vocals. I think this was the equivalent to a longa in that it set the tone for the rest of the evening’s songs. The piece was played in Hijaz maqam and lasted only a couple of minutes and featured stops between darbs to accent the Samaii rhythm. The second piece was Lamma Bada Yatathana. I was personally very excited because I recognized this piece, the one of only two that I recognized throughout the night. The maqam for Lamma Bada was Nahawand and the Samaii Thaqil rhythm was featured in this piece. I’ve heard many versions of Lama Bada, and this one was very classical. The singer had a very sweet voice, but I couldn’t help but compare her voice to Fairuz. The song was said to originate in southern Spain under Moorish rule, so I’ve heard Spanish versions as well as Arabic versions.

The next piece in the program was called Beyyah el-Huy which was one of the only songs of the night that featured a different darb, malfouf. The darb changed into Samaii for the chorus and changed back to malfouf for the “kubles” of the song. The fifth song also featured a maqsoum rhythm, to be honest the rhythm changes shone through each of the songs because the music changed so much. The next couple of songs were very similar to each other to my untrained ear. It was hard to decipher especially because the darb was the same. The last song of the first portion of the night was another instrumental song. This piece featured improvisations from each of the musicians minus the vocalist. I don’t think these were true taqsims in that there seemed to be more of a play between the musicians and each had solos for very short periods of time. Each musician was able to show off their instrument, and the audience was appreciative of each solo with clapping and even some whistling.

While the number of songs in the second set was 8 instead of 9, the length of the second set was much shorter. The first piece was a song about Alexandria, the vocalist explained a little about the song before they played it, the only interaction the band had with the audience besides playing. The second song, Saalama ya Salaama was the second song of the night that I recognized. This must have been the classical version of the song because it took me until the chorus to realize that I knew the song. The tempo was much slower than the pop rendition that I am familiar with. The sixth song of the set, Ya Salaah el Zain got a great response from the crowd. I even heard a zaghareet! The closing number of the evening was a piece by Farid el Atrache. This again got the crowd excited, partially I think because it was a song the crowd recognized. After the last song was through, the ensemble stood, bowed, and left the stage. It was a quiet ending to a quiet evening that explored the Samaii rhythm through classical pieces, poetic songs, folkloric melodies, and more modern pieces.