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  • Jim Bessman

Authors Johnny Farraj and Sami Abu Shumays go deep 'Inside Arabic Music'

Johnny Farraj, left, and Sami Abu Shumays

For adventurous world music explorers, Arabic music can be a daunting challenge—even among its practitioners. Two New York-based musicians, Johnny Farraj and Sami Abu Shumays, have now tackled the immense and complex subject with Inside Arabic Music: Arabic Maqam Performance and Theory in the 20th Century, a 444-page tome from Oxford University Press that delves deeply into both the theoretical and practical aspects of a genre that spans centuries, not to mention the 22 Arabic-speaking countries that make up the Arab World—not to mention, too, the many bordering countries that have also impacted the music.

But no matter where it originates, Arabic music has a distinct sound and appeal, even for those who are not Arab, let alone understand Arabic. Much of it has to do with its unique melody, instrumentation, maqam scale system, and vocal styling--all of which, when combined, produce an ecstatic response among listeners. Watch any YouTube concert footage of Egypt’s great diva Umm Kulthum to get an idea of the mesmerizing power of Arabic music in performance.

A vintage performance by the immortal Umm Kulthum

“It’s really two books in one,” says Farraj, who conceived Inside Arab Music 10 years ago and brought his friend Shumays aboard halfway into it.

“We’re two different people with two different writing styles and audiences, and fought it out until we reached a compromise: He dummied himself down a little, and I raised myself to meet him and create something that would be accessible while providing a new approach to music theory as it relates to Arabic music.”

Indeed, the co-authors are perfect complements.

Lebanon-born to Palestinian parents, Farraj plays the riqq tambourine—typically the lead percussion instrument in the more classical Arabic music genres—as well as the oud fretless lute that is often the central lead instrument. A software engineer, he created the MaqamWorld online resource that is the leading Internet reference regarding Arabic music theory and is dedicated to teaching the Arabic maqam melodic modal scale tradition that is the foundation of traditional Arabic music.

Palestinian-American violinist/composer Shumays, also a music scholar and arts administrator, is the founder of the Arabic music/dance ensemble Zikrayat, and conceived the pedagogical website MaqamLessons.

“Johnny started his website in the early 2000s and I started mine in the mid-2000s,” says Shumays. “I started to present an approach to music theory that is closer to the way that music is practiced: I studied Western music theory in college and had long felt that it doesn’t really capture the performance of music very well.”

Shumays felt disillusioned that traditional approaches to music theory are mathematical, and while apparently “consistent internally,” they don’t necessarily reflect what’s happening in practice.

“So I developed a case for why music theory needs to be approached differently,” he says, “and we agreed that it should be reflective of practice: When a theorist says something that is contradicted by what you hear in performance, what you hear in performance is the truth.”

As Farraj notes, their approach to music theory “goes against academia in America, where everything that was previously written is holy. What is wrong is the attempt to formulate rules about the way music is supposed to go: We and a lot of musicians agree that it’s just vocabulary, that learning music is a lot like learning a language. You don’t need elaborate theories, just melodic phrases—the vocabulary of oral tradition.”

Arabic music, Farraj explains, has long been passed down through oral tradition.

“There’s a lot of written tradition in Arabic music, but for thousands of years it’s been transmitted orally. Then in the 20th century, there was a hybrid approach of using Western music notation more and more as well as recording, and pedagogy started to shift to notation. There was a famous conference in Cairo in 1932—the first world conference on Arabic music—and Western musicologists and composers came—Bela Bartok among them—along with a lot of luminaries from the Arabic world. The goal was to standardize the scales and create what appeared to be a rational and unified description of the scales, but the reality is that the intonation varies like a language dialect or accent.”

Farraj illustrates by differentiating between the 12-tone Western music scale, in which a half tone (or semitone) is the smallest musical unit (or interval) between two adjacent notes on the scale, and the 24-tone Arabic scale, in which a quarter tone is the smallest unit. The 24-tone Arabic scale better represents the microtonal (intervals smaller than half tone) nature characteristic of Arabic and other non-Western musics such as Indian raga.

“For instance, using dialect as an analogy, quarter tone notes are actually higher in Syria than in Egypt. It’s like going to Latin America and saying that every country should all speak the same way: They never will—and why would they?”

This, Shumays interjects, is “the fallacy that music scales are determined by certain mathematical relationships—and it’s a major fallacy that underpins Western and Arabic music theory: When you observe this variation of slightly different intonation in Arab countries, it throws the whole idea of mathematically determined scales out the door.”

Hence, the authors emphasize the linguistic concept of “the arbitrariness of the sign” as it relates to Arabic music scales. Again analogizing, Farraj states that the cup of coffee on the counter possesses no determined relationship to the words representing it. Likewise, Arabic music scales feature many intervals that cannot be accurately described or learned using Western music theory; rather, individual practitioners learn them via inherited tradition.

“The point is, determination of scales is cultural: No rigid mathematical law of music theory says that a note has to be in a specific position,” says Shumays, who further distinguishes Arabic music by noting that it is not harmonic.

“Our music is based in melody without harmony--and involves only limited use of harmony. So there’s no requirement for consonant chords since there are few chords--and therefore no limitation from trying to produce consonant harmony. There’s a lot more freedom and flexibility to create melodic intervals that are not harmonic.”

By following one specific melodic line, notes Farraj, both player and listener are not “distracted by harmony and counterpoint.”

“There’s a certain melodic intensity and richness that is ornamented in different expressive ways,” he adds, and in fact, there’s an entire chapter in Inside Arabic Music devoted to such ornamentation. “This expressive capability just through melody is deep and rich in Arabic music: It’s based on the repetition of the maqam scale over and over and over, but with variation that is never repeated. So it gets more and more deeper and deeper in your mind—which doesn’t happen when there’s harmony. And the longer you stay in one maqam, the deeper you get until you get high.”

This is “the phenomenon of repeated melodic music,” says Farraj, in Arabic, tarab--a “state of intense joy,” or ecstasy.

“It’s what we feel when we hear Arabic music until our head starts buzzing: a sense of being in tune with the maqam. Every music in the world has its own distinctive characteristic that is special and unique, and the people in that cultu