Solo Improvisation (=?iso-8859-9?Q?Taq=E2s=EEm?=) in Arab Music

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Fri Oct 13 08:24:02 MDT 2000

Solo Improvisation (Taqâsîm) in Arab Music Scott L. Marcus, University
of California, Santa Barbara

Reprinted from the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, July 1993
(with changes in orthography to HTML standards).  Copyright 1993 by the
Middle East Studies Association of North America

THE MOST WIDESPREAD Arab music tradition is the urban-based music of the
eastern Mediterranean region ranging from Cairo to Beirut, Damascus and
Aleppo. This music consists predominantly of precomposed songs that is,
pieces in which a composer has determined the form and content of the
music to be performed. With such a repertoire, the musician's role is
that of interpreter, charged with artistically rendering someone else's
creation. The Arab instrumentalist is, however, accorded the opportunity
to improvise his own creations in a genre called taqâsîm (singular and
plural in this usage). Individual taqâsîm are not simply free-formed
products of the instrumentalist's fancy; instead, the instrumentalist
improvises according to a complex set of preestablished rules and
conventions. Because taqâsîm gives the instrumentalist the opportunity
to present his own creation rather than rely on another's composition,
it is a highly valued musical genre.

Individual taqâsîm commonly last from three to five minutes but may end
within a single minute or extend to eight or ten minutes, and rarely may
be even longer. The length of a specific taqâsîm is often determined by
the amount of time alotted to the performer, and also by the performer's
mood at the time of performance.

A taqâsîm is multi-sectional, with sections separated from each other by
moments of silence. The musical coherence of each section is achieved by
the instrumentalist focusing on one melodic idea, usually a specific
melodic mode (maqâm; plural, maqâmât) and, commonly, on only one aspect
of a maqâm's melodic features. (Each maqâm has a unique scale and
special melodic features.) The entire taqâsîm is thus a gradual
unfolding of a specific mode's unique characteristics. Generally, such
unfoldings follow an ascending progression, with the musician beginning
at the bottom of a modal scale and slowly working his way up to the
higher notes (often those in a higher octave). Showing more than one
maqâm in a single taqâsîm is also common. Listeners take special delight
in the moves from maqâm to maqâm (modulations) and in the eventual and
obligatory return to the maqâm with which the taqâsîm began.

The various sections of a taqâsîm generally end with cliched cadential
phrases called qaflat (sing., qafla), another source of particular
enjoyment for the listener. Forceful qaflat are commonly met with cries
of approval from audience members. It is commonly said that a good qafla
can make up for a bad taqâsîm, but that a bad qafla can spoil an
otherwise strong taqâsîm.

The taqâsîm genre thus gives the instrumentalist the opportunity to show
his abilities and sensitivities as a composer. Listeners judge the shape
and structure of a taqâsîm, the performer's ability to bring the
improvisation to dramatic climaxes at appropriate points, his use of
modulations and silences and his mastery of the various maqâmât.

In addition, taqâsîm allows the musician to demonstrate the extent of
his technical mastery of his instrument. Musicians take care to show
moments of technical virtuosity (e.g., dazzling picking or bowing
displays by string players) as well as moments of softer, more tender
musical expression.

Young musicians learn taqâsîm performance by imitating performances of
friends and any senior musicians with whom they come in contact.
Commercial recordings have also come to play a major role as students
often memorize the commercially recorded taqâsîm of the greatest
masters. While this helps to develop technical proficiency and a
knowledge of both the taqâsîm genre and the various maqâmât, the
aspiring musician must, in time, develop his own style, his own
improvisations, for taqâsîm are, above all, an expression of individual
creativity. The greatest performers have developed their own unique
styles and approaches, so that their improvisations are clearly marked
as their own.

Taqâsîm are an important part of most gatherings of musicians. At
informal parties or whenever one musician visits another, the casual and
spontaneous playing of one song after another will be broken
occasionally by one musician or another launching into his own taqâsîm.
This provides variety of sound and mood and allows for moments of highly
valued personal expression.

In more formal concerts, the position and frequency of taqâsîm
performances have changed over time. At the beginning of the 20th
century, urban-based performances were structured in terms of suites
(waslat, sing. wasla) of instrumental and vocal pieces. Taqâsîm were
featured in the opening moments of wasla performances. A late example of
such a performance is found on the cassette Layâlî wa Ughniyyat Layh Yâ
Banafsaj featuring the Egyptian singer Sâlih 'Abd al-Hayy (1896-1962).
In this studio recording, we find excellent examples of taqâsîm
performed on the `ûd (the Arab lute), the violin and the qânûn (a
trapezoid-shaped zither). The recording begins with the `ûd taqâsîm.
Next, a small ensemble plays a piece called "samâ`î Râst" composed by
the Turkish/Armenian musician, Tatyus. The performance of the samâ`î is
then interrupted by the violin taqâsîm,
after which the samâ`î is completed. This is in turn followed by a short
taqâsîm on the qânûn which serves as an introduction to a vocal
improvisation called layâlî. The qânûn player intersperses additional
taqâsîm phrases within the layâlî when the singer, Sâlih 'Abd al-Hayy,
rests after completing individual sections of his improvisation.
Finally, the singer presents the song "Layh Yâ Banafsaj" with
instrumental and choral accompaniment. While full-blown waslat would
have been substantially longer, commonly including a number of chorally
performed songs called muwashsha hat, this Sâlih 'Abd al-Hayy recording
provides a high-quality example of the common repertory context for late
19th/early 20th-century taqâsîm performances. Following common practice,
the names of the individual musicians on this recording are not given,
the only names given being those of the
singer and the song's composer and poet.

>From about the 1930s, the wasla lost favor in Arab music performance and
was soon replaced by a new genre called ughniyya (literally, "song"). Of
approximately the same length in performance as the earlier wasla, the
ughniyya featured a multi-sectional song sung by a solo singer, with an
instrumental introduction for the song as a whole and for each of the
song's internal sections. The ughniyya has reigned as the dominant genre
of urban-based Arab music up through the 1970s and 1980s. Taqâsîm were
seldom included in such compositions and thus came to be relegated to
more informal gatherings of musicians, to small parties and to dance
routines where dancers liked the change of mood that taqâsîm offered
from the often rhythmically driving songs.

It was in this setting the virtual loss of taqâsîm from mainstream
performances that Farîd al-Atrash (1905-1974) found a way to create his
own personal niche, his own claim to fame, in terms of taqâsîm
performance. A movie star, singer and composer of phenomenal fame, as
well as a virtuosic `ûd player, Farîd would commonly sing only his own
compositions. When composing his songs, he would compose the
instrumental introduction (muqaddima) in such a way that he would give
himself a lengthy `ûd taqâsîm within the muqaddima. After the taqâsîm,
his ensemble would finish the muqaddima and he would then sing the vocal
sections of his compositions. This format proved so successful that
Farîd al-Atrash soon came to be the single-most famous `ûd player in the
Arab world, and more specifically, the most famous performer of `ûd
taqâsîm. In time he came to be referred to as malik al-`ûd, i.e., "the
king of the `ûd." Among his most famous taqâsîm is one he performed in a
live concert, during the muqaddima of his song "al-Rabî". The entire
song with the taqâsîm can be heard on cassette or CD.

One of the most interesting aspects of taqâsîm performance is the
dynamic relationship that often exists between the performer and members
of the audience. When someone in the audience likes a specific moment in
a performance, he might call out any of a number of cliched words or
phrases with which to show his appreciation ("Allah," "yâ habîbî," "yâ
'aynî" or simply the performer's name: "yâ Farîd," i.e., Farîd
al-Atrash). The performer is thus encouraged and, ideally, moved to
greater heights of creativity. Recordings of Farîd al-Atrash's public
performances are excellent examples of enthusiastic audience response.
The above cited recording is no exception: wild cheers erupt with the
initial phrase of his taqâsîm and reoccur frequently throughout the

While the "Rabî" recording is an excellent example of a taqâsîm set
within the muqaddima of a lengthy song, those interested in hearing a
number of taqâsîm by Farîd al-Atrash are referred to a separate release
of five taqâsîm extracted from various muqaddimat. Audience response is
heard in each of these live taqâsîm. The quality of the individual
recordings is uneven, with none having the clarity of sound that studio
recordings can offer. However, this does not detract from the importance
of this release as documentation of Farîd's taqâsîm. (The tape begins
with a studio recording of one of his `ûd compositions.)

Back-to-back listening to a number of Farîd's taqâsîm clearly reveals
the recurring features that characterize his style and technique. He is
especially known for the displays of right-hand picking virtuosity with
which he ended all of his taqâsîm performances. A consummate crowd
pleaser, he still reigns as king of the `ûd for most in the eastern Arab
world some twenty years after his death. In the present day, young `ûd
players are often greeted by cries from members of the audience, calling
out "yâ Farîd" -- that is, they compliment the young performer by
comparing him to the great one, Farîd al-Atrash.

While Farîd al-Atrash is without question the favorite `ûd player of the
common folk, musicians commonly recognize Riyâd al-Sinbâtî (d. 1981) as
the consummate musicians' musician. A prolific composer and respected
singer, Riyâd al-Sinbâtî made a cassette of six studio-recorded taqâsîm
for the Egyptian government's Sono Cairo label. Here the `ûd is ideally
miked and thus has a deep, rich sound. Al-Sinbâtî's taqâsîm have a
slower-paced, more relaxed style than those of Farîd al-Atrash. Among
al-Sinbâtî's characteristic stylistic features is his frequent use of
lower octave drop notes (i.e., when playing a phrase in a higher octave,
he periodically echoes individual notes by playing the same note in a
lower octave).

Other important taqâsîm recordings include those by the Egyptian
violinist Ahmad al-Hifnawi, the Iraqi `ûd player Munîr Bashîr and two
Arab-Americans, Simon Shaheen and Ali Jihad Racy.


'Abd al-Hayy, Sâlih. Layâlî wa Ughniyyat Layh Yâ Banafsaj. Sono Cairo
cassette 76062.
al-Atrash, Farîd. al-Rabî . Cassette: MCCO 128; CD: CXG 602.
_____. An Evening with the King of the 'Oud': Takassim Oud. Voice of
Lebanon cassette: VLMC 103; CD: VL 501.
Bashîr, Munîr (Bachir, Mounir). Taqâsîm `ûd. Cassette: MC 505.
_____. Oud Concert. CD: AAA 003.
al-Hifnâwî, Ahmad. Taqâsîm wa Mûsîqâ Ughniyyat: Huwwa Sahîh al-Hawâ
Ghalâb. Sono Cairo cassette 76094.
al-Sinbâtî, Riyâd. Taqâsîm `ûd. Sono Cairo cassette 78016.
Shaheen, Simon & Ali Jihad Racy. Taqâsîm. CD: Lyrichord 7374.

[All recordings are available at Rashid Sales Co., 191 Atlantic Ave.,
Brooklyn, NY 11201, (800) 843-9401]


Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222

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