Composing Arabic Music in Real-time

 Coinciding with the recent release of his latest album, El Tarab El Aseel, World Music Central interviewed Egyptian violin virtuoso Riad Abdel-Gawad.

When did you begin your musical studies?

Well, I began my musical studies when I was three years old. I started playing on a 1/16th size violin.

What are the characteristics of taqaseem and tarab?

The nature of Middle Eastern improvisatorial artistry arises from individuality — improvisation—“irtijāl”, ideally is “hard-wired” into the Arab composer, chantor, singer, or musician’s intellect, personality and moral or religious affections. Experienced performers ideally perform with expertise—“ma’lūm”, feeling—“ahsās” and soul—“rūh”. If these elements are in place and other such factors as time and place are conducive, performer and listener should then achieve a state of tarab, or musical enchantment, or ecstasy.

Taqaseem is part of a performing heritage—“turāth”: first, taqāsīm—“the improvised instrumental genres” are for the instrumentalists, second, the layālī or mawwāl—“improvised vocal genres” are for the singers, third, the ibtihālāt dīnīya—“religious chanting invocations” are for the chantors, and fourth, the reciting—“qirā’a” of Qurān or other sacred texts is for the reciter. The old school of Cairene improvvisatrici practitioners simultaneously compose and perform, or chant, or recite with (“musical”) freedom. At the same time, the musical elements of such factors as mode—“maqām”, sound, and time together with sentient and moral powers influence the spontaneity of the performance or recital.

Taqaseem, literally, in Arabic means division, or “composing in real-time” musical phrases that unfold in time. There should be either literal or metaphorical silences, which help articulate the structure of the improvisational form. The grand improvisation, or taqaseem kabīr, which I practice, on the purely sentient level reveals musical phrases that express varying moods of sadness and joy, meditation and hope. Taqaseem, is the preferred vehicle for the Middle Eastern practitioner and listener to experience the wonderfully human emotion of tarab, or excitement when one listens to music that truly reaches your essence.

What was your relation with Abdo Dagher?


Abdo Dagher is one of my mentors, he is a colleague, and a dear friend. He is the most generous man I know as a teacher. I’m sure that I’m not alone in this feeling, because many of the most renowned and best musicians in Egypt have come to Abdo’s musical salon and have learned a lot and found his evening sessions—“saharaat” extremely useful. I hope that my relation with Abdo in our special master-pupil link will interest generations in learning about this very particular and unique old music school in Cairo.

We trekked together all over Egypt with one another (e.g. Luxor, Tanta). We have had a master-pupil (“guru”) relationship and played together all over Egypt and Europe. We traveled together in Germany on three tours. We also worked and traveled together in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. One of my artist-projects while I was an artist fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, was to invite Abdo Dagher for his first masterclass in Europe in 1998 with European and American musicians. I wrote (notated) and hafizzt (committed to memory) and have continued to write and develop his unique Arab music method—“el-menhag el-musīqa el-arabiyyah”.

Is Umm Kulthum still an influential figure?

I think Umm Kulthum is an influential figure in connoisseur and aficionados—“samia’ ” circles. I can think of several examples of Egyptian and Moroccan women artists in which Umm Kulthum had a great influence in their formative years. But what tends to happen with these singers is that they “inzal fī souq—they go into the music marketplace” and become big stars and emphasize less the craft of singing, which they had learned from Umm Kulthum and which she was so renowned for. I teach singers the old method of singing as Umm Kulthum and her contemporaries like Hanyaat Shaabaan, a woman-Sufi singer from Tanta, learned and sang.

Your CD  El Tarab El Aseel mentions Sami Shawwa as a main influence. Can you elaborate on that?

I mention, Sami Effendi El Shawwa, as one of my main influences. He was way before my time, so the influence is indirectly from his recordings and compositions, as well as from stories that Abdo Dagher conveyed to me in his friendship with he and his brother, Fadl Effendi El Shawwa who was also a fine violinist. My perception of their influence rests in Arab music’s living, breathing, evolving heritage. Sami and Fadl were innovators. But the influence of Sami, and moreover with Abdo has to do with 1) preserving Arab music’s authentic heritage linked from the Middle Ages, 2) establishing and maintaining the violin on the local and international musical scene, as one of the main “Arab” musical instruments in Middle Eastern musical history and repertoire, and 3) developing and performing the taqaseem, the improvised form, on the highest artistic standard. These are some of the wonderful influences I take from my predecessors.

You modified your violin for your performances. What did you do to it and why?

In layman’s terms I relaxed, or lowered the violin’s four strings from one to three tones. There is an expression in Arabic that best describes why I modified my violin strings: “Taba(q)naa”, which means, in a self-respecting manner, “it’s our standard of tuning”. Tabaqah denotes the old practice of “tuning” the instrument to the condition of the singer or chantor’s register and range or tessitura. Sami El Shawwa, as well as Ahmed El Hefnawi, principle accompanier to Umm Kalsoum, tuned their instrument in this way: G, D, G, C, (or D for the top string) or F, C, F, Bb. I learned this tuning from Abdo Dagher.

Some nay instrumentalists in Egypt still walk around carrying two sets of nays, one for the higher pitch level tabaqah kabeer and one for the lower, tabaqah sagheer. It’s a lot like piano bar pianists’ ability to play songs in different keys to accommodate different singers’ ranges. Intuitively, I think it seems to be the opposite of Classical bel canto singing, in which these singers adapted to the instruments’. Singers from the Middle East sing more closely to the same pitch level that normal conversation occurs on. The chantor or the singer’s accommodated voice or the instrumentalist’s “loosened” strings or “opened-up” embouchure, I believe, predispose the practitioners towards a mellow, refined, rich, colorful, readied sound. This in turn, helps singer, musician and listener draw closer to the objectives of inspiration—“saltanah”, refinedness—“addib”, and ecstasy—“tarab”; as well, from that place, Sufi chantor or instrumentalist and spiritual auditor move nearer to goals in samā‘—“mystical auditioning or listening”.

Today Egyptian traditional or art ensembles seldom practice the lower tuning, tabaqah saghīrah. Nevertheless, religious and folk singers, and a few Egyptian artists keep alive the custom, in contrast to the sister civilization’s vivacious revival of the similar practice of traditional tunings in Baroque and Classical music.

Is your style orthodox or do you incorporate new techniques and influences?

On the one hand, I strive in my style to give evidence of and belief in the old (Arabic writers’) sources. In other words, I hope one can easily understand the old manuscripts by the old masters living in my musical style. On the other hand, for example, in the composition, Keblah—architectural niche”, on my new album, El Tarab El Aseel, I composed a new rhythmic mode in a very fast 10, which relates to some Khaliji (Arab Gulf) rhythms. This new technique came out of exercises I used to practice in such complex rhythmic groupings as 5, 7, 9, 10 and up. In some of my other compositions, I cross-fertilize musical art idioms and techniques, on the one hand from the West including counterpoint, American blues tones as well as jazz and tonal harmony, and on the other from the Middle East including indigenous musical forms, and rhythmic and modal organization systems.

It seems like a lot of Arabic musicians accompany singers. How easy is it to have a solo career as an instrumentalist?

Most of the Arab peoples’ music is vocal. This is why most Arabic musicians accompany singers. Egyptian musicians have accompanied chantors as part of their spiritual invocations for 7000 perennial years. Even though the Sufi, spiritual-chanting genre has been around for hundreds of years, this “chanting” I do with my violin in a purely instrumental art form in the concert hall has been around for tens of years. Compare that to the West’s few hundred years of pure instrumental concert music and you get the idea that the genre I am contributing to create is a completely new one. So like with anything new I think it takes time to reach into the local and the international public consciences. I am motivated passionately to have a solo career as an instrumentalist, but I wouldn’t be truthful if I told you it was easy. But I am in a hopeful and steadfast manner and have passion for my dream of having a solo career.

Are you working on new projects?

I’m composing two works that employ well-known Western classical forms: first, a theme and variations, and the second, a rondo. Like most of my works I explore the full gamut of “maqāmāt—melodic modes”. Like many of my works now, the work has versions for Classical chamber music, as well as for Jazz combo, and yes even, vernacular Rock formations together with Middle Eastern ethnic instruments. 

Buy El Tarab El Aseel.