How Diverse Musical Traditions Have Influenced Saudi Arabia’s Identity and Culture


JEDDAH: Folk music traditions in Saudi Arabia are diverse and complex, combining distinctive sounds, rhythms and melodies with poetry, drumming and dance passed down from generation to generation.

Over the centuries, poets and musicians have crossed the Arabian Peninsula and the wider Middle East, exchanging and combining modes of expression through song, music and dance.

The contemporary soundscape echoes these ancient traditions, expressed through popular rhythms and songs from classical literature, epics and heroic poems, reflecting the history, values, norms and consciousness of society.

Since pre-Islamic times, singers and reciters have helped spread poems among the tribes. This practice found its way to the courts of the caliphs, where famous singers would set poems to melodies and perform for private audiences.

Another layer of percussive sound in Saudi music is clapping and dancing, the latter of which falls into two categories. The first includes steps in unison, such as the dance “al-dahha” in the north and “al-khatwa” in the southwest. (SPA)

Over time, the courts disappeared, but the practice remained.

Almost all melodies from the region follow the aesthetic principles of the centuries-old maqam system, characteristic of Middle Eastern music. It describes a series of modes or scales and a way to improvise and form melodies in these modes.

Maqam scales typically have seven notes that repeat at the octave, while a few extend beyond eight notes. Although there is no harmony, harmonic intervals can sometimes be heard for a passing moment or two.

During a visit to the Hijaz in 1814, Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt documented the region’s distinctive musical notation in his book “Voyages en Arabia”, where he described the performances of women separated into two choirs, each consisting of six, eight or 10 people. One group began to sing and chant, while the other rehearsed after them.

In the Hijaz, there is a rich musical culture based on song traditions that have more complex melodies than elsewhere in the Kingdom, expressed using instruments such as the oud, qanun, nay (the flute) and, more recently, the violin.

For centuries, cities like Mecca and Medina had a musical life that rivaled or even surpassed that of neighboring Arab cities, such as Baghdad and Cairo, where music from the royal courts was abundant.

The migratory Bedouin lifestyle discourages excess baggage, including musical instruments, so these communities tended to stick to simple rhythms, with rhythm counted by rapping or banging everyday tools together which formed the basis of the music.

King Salman participating in the “ardah”, an ancient war dance. (SPA)

Drums were and still are considered an orchestra in themselves, as most Saudi and Gulf folk music uses shallow frame drums held in the left hand and struck with the right in a single multi-tone rhythm.

Another layer of percussive sound in Saudi music is clapping and dancing, the latter of which falls into two categories. The first includes steps in unison, such as the dance “al-dahha” in the north and “al-khatwa” in the southwest.

The second is a free dance, often performed solo or in pairs, by dancers twirling colorful bisht (cloaks), such as the “majroor” in Taif and the “yanbaawi” and “mezmar” in the western region.

Blending elegiac poetry, chanting, drumming and slow, majestic movements, the ‘ardah’, an ancient war dance that later became a dance of peace and celebration, has become an integral part of traditional Saudi culture.

The poems sung are patriotic and their dignified, masculine and proud movements tell a historic story of bravery, resilience and continuity.

In the eastern province of the kingdom, folk arts are derived from the region’s rich traditions of pearl fishing, seafaring, oasis agriculture and long-distance trade. There are date harvest songs in Al-Ahsa and shepherd songs from the southwest and other regions.

Tarouf Abdel-Kheir Adam, better known as Etab. (Provided)

These traditions, however, do not appear in complete isolation. Trade caravans, pilgrimages and the search for new pastures carried traditions over great distances, mixing cultures and spreading influences.

“If you look at the map of Saudi Arabia, you will find that it is surrounded on all sides by different musical and lyrical (traditions) of the countries,” Abdullah Thabit, a Saudi poet and writer, told Arab News.

“You have Yemen to the south, Iraq and the Levant, Turkey to the north, the Gulf countries to the east, and Egypt and Sudan to the west. The regions have been influenced by their surrounding regions over the centuries.

It is therefore not immediately understood to the untrained ear what constitutes a definitively Saudi musical style, distinct from its neighbors, but common across the Kingdom’s provincial borders.

Thabit says the modern musical style that can be described as distinctly Saudi was developed by Tariq Abdel-Hakim, commander-in-chief of the Kingdom Army Orchestra in the Saudi Army Band, and the maestro who composed the Saudi national anthem.

In the Hijaz, there is a rich musical culture based on singing traditions with more complex melodies than elsewhere in the Kingdom. (SPA)

The contributions of Abdel-Hakim, who died in 2012 at the age of 92, have been seen as a turning point for music in the Kingdom, as he transferred Saudi music from sound melody to musical notation written on solid scientific basis.

“It was his student, Omar Kadras, who tried to blend in with the rhythm and sounds of folklore, giving rise to a new sound in Saudi music,” Thabit said.

“Talal Maddah, a pioneer of Saudi music known as The Earth’s Voice, was the first to sing Al-Mkblahah, or long songs. Mohammed Abdo then helped to popularize the new form of music, but you will find that before this new form of music matured, it was greats like Hisham Al-Abdali, Hasan Jawah, Abdulrahman Muezzin Platin who was also a muezzin in the mosque, and more that made her popular.

In the second half of the last century, the artistic movement expanded and saw the emergence of several composers, such as Siraj Omar, Kadars, and many singers, led by Maddah, Muhammad and Abu Bakr Salem, then Abdul Majeed Abdullah, Abadi Al-Jawhar, Rabeh Saqr, Rashid Al-Majed and others.

“Female voices also appeared with them, although unfortunately very limited, such as Ibtisam Lutfi, Etab, Sarah Qazzaz and Toha, who were closer to popular singing,” Thabit said.

Today, Saudi music encompasses everything from jazz, hip-hop and rap to techno and rock ‘n roll, with many of these genres incorporating aspects of folk traditions, such as the songs of Majed Al- Eisa “Lifestyle Samry”, “Lehe” and “Hawages.

It is not immediately clear to the untrained ear what constitutes a definitely Saudi musical style, distinct from its neighbors, but common across the Kingdom’s provincial borders. (SPA)

Although these traditions are colorful and lively, Saudi youth are also attracted to foreign musical genres. Jara, one of Saudi Arabia’s youngest famous performing artists, made waves when her rap single ‘966’ was released in 2020, while hip-hop artist Qusai continues to make his mark a decade after his first outing.

“Using sounds from the region is simply a way of celebrating my heritage which fuels the concept of exporting our beautiful culture,” Saud Al-Turki, a Khobar-based record producer, told Arab News.

“As a producer, I never wanted to feel limited in what sounds I could tap into. In my opinion, connecting with a global audience has more impact. The beautiful thing about Saudi sounds is that you can hear inspiration from different parts of the region depending on where you are geographically.

Before the Kingdom started opening up in 2016 and started promoting creative industries and youth participation, Al-Turki says experimentation with musical styles was not common.

“At the time, there was no support from government entities and big business. On the contrary, they have not received the same acceptance, respect and support as current artists,” he said.

Today, Saudi Arabia embraces the diversity of world music and changing tastes, without ever losing sight of its heritage.

“We must never forget where we come from,” Al-Turki said. “Saudi Arabia is historically diverse and there is nothing more beautiful than a diverse culture. We have different sounds in each region that deserve to be appreciated and showcased.

“It is our duty to shine a light and pay tribute.”


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