The Music of the gulf region that includes Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait flourishes mostly within the region’s own boundaries. This is the consequence of the fragmented distribution channels of the music in the Middle East. The music depicts a deep imprint that local cultures have put on it. While popularity of the music is mostly regional, it is full of vigor and diversity. It supports an array of female and male song stars with listeners who eagerly await recordings and performances (chronicle.fanack.com 2012, p1).
Internal and external influences on the unique sound of Gulf music echo the influence of the region’s history. These influences are intertwined with the highly syncopated rhythms. There are significant quantities of the influence of Bedouin stark unaccompanied songs. Most of the external influence came with Pilgrims who brought them to Mecca and Medina. They put their mark on the musical assemblages of the Arabian cities in rhythms. Foreigners also regularly visited the pearling and trading settlements on the shores and in the Peninsula’s interior. The foreigners who visited the region left their music and songs behind. In effect, a uniquely Arabian sound that was rich and diverse developed. Most of the musical exchange took place with the music of the Indian Subcontinent and the Instrumental music of East Africa.
For thousands of years, many categories of arts have flourished in this region. However, in the hearts of the Nationals, the songs of the sea occupy a special place. The feel that characterizes the Upper Gulf music is a unique phenomenon in the Arab world. Percussive timbres are used to put rhythm to heartfelt melodies sung by large choirs of men in joint voices. Sea songs were sung for both works, recreation, during weddings, ashore and on ships. Men also sung them during late night gatherings. This happened until the early 20th century. When dependence on sea livelihood diminished, bands began to crop up to keep the musical traditions active and alive (Ulaby 2008, p15).Less than groups perform sea music today. Among the most known group is the Hamid Bin Hussein Sea Band from Kuwait. They prominently featured on these recordings. Most of these men are mostly descendants of seamen. They are respected and appreciated in the community, because they represent history and impassioned art with their performances.
Music of Characteristics
Music of the Gulf significantly differs from typical Levantine and Egyptian Music. It is characterized with repetitive melodic lines. This reflects a heavy impact of folk genres and a pronounced lack of influence from Western music, which persisted to this century. One can feel a distinct family of rhythms including instead of the pan-Arab rhythms common in the Middle East. Rhythmic shifts that are common in modern songs are not common within Gulf music. The Melodic qualities of this music and the striking fusion of traditional rhythms put a distinctive sound to Gulf music. Gulf Music can be categorized into many genres. These genres come emanate from the cultural heritage of people of this region. Others are a result of incorporation of elements from music from other cultures.
The earliest known Gulf Music sound recording is said to be that of an Omani singer on a 1904 wax cylinder recorded by Phonogram in Vienna. At the Oriental Institute located in Leiden Netherlands, lie the oldest recordings ever made in the Gulf region. They are approximately 150 wax cylinders that were recorded in 1909 in the Jeddah circa, Saudi Arabia. They harbor vast and rich musical information for use by future researchers, though not commercially available. The first commercial recording companies arrived in the region in the 1920s and 1930s. They would engage in recording the traditional urban ensembles. A notable musician who recorded at the time was Bahrain’s Muhammad Zuwaid. Until the 1950s and 60s, the Sawt dominated recorded music of the Gulf. In the late 1960s, male Saudi and other Gulf Singers pioneered the use of larger ensembles that aped those that were popular in Lebanon in Egypt. Saudi musicians exported Gulf music to the rest of the Arab sphere in the 70s and 80s. Pan-Arab hits like Abad, Maqadir, and YaSariya are still active and respected as the older generation leaders of singers and composers.
The effect of wealth from oil and exposure to world popular and pan-Arab music brought inevitable change to the music of the Gulf. Modern Recording studios that are equipped with the latest electronic equipment produce songs and instrumental pieces for a new generation of gulf singers. Among the popular musicians include Kuwaiti songstress Rabab, Abd al-Karim Abd al-Qadir, Saudi Arabia’s Abd al-Majid ’Abd Allah and AbuHilal Salih Khayri. They continue to utilize the aesthetic feature of the traditional khaliji Music, while experimenting freely with world and electronic music innovations.
The Gulf governments have actively promoted preservation of folk music traditions. One of the most prime folklore centers in The Gulf region is the Folklore Center in Qatar. It is a great institution with a museum that has been dedicated to folklore, research facilities, and periodicals. A huge yearly Festival outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at Janadiriyya also focuses on folk music (Campbell 2008, p2). Radio stations, Television, and print media in all the Gulf countries focus on folk music shows and dance. Local bands talk about and play their music. Recently, numerous high quality recordings of traditional music are now commercially available.
Musical Instruments used in Gulf Music
One of the most popular musical instruments in the gulf is the Oud. It has a rounded body made from strips of wood, hence the name “Oud” meaning “thin strip of wood.”
It is the most common Arabic string instrument. It is preferred because of its ability to produce notes in any intonation, making it ideal for performing the Arabic Maqam, which defines the nature and audial structure of Arabic music notes. The Oud is so common in Arab music that it is a defining element (Shaheen 2007, p1).
A common wind instrument used in Arabic Music is the nay. This is an obliquely end blown open-ended flute made of cane. This music has supplemented Arab music since antiquity. It is characterized by 6 holes in the front of the instrument for the fingers to play and one hole underneath it for the thumb. The instrument is played by the pads of the fingers.
Arabic Music is rhythmic and utilizes percussive instruments too. The riq, also known as daff, is a small tambourine traditionally covered with fish skin or a goatskin stretched over a wooden frame and inlaid with pearl. It has five sets of two pairs of brass cymbals evenly spaced around the frame, and referred to in Arabic as ‘sagaat’. The cymbals produce an exciting jingle sound. These are among the instruments that have been used for thousands of years until today in Arab music (Shaheen 2007, p1).
Popular Gulf Music Today
The Saudi Music and that of its gulf neighbors exhibit influence from both Western and traditional Arab music. The most well known musician in Saudi Arabia’s recent history is Tariq Abdul Hakeem. He composed and wrote many of the popular Saudi songs for himself and for other musicians. Saraj Omar is another prominent composer who came up with the Saudi national anthem music. The first Arab Pioneers Festival, held in 1999 in Cairo under the sponsorship of the Arab League, had four of the lead Saudi composers honored. They include Ghazi Ali, Tariq Abdul Hakeem, Mohamed Abdu who was the first Saudi pop star, and Talal Maddah, also referred to famously as the Sound of the Earth. He died while singing on the Al-Muftah theatre, Saudi Arabia stage, in August 2000.
Kuwait on the other hand is known for being a source of musical influence on Gulf countries. There have been many Kuwaiti pop band coming up over the last decade. These bands have been successful in gaining fame and gaining access and success to other Arab countries with their exceptional Arab pop music style. For instance, a Kuwaiti artist Bashar Al Shetty is the very famous artist after appearing in the first season of a regional star academy television program and being a second runner up. Kuwait is a trendsetter not only in music but also on Television.
Kuwait hosts many concerts every year. Music in the gulf region echoes the Kuwaiti genre due to the extent of its influence. Musicians from Lebanon, Egypt, India, and Qatar visit Kuwait each year to perform in Kuwait’s many concerts. This has resulted in a mixture of Gulf Music with contemporary western pop styles and influence from Oriental genres like Bhangra from the Indian subcontinent. One of the Music festivals that bring together many Arab pop stars is the annual Hala February Music Festival. The festival incorporates many Arab pop stars. Internationally renowned jazz musicians usually show up for the annual Kuwait Jazz Music Festival (Kilius, 2011).
Local Kuwaiti musicians also feature prominently in these international concerts. Kuwait’s dance and music shows mixing of Kuwaiti traditional music and hip hop music. This feature of mixed local traditional music and neighboring oriental and even western genres is a common feature of music in the Gulf States. Kuwaiti youth and their gulf counterparts have a particular liking for R&B music. Many prominent Kuwaiti artists like Sons of Yusuf and Dhari Al Dhulaei sing R&B. Many Gulf musicians appreciate and sing mainstream pop and Rhythm and Blues. Many local Kuwaiti Khaleeji pop stars perform at concerts in events and openings throughout the year. Kuwait also has a flourishing indie music scene. The first Gulf Arab artist to be featured in a globally renowned music compilation was Zahed Sultan. His music features heavy influence from world pop music and Indian Bhangra. Gulf music is filled with influence from traditional Bedouin music and Seafaring folk songs and more recently, Indie Rock, hip-hop.
One great place in Qatar where one can experience folk music of the region is at the Qatar Opera House. It is the home of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, which also hosts numerous soloists, artists, and conductors. This also shows how western classical music has influenced music in the gulf (Cameron 2015, p1).
Arabic people have used music as a means of entertainment, recreation, education, poetry and worship. The many regions in the Arab-sphere, from the Maghreb to the Middle East have had their defining moments in the development of the music. The Gulf region, which is the heartland of Arab culture, has had its unique moments of musical renaissance. From traditional sea faring to Bedouin culture, the music has undergone major transformation. Modern popular music, western classical music, East Asian popular music and North African music have all had their influence on Gulf Music, making it an international blend of great music. Religion has played a major role in the metamorphosis of Gulf Music because of pilgrims who come and leave their influence in the region. Kuwaiti pop scene is also a noteworthy influence that resonates in the Arab world.
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Campbell, K. (2007, April 8). Saudi Aramco World: Saudi Folk Music: Alive and Well.
Kilius, R. (2004, May 11). Hidden Treasures: Reflections on Traditional Music in Kuwait.
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Ulaby, L. (2008). Performing the past: Sea music in the Arab Gulf States
Shaheen, Najeeb. “Arabic Musical Instruments.” Arabic Musical Instruments. 14 July 2007. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.