How different musical traditions have shaped the identity and culture of Saudi Arabia

Jeddah: Saudi Arabia is distinguished by the diversity and richness of its popular music. This combines on the one hand the sounds, rhythms and melodies and on the other hand the poetry, percussion and dances passed down through the generations.

Poets and musicians have crossed the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East over the centuries. Thus, they exchanged and combined their means of expression through songs, music and dances.

The kingdom’s contemporary music scene takes on these ancestral traditions. He translates them into folk rhythms and songs inspired by classical literature, epics, and heroic poems. It is a mirror that reflects the history, values, customs and conscience of a society.

Singers and readers (<<< or storytellers?) have transmitted poems within different tribes since pre-Islamic times. This practice continued until the courts of the caliphs. Here, famous singers recite poems against a background of melodies and perform them in front of a private audience.

These cycles disappeared over time. This practice continued.

Because of their constant movement, the Bedouins could not carry excess baggage, including musical instruments. So they just play simple rhythms, clap their hands, or tap on everyday things. (photo provided)

Most of the tunes from our region are inspired by the maqam, a system of secular melodic styles that characterize Middle Eastern music. The maqam includes the set of styles or scales but also the way one can improvise and form melodies from these styles.

Denominator scales generally consist of 7 notes repeated an octave higher, even if some sometimes contain 8 or more notes. There is a bit of harmony in this type of music, but we can sometimes perceive harmonic variations that are repeated for a minute or two.

During a trip to the Hejaz in 1814, the Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in his book Travels in Arabia listed the different musical notes of this region. Thus he describes the performance of the women who sang in a choir of 6, 8 or 10 people each. The first group sang and chanted, while the other group practiced behind them.

Hejaz has a rich musical culture. This is based on a more complex melodic singing tradition than in the rest of the kingdom. These songs are accompanied by instruments such as the oud (a stringed instrument with a deep resonance box, editor’s note), the qanun (a cut stringed instrument of the zither family, editor’s note), the flute (flute) and, most recently, the violin.

Cities such as Mecca and Medina enjoyed musical activity for many centuries that rivaled or even surpassed the neighboring Arab cities, including Baghdad and Cairo. In these cities, music resounded incessantly at the royal court.

Because of their constant movement, the Bedouins could not carry excess baggage, including musical instruments. So they were content to play simple rhythms, clap their hands or tap everyday things; These sounds served as the basis for their music.

Drums used to be an orchestra in their own right. They are still today. In fact, most popular music from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf uses a shallow rhythm. It is carried by the left hand and the right hand in a single polyphonic rhythm.

In Saudi music, clapping and dancing are another type of percussive sound that falls into two categories. The first consists of steps performed in unison, such as the “Duha” dance (in the north) and the “step” (in the southwest).

The second category is the free dance class. The dancers rotate the colorful bisht such as “Major” in Taif, and “Yanbawi” and “Mizmar” in the western part of the kingdom. They dance alone or in pairs.

Ardah is an ancient war dance that has evolved into a dance of peace and celebration. It combines epitaphs, songs, drums, and slow, majestic movements. Ardah has become an integral part of traditional Saudi culture.

The singing poems are imbued with patriotism and the dancers’ proud, lively and solemn movements tell a story of courage, resilience and perseverance.

In the eastern region of the kingdom, folklore draws inspiration from ancestral traditions: pearling, marine activities, oasis farming, and cross-border trade. Al-Ahsa Governorate is characterized by songs related to the harvest of dates, while the songs of shepherds are still echoed in the southwest and in other regions.

However, these traditions do not come out of nowhere. Merchants, pilgrims, and nomads in search of new pastures spread traditions across borders; Cultures merged and influences began to spread.

Saudi poet and writer Abdullah Thabet explains, “If we examine the map of Saudi Arabia, we see that it is surrounded on every side by countries with different cultures, both in terms of music and in terms of songs.”

Saudi Arabia is bordered by Yemen to the south, Iraq, the Levant and Turkey to the north, the Gulf states to the east, and Egypt and Sudan to the west. Over the centuries, the different regions of the kingdom have been affected by their neighbours.”

It is therefore difficult for the uninitiated to pinpoint the intrinsic characteristics of Saudi music that differ from those of its neighbours, but are present in all governorates of the Kingdom.

According to Mr. Thabet, Tariq Abdul Hakim, the commander-in-chief of the Saudi Army Orchestra and the maestro who composed the Saudi national anthem, had an active role in this field. To him we owe the modern musical style that characterizes Saudi Arabia.

The contributions of Tariq Abdul Hakim (who died in 2012 at the age of 92) marked a turning point for Saudi music. Thanks to him, Saudi music has evolved from auditory melody to written musical notation based on sound scientific principles.

It was his student, Omar Kadres, who worked on linking rhythm with the sounds of folklore. “She made a new sound in Saudi music,” says Mr. Thabet.

Talal Maddah is the pioneer of Saudi music known as the Voice of the Earth. He was the first to sing muqbilas, in this case long songs. Mohamed Abdo helped spread this new form of music. But as you can see, before this music matured, the big names made it famous. Among these are Hisham al-Abdali, Hasan Jawa, and Abd al-Rahman the muezzin of Platin – who was also a muezzin (a sheikh responsible for the call, from the highest minarets of mosques, to the five daily prayers, editor’s note), and many others. ..

During the second half of the last century, this artistic movement experienced a boom. Many composers appeared, such as Siraj Omar, Qadars, and many singers, starting with Muddah, Muhammad and Abu Bakr Salem, then Abd al-Majid Abdullah, Abadi al-Jawhar, Rabeh Saqr, Rashid al-Majed and others.

At the same time, female voices appeared, which were unfortunately few in number, such as the voices of Ibtisam Lutfi, Etab, Sarah Qazzaz and Toha. These singers were more oriented towards folk singing,” explains Mr. Thabet.

Contemporary Saudi music includes all kinds of music: jazz, hip-hop, rap, techno and rockin’ roll. It often includes elements of folklore, as evidenced by the songs “Lifestyle Samaritan”, “Lehi” and “Hawaj” by Majid Al-Issa.

Despite the colorful and lively nature of traditional songs, Saudi youth are also drawn to foreign music. Singer Jara, one of the youngest famous Saudi artists, caused a stir in 2020 with the release of her rap song “966”. Hip-hop musician Qusai Qusai continues his rise ten years after the release of his first album.

“Sounds from the region that I incorporate into my songs allow me to celebrate my heritage; I want to let the world know our beautiful culture,” Saud al-Turki, a music producer based in Khobar, told Arab News.

“As a producer, I want to feel free to use all kinds of voices. In my opinion, reaching a global audience has a greater impact. By listening to Saudi voices, you can realize that they are inspired by different parts of the region and that, depending on which region you are from “.

In 2016, the Kingdom opened up to the world and began promoting artistic activities and encouraging young people to participate. Before that, Al-Turki says venturing into different musical styles was not uncommon.

At that time, government bodies and large corporations did not support us. On the contrary, we did not have the same membership, respect and the same support that is given to artists today,” he explains.

Today, Saudi Arabia embraces different world music and evolving tastes, without departing from its heritage.

“We must never forget our origins,” says Al-Turki. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is historically diverse and there is nothing more beautiful than a diverse culture. Each region is decorated with special sounds that deserve recognition and appreciation.”

“We have an obligation to highlight and celebrate these diverse voices.”

This text is a translation of an article published on

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