A dancer in search of Tarab

This post is part book review, part essay, and part personal reflection.

This week, I finished reading the excellent “Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab” by A.J. Racy. This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for a long time, and I was finally spurred on to buy myself a copy by a discussion with one of my close friends on what makes singing emotionally moving, or makes it inspire a state we might describe as tarab.

Tarab (طرب) is a concept that has no exact translation in English, but which describes a state of enchantment, rapture or ‘musical ecstasy’, inspired by certain musical performances. Many bellydancers are aware of this concept, and many talk about achieving a state of tarab during performance, but I suspect that few (myself included) fully understand it. I have been deeply interested in the experience of tarab since first learning of it some years ago – I have always been fascinated by and drawn to ‘mystical’ experiences and other states of consciousness, a personality trait which I am told is common in dancers, although it doesn’t always sit comfortably with my own rationalist worldview.

Reading “Making Music in the Arab World”, I had several “Aha!” moments regarding the nature of tarab, and why certain music makes me ‘melt’ whilst other recordings leave me unmoved. But I was also left with the feeling that I was barely scratching the surface of an incredibly complex and nuanced musical world.

Eek, Maqamat!

Although I have a good working knowledge of Arabic rhythms (which I now know are called iqa’at (ايقاعات)), as is essential for a good dancer, I have only the faintest passing acquaintance with the Arabic modes, or maqamat (مقامات). This isn’t a problem as a dancer, per se (in fact, one teacher for whom I have a great deal of respect, and who shall remain nameless, once poked fun at me for over-analysing when I asked a question about maqamat in class).

Understanding maqamat would be unlikely to make any material difference to my dancing. But I now believe that not understanding them limits the level at which I am able to appreciate or enjoy classical Arabic music at the moment – and the more deeply I can feel and connect with music, the more that my dance is able to ‘flow’ without conscious input. Plus, dance aside, I would like to experience this music as fully as I’m able to, purely for my own enjoyment.

Oud (image credit: Wikipedia)
Oud (image credit: Wikipedia)

Racy explains that for both musicians and tarab listeners, a deeply internalised familiarity with the maqamat means that each maqam has its own feeling or ‘colour’, and its own distinct ability to create a feeling of tarab, or in the case of musicians, saltanah (سلطانه), which is a state of musical inspiration described by Racy as ‘modal ecstasy’, and which seems similar to what we might describe as a flow state. An educated listener (i.e. not me, at present…) can appreciate when a maqam is explored by the musician in a satisfying or clever way, when an unexpected note or phrase is used, or when the musician successfully modulates to another maqam – and can apparently thus derive great enjoyment and tarab from a good taqsim (solo improvisation).

In this area, I feel like I’m missing out on a lot. As it happens, I recently decided that my new challenge for this year was going to be to learn to play the oud (Arabic lute), since for a long time I played classical guitar, and I miss being able to create music as well as dancing to it. So now, my determination to do so is doubled, as I now see that learning to play and recognise maqamat will have many benefits for me, even if I never become a good, or even competent, oud player.

So what *is* tarab anyway? And how do we get there?

Well, as I said to begin with, I still don’t think that I fully understand what tarab is, and I doubt that I ever will – but here are some of the ideas from the book, on the characteristics of tarab and tarab music, that most stuck me, and resonated with my own listening experiences:

  • Conflicting emotions, such as love and separation, joy and sorrow, are brought together into a ‘bittersweet’ emotional state.
  • A stylised lyrical theme of love and longing is both something that most people can identify with, which creates the intense conflicting emotions described above, and a metaphor for a love of the music itself.
  • Musical looseness of timing (i.e. not rigidly following the underlying rhythm), especially on the part of the singer (who can choose to stretch out syllables, ornament melodies, and alter timing), creates a powerful tarab effect.
  • Everybody involved in creating music, including the poet who writes the lyrics, the composer, and the musicians and singer, should ideally have a strong emotional connection to it, which is then reflected in the music when it is performed.
  • Back-and-forth interaction between musicians and listeners, and a good atmosphere, are essential at a live musical event.

And as to the experience of tarab itself, I have no way to know how my own experiences compare to those of an Arab music lover, or how closely my emotional state when listening to music corresponds to theirs. That is essentially unknowable. But I do find that some pieces of music (or more precisely, some recordings or renditions, since not every version of the same piece has the same effect) have a powerful effect upon me at times. This is difficult to describe, but I will try [1]:

Bellydancer Rasha with live Arabic band
Rasha with a live Arabic band.
  • A general feeling of heightened emotion, with something of the bittersweet character described above, sometimes combined with a certain awe for the musician or singer who has created such beauty.
  • A sensation of ‘melting’ or being ‘in the music’, in which the music fills my awareness and it is difficult to pay attention to anything else – in this state, if I am dancing, dance often becomes natural and effortless.
  • Feeling the music within my body, as if my heart were rising and falling with the melody.

In the musical passages that tend to have this effect upon me, I can see many the elements of tarab that I mentioned earlier.

Almost all of my favourite Arabic songs have a theme of love, loneliness and (sometimes enjoyable) pain, which I find both moving and evocative. As a particularly unambiguous example, from ‘El Hawa Sultan‘ by George Wassouf, a song which I find very beautiful and never tire of listening to: “albi b3azabo kteer farhan” – “in her torture, my heart is joyful”. Or a more nuanced example of melancholy from Umm Kalthum’s powerful ‘El Hob Kolo’: “tariq hayati mashi qablak fi lail tawil; la qalb gambi ya7asibiya w la teyf gamil” “I walked the road of my life, before you, in an endless night; No heart beside me to feel me, nor any beautiful specter”.

Of course, having the right words isn’t enough, especially since I know very little Arabic and mainly rely on translations. The singer must also be able to imbue the lyrics with real emotion, which doesn’t rely upon the words to take effect.

Now I’m aware of it, I can also hear that the musical passages which tend to create a feeling of melting into the music are those where the singer or instrumental soloist works loosely around the rhythm, and stretches and embellishes the melody. I now know that this technique is known in Arabic as tatrib – the art of producing tarab. More effective still are the rhythmless mawawil (singular mawal), vocal improvisations which I have increasingly come to enjoy recently, although in most cases I do not dance to them or find them appropriate for dancing.

This also explains why I find some of the music recorded for dancers, especially some of that recorded by Western musicians or musicians with a somewhat Western aesthetic sense, feels rather flat, lifeless and emotionally empty – in these recordings, the playing is precise and the rhythm rigidly adhered to. And for some ineffable reason, that seems to cause tarab to melt away like a mirage, as if it was never there…

[1] Racy also describes an altered perception of the passage of time as a common part of the tarab experience. I can’t honestly say I have experienced this myself, but this is probably in part because I rarely have the chance to attend live concerts, where this is more likely to take place, and generally have to settle for recorded music.

Developing tastes, tuning ears

I’m aware that at least some of you reading this will probably be bellydance students who haven’t yet got that ‘into’ Arabic music (in which case, well done if you’ve made it this far!). So you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed or bewildered by the amount of information and specialist musical terms, or wondering why you don’t yet feel this special connection to the music that you hear in class or use for practise.

Appreciating Arabic music as a Western dancer is a rather gradual process, in my experience. It takes a lot of time and repeated exposure to get a good feeling for the rhythms and the unfamiliar melodic structure. To begin with, you will most likely feel more drawn to music with a simple structure or a lot of Western pop influence. The appeal of more complex music will gradually grow as the basic features of Arabic music become more familiar to you and start to seep into your subconscious. And with each step you take down that rabbit hole, the way ahead of you will be lit a little brighter, and the next step will become a little more inviting.

So it is that when I took my first bellydance class, I loved the Westernised fusion pop of Natacha Atlas, and when I first heard a recording of Umm Kalthum, I found it strange and inaccessible, and her voice austere and offputting. A little over five years later, after many small steps into the musically unfamiliar, and an hour-long live recording of Umm Kalthum can send shivers down my spine, although I still find it a little easier to lose myself in the deep, velvety voice of Abdel Halim Hafez. And poor Natacha now languishes, unlistened, on my CD shelf.

This is an continuing journey, of course, and there is still a lot ahead of me – a lot of music that is loved by tarab aficionados, which I do not yet ‘get’. I may never ‘get’ all of it. Learning about the maqamat is another step on the journey, as is listening to music that I can’t fully appreciate yet, knowing that in time its beauty may reveal itself to me.

I’m also pretty sure that some of this depends on your personality and natural response to music. In “Making Music in the Arab World”, Racy speaks of a widespread belief among Arabs that response to music is innate, and that some children naturally become fixated on music (and may go on to become musicians or music lovers) whilst others are indifferent. This fits with other things I have read on musical response – some people simply do not derive any pleasure from music at all (about one in twenty, apparently), whilst others may enjoy some aspects of music but not others, or respond with a more straightforward enjoyment of rhythm and melody rather than the complex trance-like/ecstatic state of tarab. So although this is a path of musical appreciation that I feel drawn to, you may find after some experimentation that your own musical direction or interest takes you elsewhere.

More about the book

This has been more of a rambling essay than a review so far, so to finish, here’s a little more on the book itself. Although it’s an academic work, I found it perfectly readable most of the time. There are some sections that go into a fair bit of technical detail on maqamat which you might want to skip if you have no knowledge of musical theory, but most of the content is remarkably accessible and clearly written.

I actually found this so interesting that I could hardly put it down, and would have read it all in one go had time allowed – as a dancer with a strong interest in music, it came as a series of revelations to me. The chapters cover the social context of tarab music, some of the technical details of how this music works and what aspects of it create the powerful effect it has upon listeners, a detailed look at the lyrical themes including many examples of lyrics and translations, and a fascinating overview of what defines tarab and tarab music. There are many invaluable insights from interviews with musicians and singers, as well as the author’s own experiences as a tarab musician, which give him a unique view of the subject.

So basically, if you love music, and are OK with books that are a bit academic in tone, I definitely recommend this. It’s going on my mental list of essential reading for the thoughtful bellydancer (along with Karin Nieuwkerk’s “A Trade Like Any Other”).

Further reading:

5 Replies to “A dancer in search of Tarab”

  1. This is fascinating! I’m still learning to appreciate Arabic music, but as soon as you described the state of tarab, the light went on for me. The way you describe tarab strongly corresponds to the way I respond to certain pieces of Western music; most frequently blues, but also pieces in many other genres as well. How lovely to know there’s a name for that experience! Now I’m excited to learn more about Arabic music to see if I can duplicate the experience.

    1. I’m so happy to hear that this has inspired you 🙂 I, too, have experienced something similar with some Western music, and I can definitely see how blues could have that effect. I do think that the tarab inspired by Arabic music has a special character of its own, too. I wish you good luck in discovering it, and I hope that maybe you will write about it one day too, as I always enjoy reading about other people’s musical experiences.

      Here’s something beautiful to get you started (one of my favourite songs right now, by Abdel Halim Hafez): http://youtu.be/aYoBhT1FkeA
      And the lyrics (not the clearest translation to follow, but it gives a rough idea of what he’s singing about)… http://www.allthelyrics.com/forum/showthread.php?t=61063
      I’d recommend sitting down with a cup of tea when you have a bit of free time, closing your eyes, and letting it wash over you 🙂

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful, reflective post! I I am very curious to find out what your oud-learning experience is like, and if it does increase your appreciation of the music, ability to hear maqamat, and so on. I found that even very basic doumbek helped me identify rhythms better, and there’s an old oud I’m eyeing in a local antique store….

    1. I will definitely write something about how I get on with the oud lessons! I found the same as you with learning to play basic tabla, it seems like somehow the physical process of playing is far more effective than just listening. I found it frustrating after a certain point though, because my ability to imagine what I *wanted* to play was out of step with my actual physical skill, and I was never able to practise enough to close the gap.

  3. We call this state of artistic rapture “duende” and although it’s a word that’s bandied about rather too freely in the non-Flamenco world, witnessing a artiste in a state of true duende is quite unforgettable. When you write about whether understanding Arabic fluently or not is essential to the expression of the dance, this has made me think about the same with Flamenco dance students who don’t speak Spanish, particularly as Flamenco singing can sound “odd” to Northern Europeans and if they don’t understand what the singer is saying, that only makes it worse…..I feel a new blog coming on!

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