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This article was published in the EC Magazine 1/2016



Arabic Chant, from the Monodic Tradition to the Choral Work

by Edward Torikian | Composer 


In the beginning of the twentieth century, polyphonic choirs were uncommon in the Arab world, for several socio-cultural and musical reasons. In fact, besides the rejection of mingling men and women in order to form a mixed choir in middleastern society, the modal music of the Arab-Islamic area remained essentially monophonic and did not make any polyphonic addition; this latter persists today for musicians devoted to the roots of the monophonic tradition.


Further, many technical obstacles made it difficult to develop Arabic polyphonic chants:

  • First, until the early twentieth century Western notation was regarded as unable to accurately transcribe the Arabic monody (some tried but were unable to successfully design distinct alternative notation systems). In addition, as Arabic music was essentially a purely oral tradition, transcription into Western notation was not considered nuanced enough to reflect the delicate vocal inflections and instrumental subtleties that comprise the originality and beauty of Arabic music.
  • Then, as Arabic script is read from right to left, Arabs also used to apply the Western notation but with a reversed transcription, that is to say, writing or reading from right-to-left.
  • Finally, the arrangement of Arabic polyphonic literature involves not only the mastery of Western musical techniques in parallel with those of the Arabic language and music, but also a familiarity with what the Arabic musical tradition can admit without interfering with or diminishing its existing sonorities.

However, the picture is quite different today: there are in Egypt, as in Lebanon, many polyphonic choirs and hundreds of monodic singing choirs; likewise in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia and also in the Gulf countries, where Western teachers are invited recently to teach this newer kind of music-making.


Personal involvement

For twenty years I have opted to contribute to the current choral work launching in the Arab world with my more than a hundred polyphonic arrangements made for many choirs in Lebanon (especially the Fayha Choir, Tripoli) and other Arab countries. I was pleased to have found that the public, and even professionals, have warmly welcomed these Arabic songs dressed thus with a polyphonic feature. 

Based on this experience, I offer some tips in order to be helpful to the continued expansion of choral work in the Arabic repertoire.


The task of the arranger

When harmonizing, the arranger must:

  • Safeguard the Arabic song’s authenticity, 
  • Maintain the melody in the foreground, 
  • Work according to the musical mode in question without overloading it with inadequate or unnecessary modulations and over-complicated harmonies, 
  • Follow the rhythm suggested by the melody,
  • Respect the charters of the Arabic language.

To do this, one must remember that Arabic music knows hundreds of modes whose form varies between the more contemporary (similar to those of Western music) and the more traditional (with intervals of approximately three quarter tones). In the first category, there are the national anthems and light songs in vogue imitating what is heard in the international media (disco, rap, tango, waltz, slow, etc.). More traditional are old folk songs or even current compositions in traditional modes containing tones, semitones and three-quarter tones (their interval varies either during the execution or according to the locale); the most difficult to harmonize are the modes whose tonic is a lowered note (three-quarter tones between the tonic and the II degree). Between these two extreme types lies a wide range of modes that often recall the Western modes’ construction, but one must be beware of the resemblance.


The choir and its director

Choir members must master as far as possible the proper Arabic language pronunciation, where a few consonants pose serious problems for foreigners and even the vowels are not always appropriate for a well-placed sound. The director must choose the right balance between the purity of the Arabic expression and the artistic imperatives. In addition, when performing an Arabic polyphonic song, one must go beyond the attempt at complete accuracy and try to create in addition a feeling of enchantment or ecstasy (Tarab), which is the ultimate goal of the Arabic music function.