Traditional Music in The United Arab Emirates

Traditional Music in The United Arab Emirates Last updated on Monday 26th April 2010

The music precedes the players, as the throb of drumbeats beckons through the twilight. A steadily increasing stream of people, attracted by the sound and the beat, move towards the gaily coloured lights, which mark the site of the celebration. The melody grows louder, the beat more insistent. Now it is not just the sound of one drum, but of several. The steady thumping of a bass drum is now overlaid with the higher pitched tattoo of smaller drums.

As they come into view, the singers are accompanied by the wailing, treble melody of the flute. The dancers and singers are white-robed men, moving together slowly and rhythmically. Their voices rise and fall in a chorus as repetitive as the waves breaking on the sandy beaches of the Gulf shore. These entertainers may continue for half an hour or more without interruption, slowly dancing around in a circle, surrounded by a crowd of spectators. The musicians maintain their relentless rhythm, lending a totally hypnotic effect to the whole event.

But this is not only a nighttime spectacle, nor is being part of the audience merely a chance encounter. Groups of these folk singers, dancers and musicians performing traditional music are increasingly common in the United Arab Emirates, and can be found at almost any celebration.

A sheikh's wedding, for example, with its accompanying celebrations on a grand public scale, will bring together several troupes of musicians and dancers from all around the Emirates. Each troupe will perform on a wide variety of instruments, and will present an equally wide variety of dances.

Music and dance are inextricably linked in the traditional Arab world, and each musical instrument plays for a specific style of dance. Among the most popular today are the Ayyalah, a stylized performance of a battle scene; the Liwa, which was brought to the Gulf by East African traders; and the Noban, which, as its name indicates, had its origin in Nubia, a southern region of Upper Egypt.

The Ayyalah is accompanied solely by drums. The leader of the ensemble is the big drum, known as Al-Ras. Its solid, deep voice sets the beat for the three smaller Takhamir drums. Tambourines are sometimes used, too; these are known as Duffuf or Tiran. The ensemble is sometimes completed by the use of copper cymbals.

Sticks of palm wood are used by Ayyalah drummers, while other types of drum are played with the hands, or with sticks and hands together. Drums can be prepared before the performance by kindling small fires which heat the drumheads and tambourines, tightening the leather to give a more melodious sound. Manual tuning is used for the big drums, by means of the ropes which hold the drumhead in place.

Although Ayyalah dancing is found throughout the Gulf, there are small variations according to region. In the UAE, the dance is performed by at least 25 men, and sometimes by as many as 200. They stand in two rows, facing each other, arms linked. As they wave camel sticks in front of them, they sway back and forth to the beat and each row sings, in a declaration of challenges and boasts to the opposite side.

The Liwa is danced to African-style music and features a pipe-flute called the Mizmar (known in Kuwait as the Sirnai). The three backing drums for this dance are the Shindo, the Jabwah, and the Jasser. More recently, a fourth drum -- known as the Peeper -- was added. This drummer plays a dominant role, which gives him plenty of opportunity for a virtuoso performance.

The Mizmar has an oboe-like sound and produces a haunting melody, which is lent particular poignancy by the eastern tonic scale to which it is tuned. Like the oboe, it is made in two pieces, with a double reed fitted into the second piece. The best instruments these days are made of African hardwood in Mombassa and Dar Es Salaam. Their cost can be as high as $2,000.

The Liwa begins with a Mizmar solo of about six minutes in slow tempo. The drums join in, followed by the ten dancers/singers, and gradually the pace increases to reach a spectacular swirl of activity. The whole dance takes about 25 minutes and both men and women can be involved in a performance.

The singing is always performed in Swahili -- the native language of Tanzania and Zanzibar. These were both major trading partners with the Gulf in centuries past, and have lent their language and culture to influence this fascinating dance.

Festive occasions often see the use of two other traditional instruments. The Tamboura (called the Simsimia in Saudi Arabia) and the Manior (the Kashkoosh in Kuwait), are both used to accompany the Noban.

The Tamboura is perhaps a relative of early harps found in other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures. It is a fairly sophisticated stringed instrument, with five horsegut strings held in tension between its wooden base, covered with camel-skin, and its wooden, bow-shaped neck. The strings are plucked with sheep's horns, which have been specially cleaned and treated for the purpose. The sound of the Tamboura is rough and strangely resonant, something akin to a bass violin.

In contrast, the Manior is far less sophisticated. It is a true example of ingenuity and of 'making-do' with whatever materials come to hand. This is a percussion instrument which, quite literally, needs to be worn in order to be played! It is made of thick cotton covered with hundreds of loosely stitched, dried goats' hoofs. The player wraps the instrument around him like a skirt, and by twisting as he dances, he can produce a clapping sound to the beat of the Tamboura and the ubiquitous drums.

An instrument similar to the Scottish and Northumbrian bagpipes is often heard at wedding ceremonies in the Gulf today. This is the Alhaban (known as the Girbah in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia), and features a tanned goatskin on which three pipes are fixed in a somewhat ungainly fashion. One pipe blows air into the goatskin, one plays a drone note, and the third has the melody.

The Arabian bagpipes are also interesting in that the air sack, or bladder, still retains an undeniable goat shape. This, of course, makes it a somewhat awkward armful for the player, and also lends it an air of drollery, which contributes greatly to the spirit of the performance, adding much to the general gaiety and goodwill for which these types of entertainment are famous.

The music of the Gulf is music for the people by the people -- a celebration of the joy of living. Long may it continue.

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