The Science of ‘Palestinian Arab Music’

By Sami Asmar

Palestinian Arab Music: A Maqam Tradition in Practice
By Dalia Cohen and Ruth Katz 
University of Chicago Press, 2006

“Palestinian Arab Music: A Maqam Tradition in Practice” by Dalia Cohen and Ruth Katz, both professors of musicology at the Hebrew University, is a fascinating documentation comprising four decades of research. In an effort to determine the parameters of the stylistic variability of “Arab folk music in Israel,” Cohen and Katz extensively examined musical performers’ interactions with socio-cultural phenomena. Their research includes a statistical survey of provincial Palestinian folk singers and musicians typically isolated from the large cultural centers who, with few exceptions, learned their craft via oral tradition and without rigorous education in music theory. 

In the mid-1960’s, the authors chose to focus on Palestinian folk music to study the “comprehensive picture of a musical tradition as an integral part of its culture.” This jargon-filled phrase alone sets the tone of the book; it is an in-depth academic study and heady reading, even for music enthusiasts. Furthermore, the authors use mathematical techniques along with scientific instrumentation as the tools of their research. A large multi-dimensional matrix of information is the result – findings extracted from questionnaires completed by performers or “informants” (an unfortunate choice of terms) that thoroughly cover every conceivable angle: age, education, place of residence, religion, social background, knowledge of maqamat, etc. Six hundred recordings were made via an instrument called the melograph, Cohen and Katz’s own pre-computer age invention that simultaneously generated graphs of the base frequency and intensity of the melody as a function of time. The researchers provide analyses of percentages, standard deviations, plots and bar chartsad nauseam.

Admirably,  they have put tremendous effort into the research and, based on the work’s massive size, one is not surprised that it took four decades for the complete analysis to be published. Cohen and Katz show an impressive knowledge of Arab music that must have been learned strictly through Western academic publications; due to several regional wars, it is unlikely that they traveled to conduct research with Arab scholars in Cairo or attend a concert by an orchestra in Aleppo, for example. 

Cohen and Katz’s study of Palestinian music rivals Rodolphe d’Erlanger’s work on Arab music in sheer comprehensiveness. Scholars consider the landmark work of the French baron to be the ultimate historical reference on the development and standardization of Arab music. It documented the first Arab music conference in Cairo in 1932, at which many agreements were adopted. Although this book had the potential to surpass that landmark tome, “Palestinian Arab Music” mires the reader in too much detail – to such excess that it limits the actual information a layperson is able to digest.

For a musicology researcher, however, the book is a treasure trove. The appendices alone (about one-quarter of the large book) contain transcripts and classifications of  28 songs, representing the repertoire of the region, including musical notation, Arabic text, transliteration and translation. For fans of the mathematical analysis of maqam tetrachords, this is a must-read. Discussed genres include shruqi, zajal, mijana, ‘ataba, mu’anna, haddadi, dabke and mhorabe. The authors have beautifully catalogued rhythmic and modal organizations. Famous documented performers include Hikmat Shaheen (father of Arab-American composer Simon Shaheen), Muhammad Abd al-Qader and Yousef Majadeli. When available, the authors even added an update of where the artists had settled decades after the initial research was conducted.

The book’s stated objective is to document the vocal music of a specific, defined group – the Palestinian Arabs in Israel. Although a worthy dissertation topic, the research was conducted at a time when the target group was still the first generation and had not developed as a defined group or even considered themselves as such. They had lived under the Ottoman Empire and a brief British Mandate during which they traveled, traded and exchanged culture with their fellow Arabs in Greater Syria and Egypt. It was not until a few decades later that there was a group defined by political isolation from its brethren. From this point of view, the study overanalyzes a limited data set (distinguishing the oral traditions of Nazareth versus Haifa, for example, as opposed to Jerusalem versus Baghdad) for lack of access to the broader framework of regional music of which the Palestinian Arabs remain an integral part. Ironically, regional commonality has probably grown stronger with technological advances that have brought satellite television – with broadcasts of arts from Beirut to Dubai – to Palestinian homes. Despite this limitation, this scholarly work provides an outstanding enhancement to the field of Arab musicology. 

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, Nos. 56/57 (2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid