Is there such a thing as pure Arab music? Has Arab music been westernized in a way that surpasses the natural intercultural exchange that constantly occurs, and if so, is this a serious problem for the future of Arab culture? These questions continued to arise in discussions this past week at Al-Bustan’s Arab and Arts and Culture course, probably due to the fact that we spend a large part of the day thinking about Arabic music and how it can be incorporated into lesson plans. Among the group there is disagreement over whether “modernizers” like Egyptian composer Mohammad Abd al-Wahaab set Arab music on a path which has lead to the erosion of Arab culture or not. I must concede that I lean towards “not,” believing that the issue is much more complex than the notion that an Arab musical genre has been progressively destroyed by Western culture. That said, I agree with much of the discontent regarding the loss of knowledge of Arabic musical history.
For me, the disagreement hinges on the notion that there is a static thing that is Arabic music. There is an Arabic music style, but it is so multivalent that I have a hard time thinking that fusing it and other styles is automatically problematic. Arab music has now-accepted influences ranging from all parts of Africa, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and even Europe (the violin, for instance). There was likely a time when this intercultural exchange was considered a serious problem. But then, as time passed and the musical genres became better integrated, these fusions became natural and accepted. That is not to say that all fusion music is good, James Brown does not mix well with the singer Hakeem, for instance. I am merely trying to say that fusion is not fundamentally problematic.
At the same time, colonialism has affected hybrid music such that western music did not naturally mix with Arab music because there was not an even socio-political-cultural-playing-field. The cultural power of colonialism here should not be underestimated. Partially as a consequence of the Western cultural hegemony, some traditional Arab musical forms were ignored and not preserved, thereby reducing the richness of Arabic music today. Abd al-Wahaab is perhaps at fault here, inadvertently setting in motion the privileging of Western musical styles over Arabic ones. This is just a fraction of the arguments against the westernization of Arab music; I included it specifically because it was the most common argument that came up in our group.
I really am unable to pick a side, because there are so many factors to take into account here, and each argument is itself very layered. The only conclusion I can come to with any certainty is that the questions which opened this post are much more complicated than they appear initially. I know this is a cop-out at some level, but it also something that we will likely all agree upon.
– Max Dugan
Kenyon College, ’14
Summer Intern at Al-Bustan