Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula:
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar
By: Lisa Urkevich
New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. 365 pp. Pbk.: $63.95.
Volume: 3 Issue: 8
El-Sayed El-Aswad, PhD
United Arab Emirates University
Al-Ain, United Arab Emirates
This timely monograph, ethnographically collected and written by Lisa Urkevich who
enjoys a long experience in researching and teaching in the Arabian Peninsula,
provides a vivid cross-cultural study of music and performance arts performed in
various Arabian societies including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. The
author defines her approach by stating that she does not seek to write an academic
research that concentrates on processes and values with a western anthropological
perspective; rather, she seeks to introduce Arabian Peninsula musical arts and locate
them into historical and social contexts.
Social contexts of Bedouin, rural, and urban communities are highlighted as shown in
the author's statement that the music people perform depends on the communities to
which they belong. Within the Arabian Gulf context, musical arts are divided into
those of the land, such as Bedouin (badū) and urban or settled communities (hadar)
and those of the sea, such as pearlers and fishermen. In addition to the traditional-folk
music and performance of Arabian Gulf societies, commercial and popular music
heard on the radio of these societies is considered khalīji. For instance, a person from
the Najd in Saudi Arabia might enjoy a combination of current hadar, badū and
As Urkevich points outs, people of the northern Gulf nations are viewed as cultural
kin, and a large number of them stem from shared tribes. These nations are also united
by common seafaring traditions. Traditional-folk art, considered pure art (fann al-
asīl), is performed along with modern and commercial arts due to the impact of
shared heritage genres. For example, many commercial songs are considered by Saudi
and Gulf elders as associated with traditional arts. Saudi artists incorporate more
frame drums (tīrān) as found in the Najd. Emirati produced khalīji songs, the most
prevalent in the early twenty-first century, include a bandari rhythm similar to that of
southern Iran across the sea.
The book, including an introduction, contains 19 chapters divided into two parts. Part
I, encompassing eight chapters (2-9), discusses the music and performance arts in the
Najd and Upper Gulf Region. Part II, consisting of 10 chapters (10-19), focuses on the
Hijaz and Southwest Region.
In Part I, the author addresses Bedouin and non-Bedouin music and performance arts
in the Najd and Upper Gulf Region. She points out that traditional nabati poetry,
commemorating particular events related to tribal territories, watering holes,
grievances, chivalry, and battles, is the dominant form of all Bedouin artistic
expression. Bedouin musical genres and solo arts, including rebāba, are found in the
Najd and Upper Gulf.
Many Bedouin collective arts, such as 'arda, razīf and dahha, are presently performed
for weddings, private celebrations and national festivities. The author pays attention
to Bedouin women's music, songs and dance associated with both collective and solo
arts performed mainly in traditional wedding celebrations. In addition, female
drumming bands (taggāgāt), basically slaves, immigrants, or descendants of
immigrants hired for celebrating weddings and other social occasions, are also
discussed. With reference to the non-Bedouin Gulf arts, there are four divisions with
cross-cultural significance: land, sea, city (ūd, maqām-based), and incoming arts,
including laywa (African origin), tanbūra (African origin), habān or jirba (bagpipe
music of Persian origin) and zār or sāmri (African origin) associated with exorcism of
spirit possession. These multiple traditional arts that have roots outside the Upper
Gulf cultures are considered part of local heritage. The author indicates that some arts
such as sāmri, are used exclusively by urbanites (hadar), while other arts, such as
'arda, a battle genre, are performed by both Bedouin (badū) and hadar. She also
maintained that sea arts are deeply ingrained in the cultures of the Upper Gulf
notwithstanding the rapid decline in sea life caused by the development of the
cultured pearl and discovery of oil.
In Part II, the author tackles the music and traditions of the Hijaz and Southwest
Region. She argues that the most prevalent arts are those linked to specific villages or
towns. The arts are performed by peoples of mixed heritage and enjoyed by all settled
The relationship between traditional forms of arts prevalent in great cities such as
Makkah, Medinah and Tā'if is addressed. For instance, Urkevich recounts that some
of the most distinguished arts of Makkah and Medinah have originally been from
Tā'if. Throughout the Hijaz, Tā'if is associated with majrūr, a folk art with dance,
performed by both men and women. Another example is dāna, a predominant art-
music category of the Hijaz that was created in Mekkah from where it spread to other
cities. Moreover, the most celebrated Saudi artists such as Muhammad 'Abdu and
'Abdul Majīd 'Abdullah, among others, developed their skills in large Hijazi cities or
Tā'if. However, the author argues, "for centuries cities like Mekkah and Medinah had
a musical life that rivaled or even surpassed those of Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad"
(p. 220). Such a statement seems not to be founded on historical evidence. Singing or
chanting and poetry recitation performed in Mekkah and Medinah may have
competed with those of Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad, but not music.
The author argues that the geographic location of certain communities has played a
critical role in the development of certain forms of music. For example, because Bīsha
is located at a place where the Asīr, Najd, and the Hijaz meet, it developed musical
characteristics contingent on tār (frame drum) not found in the Asīr highlands.
Another example is that Nijrāni collective arts such as zāmil and gezawi are regional
versions of the same forms found in the Asīr.
However, the author claims that because of the Empty Quarter and the twenty-first
century royal governance, the music and cultures of the southern nations of the UAE,
Oman, and the Yemen are somewhat different from those of Saudi and the Upper
Gulf societies. This line of argument does not explain the fact that in addition to
immigrants and slaves, many dominant tribes of the Upper and Lower-southern
nations of the Gulf traveled across the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf — regardless
of the Empty Quarter — and shared certain forms of music performance and
traditions. Moreover, the Jīzān, located in the southern most Saudi province, borders
the Yemen and, historically, have shared culture and traditional arts.
Urkevich's work enjoys significant features. In addition to English transliteration and
translation of Arabic terms, this guidebook provides original Arabic script of poetry
and songs. Although the author is not a native Arabic speaker, she pays particular
attention to the meaning of Arabic terms. Furthermore, the book encloses commentary
'Boxes' (displaying Gulf arts and traditional genres), an appendix, a glossary
(explaining key Arabic terminologies), black & white images and color photos, and
an audio CD containing 31 examples of group and solo songs and music. There is also
an extensive bibliography.
One of the most significant aspects of this monograph is that it provides information
of relevance to researchers or scholars. In the meantime, it can be used as an
introductory text for graduate and undergraduate students. Taken as a whole, the book
is a fine ethnomusical collection and a welcome contribution to the scholarship of the
Middle East, in general, and the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf societies, in particular.
Related Links: DOMES | Wiley's Online Library | PSO | UWM | Dr. Mohammed M.
Contact: Prof. Mohammed M. Aman,PhD, EIC, Digest of Middle East Studies
Copyright 2013 DOMES