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Traditionally music accompanies almost every aspect of Middle Eastern life. Five times a day the call to prayer from minarets of mosques across the land reminds people of their duties. Celebrations of all kinds provide an opportunity for the community to gather together to make music, to dance and sing. Religious holidays, national days, marriages are all important reasons to enjoy music.

Drums warmingAs preparations for the celebrations get underway, a variety of drums are laid around a fire to warm the skin tops. Men and women gather round in groups, greeting their friends and anticipating the joy of dancing and singing. Everyone participates to ensure the success of the occasion. Soon rhythmic drumming announces that festivities are to begin. Men take their places either in a circle or lines facing each other, their feet moving in small steps as they bob and sway in time to the music. The rhythm gathers pace. The drumming becomes more frenetic. Excitement builds up as the dance reaches its climax. The sword dance, al-ardha is particularly popular. Swords or rifles are thrown into the air, where they tremble and spin before dropping back to the hands of the performers. In the past this type of dance preceded a march towards the battleground.

Women also have their store of traditional folk dances and songs that continue to this day in all regions of Saudi Arabia. Most frequently heard at women's wedding parties, their skills are passed down from one generation to the next. In cities nowadays, weddings are often held in large halls or hotels, but the basic musical performance is little changed from the past. A folk band of women may be hired by the parents of the bride, consisting of about a dozen performers who ensure the success of the wedding party by singing and playing for the guests.

One distinctive dance movement is known as al-na'ish, or 'the hair toss'. Girls loosen their long hair and swing it from side to side as they hop in time to the music. The audience clap and cheer as their waist-length locks fly out around their heads in a spectacular fashion. The women may emit a trilling cry of celebration, known as ululation.

Hard work, such as pearl diving or camel herding was also made easier by the accompaniment of music. Singing encouraged people to pull together rhythmically to accomplish the job more swiftly and pleasurably. Shepherds sang as they herded their flocks. The Bedouin have their own repertoire of chants which are sometimes romantic, dwelling on their memories or reflecting the harsh life of the desert.

Musical instruments that accompany dancing and singing can be divided into percussion, string and wind. Some of the instruments have their origins in neighbouring countries. As travellers and traders over the centuries interacted with the people of Saudi Arabia, musical instruments, such as drums from Africa and the guitar-like Oud became part of traditional bands.

The most important group are the percussion instruments.

Tar drum being playedtubul being played

Two drums, Al kassir and Al rahmani are the most popular. Al rahmani is a base drum and the largest in size, while Al kassir is a treble drum and produces a higher tone. The drums have goat skin tensioned across the ends, held in place with ropes made from goats' hair.

tarThe frame drum (tar) consists of a skin or either fish or goat, sewn into a narrow wooden frame.

A cylindrical clay drum (tubul) has the skin stretched over the top of a metre long clay tube.

daffThe tambourine (daff) is also popular, and is accompanied by small finger cymbals.

zir-ardhiFrom the Asir region of Saudi Arabia a variety of unusual small drums are added to the performance. A shallow clay drum, (zir ardhi) and a multihandled drum, (zalafa) with spokes like a wheel, are traditional instruments from this area.

The wind instruments

Listen to the notes of the wind instrumentsWind instrument being played

mizmahA Mizmah is a double reed instrument made of wood (similar to an oboe)

The Nay is a long wooden pipe.

String instruments

Did you know?In Saudi towns and big cities the Oud is popular. Ouds are the Arabian lute. The instrument is often very beautifully carved from rosewood. Similar to a western guitar this instrument is played all over Arabia. Players can become famous nationally for their accomplishments on the Oud.

rababahrababah bring playedA rababah is a fiddle with a single string and bow similar to a violin. Originally it was a Bedouin instrument.

Music is a valuable link between the past and the present. Traditions built up over the centuries join the young and the old together as they celebrate with dance and song and enable the cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia to be presented on a world stage.

mOre Links to find out more about music:

The Children’s Encyclopaedia of Arabia
Mary Beardwood, Stacey International, ISBN 1 900988 33X

Saudi Aramco World Centennial edition
January/February 1999

Drawings and top photograph courtesy of Mary Beardwood.
Other photographs courtesy of Matthew Tomkinson/In Partnership ©2005

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