Modernisation & Westernisation of Music in Egypt

Arabic Music in Egypt during the Late
Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries:
Westernisation and the Search for a National Identity

Maren Lueg
Department of Music
MA Near and Middle Eastern Studies

This essay will look at the profound changes affecting Egyptian music towards the end of the nineteenth and into the mid-twentieth centuries. In many ways these musical changes can be likened to the illuminated play of shadows thrown on a screen by the social and political activity behind.
Colonisation, first by Napoleon, then by Britain brought the spirit of the enlightenment with its emphasis on progress, modernisation, scientific method, analysis, and the secular.
It also created a new and expanding middle class, educated and willing to partake in the European narrative of industrial Progress, who sought a new identity for themselves that was both modern and true to their cultural past.
Within the Ottoman empire, Egypt as part of the Arab world, had over many centuries enjoyed the legacy of the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258) centred around the court of Baghdad, itself a sophisticated cosmopolitan centre, whose art music represented the finest achievements of Arabic culture. Meanwhile the fertile lands of the Nile region produced a stable rural culture, in which the folkloric tradition of Egyptian music was preserved, a tradition that drew as much from romance as it did from the Qur’an. Poetry, songs and instrumental pieces passed down by oral transmission through generations, and the emphasis on personal expression made this music very different from the fixed precision and dense polyphonic texture of the European orchestral sound that was to challenge it.
Traditional Middle Eastern music is heterophonic, and values the emotional interpretation the musician brings to an established piece, and the individuality of his interpretation rather than technical virtuosity or an exact rendition of a score. Music and theory are transmitted orally and learnt intuitively, not through notation. It does not have the complexity of western harmonic structure or the technical achievements of European art music. Above all, it demands involvement from the audience, not cerebral observation.
It is tempting to see in this duality the seeds of later cultural and musical struggles, when political nationalism, strong in the rural community, rejected the westernisation that was espoused more readily by the Turko-Caucasian political elite. European art Music education and performance dominated the cultural life of the ruling class in Cairo.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century literature by western travelers and scholars, what would now be called international opinion, described Arabic music and instruments as ‘primitive’ and less advanced than European art music. This created a dualistic view of the oriental-occidental culture, and allowed Europe to take on a superior attitude towards Egyptian music.
Egyptian cultural self-worth had been politically subdued through years of colonial suppression, creating the need to compete with the west and advance to international recognition. Undoubtedly, the major event responsible for the westernisation of Egyptian music was the Conference of Arabic Music, held in Cairo in 1932. The Ministry of Education, largely secular in its intent, sponsored this international congress in an attempt to improve and modernize the status of music performance, education and composition in Egypt in accordance with the European Zeitgeist. Whilst rural Egyptians and the Islamic Arabs aimed to formulate a new identity and culture for Egypt as a nation, incorporating folkloric tradition and cultural heritage, radical modernism in art, literature and music all gave expression to a new, westernised Egypt, and drove a national effort to mould the culture of the people of the Nile Valley into a modern Egyptian culture that was to be secular and westernised.
The process of westernisation and modernisation started under the rule of Napoleon and the Ottoman governor Mohammed Ali during the first half of the nineteenth century, thus ending the isolation of Egypt. Mohammed Ali sought to build up his economic and military independence against his Ottoman masters in Constantinople through economic power on the western model. Subsequently, during the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, urbanisation and modern education of the urban masses led to the emergence of secular groups within the intelligentsia, which gained control over cultural centres and became major producers of the new Egyptian culture. Opera houses, theatres, concerts halls, radio stations and record companies made art music accessible to a wider public.

Westernisation and Modernization of Egyptian Music
Muhammad Ali (1804-1848) introduced to Egypt European military bands, along with European music theory, notation and music education. Khedive Isam’il (r.1863-1879) erected the famous Opera House in Cairo, and brought Italian Opera and symphonic orchestras from Europe to Egypt. European art music and its Egyptian imitation appealed primarily to an elite cosmopolitan group, which included political thinkers, music critics, government officials and foreigners. The full sound of the large European orchestras deeply impressed many Egyptian composers and musicians, and inspired the introduction of large sections of western musical instruments to the previously intimate traditional classic Arabic music performance.
Before the grand orchestral symphonies from Europe reached Cairo, Ottoman governors of Egypt regarded the traditional Arabic Takht as highly sophisticated art music. The Takht ensemble which consisted of traditional Arabic art music instruments such as the qanun, the ud, nay, the kamanja, and a riqq, and a male solo singer, who could be accompanied by a vocal chorus.
The repertoire of the takht ensemble usually consisted of a waslat. Traditionally, the wasla consisted of a series of approximately ten to twelve songs of the muwashshah genre, qasidah, or dawr. The songs were generally based within one maqam, and ordered according to rhythmic mode progressing from a heavy rhythm to a lighter rhythmic meter. Waslas also included layali, and mawwal, and taqasim, and instrumental forms such as the dulab, and the instrumental genres of Ottoman Turkish origin such as the samai and bashraf.
During the beginning of the Twentieth century the traditional Takht ensemble was modernized to become a new form of Arabic Music Ensemble called the Fiqah inspired by large westernized orchestral performance. It was larger in size than the four to five piece takht ensemble, and ranged from six to about thirty instruments, and had integrated elements of European orchestral performances. Western orchestral string instruments and flutes were introduced. A western-style male, female or mixed chorus was added to the firqah, which was considered by many Egyptians as being a highly evolved and dramatic musical idiom. Conductors were introduced to replace the leadership position of the qanun or riqq, which would have been the traditional leader of the takht ensemble. The subtle heterophony and flexible improvisatory quality of the pre-World War I takht style was replaced with a dense monophonic texture, lush orchestral accompaniment and choral arrangements using unison and parallel octave relationships and drones. Finally and most crucially, westernized introductions to twentieth century Arabic art music composition began to replace traditional modal improvisation.
Ali Jihad Racy commented in 1981:
Instead of the delicate heterophony found in takht music, the Troupe’s performances exhibit a dense texture created by many layers of unison and octave relationships. Also, genres such as the dawr, which originally allowed a fair amount of improvisation, are interpreted strictly as fixed works with preset melodic motifs and cadential patterns and dynamic inflections which are indicated during the performance by the conductor. (Racy 1981, p.16)
Concert halls and large theatres became the main live performance settings for the firqah. Radio developed into the most important medium for the transmission of firqah performances to a large audience of all classes in Cairo. Music-films increased in popularity in Egypt between the nineteen-thirties and fifties and featured solo vocalists accompanied by a firqah ensemble.
Although a few musicians performed in public coffee houses, music appeared most typically on special occasions- in a sahrah (evening social gathering) held normally during a farah (wedding festivity) …after World War I …the performers presented their musical product to a large public on a less personalised level. It became common for urban artists such as Umm Kalthum and Abd al-Wahhab to “give concerts” in the European sense of term.
(Racy 1977, p. 49-50)
Inevitably, the formal orchestral stage performance of Arabic music in large European-style concert halls created a barrier between the audience and the musicians, which eliminated the intimate relationship between the musicians and audience, diminishing the provocation of tarab, which had previously been an essential element of Arabic Takht performance.
The need to play together in large ensembles shifted emphasis from displays of individual virtuosity and personal creativity to collective discipline. (Shiloah 1995, p.107)
In order to keep pace with the growth of western music in Egypt, an increasing number of Egyptian musicians studied western music and instruments. The modern twentieth century Egyptian composers of symphonic music originated from the family of the new Egyptian westernized elite, and received private musical training in both Arab and Western music. Some of them studied in the well-known conservatoires of Europe.
The aim of the new progressive Egyptian composer was to draw on elements of western art music, which they believed to be advanced, without losing the essence of Arabic music. They sought to combine western counterpoint, harmony texture and rhythm patterns with the oriental colour of Egyptian traditional instruments and music.
The use of western instruments which had a flexible tuning system, such as orchestral string instruments, was favoured because they suited the microtonal system and maqam modulation.
With the urbanisation of Cairo and establishment of the middle classes as the cultural engine of this fledgling state, a return to the old culture was impossible. Twentieth century Egyptian composers Sayyid Darwish (1891-1923), Riyadh al-Sonbati (1906-1981), Mohammed al-Qasabgi (1892-1966), Zakariya Ahmed (1896 – 1961), and Mohammed Abdel-Wahhab (1910-1991) among others were the leading figures to modernize Arabic musical culture at the same time as reinforcing its traditional heritage. They took their inspiration from the musical heritage of the working classes of Egypt and performed their work at festivities in lower- and middle-class neighbourhoods, as well as in Cairo’s theatre district. Phonographic recordings of their music were widely circulated and located in public places to be accessible to the general public. “Notices in the press about these men rarely failed to mention their essential Egyptianness” (Danielson 1991, p.113)
Shaykh Sayyid Darwish, who composed the new national anthem, is considered to be the most influential figure in the development of modern Arabic music composition, and is often seen as the father of the modernisation of Arabic music. Darwish was inspired by European classical music, particularly Italian Opera. His compositional work included music for theatre and musicals, and he blended western instruments and harmony with the classical Arabic musical forms and Egyptian music folklore. Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab modernized Egyptian songs and made Arab music more compatible with European art music, maintaining the essential character of Egyptian music. He introduced popular European dance musical genres like the tango and waltz into his compositions. “Nationalistic critique in Egypt commented that Abd al-Wahhab borrows from western art music with the excuse that it is…artistic and done in accordance with Arab musical taste”. (Racy 1982, p.401)
The desire to keep up with the process of modernization in the west led to further advancement of Arabic music performance. Radio provided an important channel of musical distribution to the masses of Egypt. From the late 1930s, Cairo’s private radio stations broadcasted live performances as well as commercial recordings of Egyptian music. Egypt was recognized as the Arabic cultural heartland and musical centre of the Arab world. By the middle of the Twentieth century, modern mass media distribution and western technology had created a new platform for stardom and national heroes.
The first Egyptian musical film appeared in Cairo in 1932. Within a short time musical films produced in Egypt acquired a growing popularity throughout the Arab World, featuring such singers as Add al-Wahhab, Umm Kulthum, Asmahan el Atrach (1917-1944), Farid el Atrach (1914-1974), and Leyla Murad (1918-1995). They were well established in Cairo and often had a career both as a recording artist and as a movie star, as well as performing in the concert halls of Cairo.

The Arabic Music Congress
The Congress of Arab Music, held in Cairo in 1932, was a major turning point in Egyptian music education, scholarship, composition and performance. It hosted a versatile and varied committee of musicians, music scholars and researchers from Europe and the Middle East, including Bela Bartok and Paul Hindemith, and men of many philosophical and musicological backgrounds with divergent views and understanding of Middle Eastern music theory and practice. Inevitably, there was a political agenda:
The congress was of prime concern to the government of Egypt, including King Fu’ad himself, and was linked to reforms intended to bring Egypt up to par with the modern “civilized” world. (Blum et al 1993, p.68)
The congress took place at the Academy of Oriental Music in Cairo, which had been founded by the reforming King Fu’ad in December 1929. Fu’ad had followed unswervingly the westernizing and modernizing footsteps of the Ottoman governor Muhammad Ali.
The conference notes were published in the large volume: Kitab mu’tamar al-musiqa
al-‘arabiyya [Book of the 1932 Arab Music Congress].
In it, His Majesty King Fu’ad I, patron of the 1932 conference, expressed his wish that, “[through our actions] it is hoped that Arab music will reach the degree of refinement and perfection that Western music has reached”. (Thomas 2007, p.2 )
The aim of the conference was to rebuild Egyptian music on scientific principles that would allow it to progress to an equal level of sophistication and accomplishment as European Art music. To achieve this, Mustafa Rida, the director of the Academy of Oriental Music, produced a list of topics that the congress should focus on:
· Moving ahead the development of Arab music.
· Constructing a fixed Arabic mode in the form of a standardized musical scale.
· Transcription of Arabic music.
· Methodically arrangement of Arabic music compositions.
· Evaluating the use of European musical instruments in Arabic music and assessing their appropriateness.
· Organizing and examining music Education in Egypt.
· Recording authentic, indigenous music from various traditional Middle Eastern communities and tribes.
The language and argument used in this critical debate was the language of the western enlightenment. This alone both reflected and established the dominance of the western agenda. During the conference it was suggested that Egyptian students should have the opportunity to receive academic music education in Europe. The debate between Egyptian and European committee members confirmed that the Egyptian view of music was intensely predisposed to the West. The Egyptian committee members believed in the pre-eminence of western music within a dualistic world perspective, which made inevitable the acceptance of western music as the ideal model of orientation for the progress of Egyptian music.
The committee had conflicting opinions on the subject of systematic organization and simplification of the Arabic modes according to western-tempered scale models. Some of the Egyptian members in the Committee for Modes and Compositions, “… passionately advocated the use of the equal-tempered scale of twenty four quartertones. In contrast the two Turkish participants rejected the quartertone system on account of its arbitrary nature and inappropriateness for the accurate measurement of Near Eastern pitch.”
(Racy, Ali J. 1993, p.74)
Because of the conflicting views within the committee, the issue of standardization of the Arabic maqam had to be tabled to further research. However the committee did decide that it was important to publish Arabic music in a form of manuscript that enabled it to be transcribed into western staff notation. Thirdly, the committee stressed that Egyptian composers were obliged to obtain their inspiration from the indigenous music of Egypt and refine Egyptian music as an art form equal to western art music, rather than draw inspiration solely from western musical sources. At the same time, it was believed that it would benefit the progression of Arabic music composition to introduce the use of polyphony and to advance to more complex refined musical arrangements expanding the use of instruments and sound color. It was an uncomfortable marriage.
There were contrary views between committee members about the use of European musical instruments in Arabic music performance. Most of the western committee members believed that “instruments were determined by local musical styles and aesthetics…western instruments were bound ‘to disfigure the beauty of Arabic music’ and should be prohibited.
(Racy, Ali J. 1993, p.76)
Other committee members favored the incorporation of European instruments because they believed that European Instruments were both technically and scientifically more advanced, and able to assist the progressive development of Egyptian music.
Many Egyptians at the congress regarded the piano as the instrument most emblematic of European civilization, and contended that the piano could help standardize intonation. If properly retuned, it could assist in fixing an agreed Arabic scale, especially the one consisting of twenty-four equal-tempered quartertones. Other committee members disagreed with the use of the piano in Arabic music, and so the committee failed to come to a consensus on the use and retuning of the piano. However, the committee members did come to a general agreement that the use of instruments with a fixed twelve-semitone scale lacked the appropriate microtonal variation which is unique to the sound of Arabic music. Their use was to be restricted.
The committee agreed that it was important for Egyptian musicians to become familiar with western art music and to learn how to appreciate the wealth of European music. They should look to Europe as a source of theoretical and systematic expertise, giving direction to the scientific development of Arabic music. However, the study of traditional Arabic music and instruments should not be neglected within education, and they suggested that students who wanted to study western music had to begin by studying the Egyptian music tradition. At the same time, Arabic music students had to develop an appreciation and understanding of western art music theory and practice.
To keep record of the traditional forms of Arabic music, the recording committee, headed by Bela Bartok, created a valuable archive of hundreds of authentic phonographic records of traditional Arabic music, preserving this cultural heritage for future generations before it was lost to modernization.

National Egyptian Identity
During the late nineteenth, and early part of the twentieth centuries, Egypt had experienced an increase in nationalistic movements, and a growing antagonism to foreign rule entered all segments of Egyptian society. The rapid modernization of Egyptian society and the erosion of the traditional social culture structure and values all created a growing need for an Egyptian national identity.
During the British rule of Egypt from 1882 to 1922 the search for an Egyptian national identity and resistance to foreign rule increased. The growing population of urbanised educated Egyptian élite and professionals wanted to achieve parity of international status for their country with the European nations, and felt an increasing need to redefine the musical and culture identity of Egypt accordingly.
Reflecting the longing for a united Egyptian national identity, Shaykh Sayyid Darwish wrote songs addressed to the people of Egypt with titles like “Bilaadi Bilaadi”
(My Country, My Country), which became the national anthem of Egypt, that voiced
anti-British views and celebrated a new nationalistic cultural identity for Egypt.
National-socialist ideas and concepts influenced by German nationalistic ideology and the translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf instigated a socialist-fascist movement, using Arab nationalism as a political ideology and formula for the unification of Egypt. It aimed to unite Egypt both politically and culturally against the British rulers, with the slogan ‘Egypt for the Egyptians’ . Many wanted independence from the west.
In the 1930s, disillusion with the European-style Egyptian national movement created a need to redefine Egyptian national culture in Islamic terms, based on the Arabic language.
It strove to be authentically Egyptian at the same time as being modern and equal to the western world through modernisation.
Traditional values of the Egyptian heritage, such as Islam, the Arabic language and traditional Egyptian music built the base for the new modernised Egyptian culture, bridging the gap between the Egyptian secular educated élite and the Islamic working class, and creating a framework in which the people of Egypt could feel a sense of unity against their foreign rulers. This concept of nationalism opened the market for a new cultural product that resonated with the wider masses of the Egyptian nation.
In their aim to bring all Muslims together, the most essential factor in musical authenticity was the recital of the Qur’an, through which they could appreciate the beauty of the Arabic language and sing religious songs for special occasions. Many singers had been trained originally as reciters of the Qur’an. They often worked professionally in both fields, performing amorous as well as religious songs. The most important national iconic singer of modern Egypt was Umm Kulthum (1900-1975). She learned to sing by reciting the Qur’anic text from her father, who was a sheik in a small rural community in the Nile Valley.
Raja al Naqqash wrote about the singer Umm Kulthum:
There is no doubt that Umm Kulthum’s link with our artistic heritage is her drive for the importance of religious song…she did not forget that she came from the Egyptian village, that she learned the Qur’an, that our artistic history is filled with… religious song and that religious sensibilities are a basic part of the feelings of the Egyptian people. (Al-Naqqash 1978, p.22)
The period from 1940 to 1950 was a time of revolutionary change in Egypt. The Arab nationalistic regime of Gamal Abd al-Nasser came to power in 1952 after overthrowing the ruling Egyptian monarchy. To keep the masses of Egypt on the side of his regime, Nasser publicly associated himself with Umm Kalthum, who generally believed in him.
The rise of Arab nationalism was mirrored by the career of this prodigal
child-singer (Umm Kalthum) who took the high culture of Arabic poetry to
the masses via her singing. (Hammond 2007, p.166)
The Falahine regarded heavily westernized musical compositions as alien to their culture and could not relate to the westernization of Arabic art music. Artists such as Um Kalthum and Abdul Wahab succeeded in incorporating western elements into their music performance, maintaining essential qualities of Egyptian music that were recognised by the general public, such as the defined use of the Arabic language of the Arabic singers, basing their cultural roots in the recitation of the Quran. These were the essential elements of Arabic music and perhaps came nearest to a widely accepted representation of what a unified Egyptian identity was about.

In economic and demographic terms the country left its past far behind. The urbanised lifestyle of Cairo and Alexandria gave little opportunity for the long-established oral transmission of traditional Egyptian culture. The Cairo conference may appear to have represented the triumph of West over East, yet there is room for future research to explore what influence the East exerted over the West in the years that followed: during the crucial period of change, when musicians struggled to reconcile two opposing musical systems, many must surely have enjoyed this challenge; for out of opposites, new art is often born, both synthesising and transforming. In searching to locate identity, should our metaphor of music be of the shadows cast by political puppetry? Or is it not of a thing scattered in the genes of global culture, like the strains of distant genetic material that can be traced in countless far-flung places? It might be argued that ancient Arabic music, no longer tied to any nation, has entered the bloodstreams of many.

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