The Iraqi Maqam - Hashim M. Al-Rajab

Studies in the Classical Music of Iraq

Hashim M. Al-Rajab

Fine Arts Institute

The Maqam is a form of music which is unique to Iraq. The word "MAQAM", literally means "a halting place", while in musical terminology it means "tone". Fundamentally it is the music of the city dwellers in Iraq. Explaining this kind of music and trying to give the reader a precise idea about it is very difficult, as it is not recorded in any kind of musical notations, Like any other folklore music, which what the maqam to a certain extent is, it has been handed orally from generation to generation, and to the many masters of this art, as well as, the appreciative listeners, the Maqam owes its existence today. These are some of the factors that arouses the curiosity of the lovers of strange and out-of-the-way music.

Occidentals find it hard to distinguish one middle-Eastern melody from another. The listener tends to hear a monotonous similarity in these melodies that is due to the fact that an Oriental musician differs basically from his Occidental colleague. The former is addressing the heart of the listener, while the latter appeals to the brain. In another word the oriental appeals to the sentiments in the time the Occidental uses the imagination as his field. The Maqam, in addition to being sentimental music, is descriptive and meditative.

Western music makes far greater use of strong tone production and of resonating instruments than does the Oriental. Therefore, it is clear that our task of making the Western listener to appreciate the oriental music in general and the Iraqi music in particular, is not an easy one. Time, then, is a very important factor in helping the western listener to acquire a taste to this unfamiliar music, provided that he listens with the thought to understand the open heart and desire to appreciate this form of strange yet beautiful music, the Maqam.

The Maqam is defined as a group of melodies which are individually of the same mood. The Maqam always have a prelude which is called "Tahrir", and a conclusion known as "Taslim". In between the prelude - the Tahrir - and the conclusion - the Taslim - is the Maqam proper. This part is usually composed of pieces of other Maqams, not necessarily of the same key, but always confined to the same mood of the main theme.

The Maqam is usually rendered with four instruments, used as the background. The SANTUR which is an instrument consisting of twenty three keys, each of which has four metal strings attached to it and stretched on a wooden frame. The KAMANA forms the second piece of this orchestra, and which has four strings that are vibrated by a bow. Hence the name Kaman means bow. The DUMBUG, which is a type of drum made of a piece of skin stretched on an earthen-ware pot, is used to keep time. Finally we have the DAFF which is a similar thing to world wide known Tambourine.

Basically the Maqam adopts the same musical scale adopted by the European music. But it consists of seven tones, which are the DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA and the SI. The main differences between the European and the Maqam scale are two. First, the European scale consists of tones and half tones, while the Maqam consists of tone, half tones and quarter tones. The second difference be in the names given to each tone. These will be mentioned later on.

The Maqam is generally a theme which is obtained from one of the seven tones. The theme is to be limited between two tones only. For example, the Maqam known as "RAST" must lay between SOL and RE, which is higher than SOL by four and a half tones, and the singer must not go higher than that. But if the singer goes higher than that, then so far as Maqam singing goes, he is at fault.

The Maqam proper as mentioned above is called the "MIANA". This as we have stated earlier is a part of another song, but in the same mood of the introduction and conclusion. It may be compared to the CADENZA of the European music, for in it the singer can show his virtuosity.

The Maqam singers of Baghdad, which is the home of this kind of music, recognize seven principal melodies, which forms the basic themes of the Maqams of Iraq. These are:

1- The RAST
2- The BAYAT
6- The HUJAZ
7- The SEBA

It is of interest to note that each Maqam is usually associated with some predominant feeling. The RAST, for instance is a slow, low-pitched music and it implies wisdom, while the BAYAT is associated with a strong, virile feeling. Other themes are intended to evoke memories of the past, sadness, merriment or such other human feelings and emotions.

Branching from the original seven themes are about ninety secondary themes. While about fifty of these second themes or melodies have achieved the status of an independent complete Maqam, the remaining forty are sung as part of the other Maqams and fitted therein.

With regard to the words sang with the Maqam music, we can divide the latter into two categories. The first category, such as Bayat, Nawa and Rast is rendered with Classical Arabic poetry. With other Maqams which form the second category, the colloquial poetry, which is the layman poetry, is used. The second category are such like Hadidi, Ibrahimi and Madmi.

Each Maqam should be sung in a special pitch. When and if it sung higher or lower then it loses the most characteristic part of it. That is, it loses the mood or feeling it was meant to express. If it is sung higher than its scale, then it would be impossible to maintain the accuracy of the melody.

The PASTA is a cheerful, lively little song, that is usually sung after the Maqam, and it is evolved from the melody of the Maqam with which it should be in keeping. It is a kind or sort of chorus. For every Maqam there are a number of these Pastas which are introduced to enable the audience to participate in the enjoyment of the singing. It also serves to give the principal singer an opportunity to take a rest.

The secondary Maqams which increased the number of the original Maqams are due to, and a product of the creative instinct of the human being, a natural instinct which rebels against a too stereotyped artistic form and out along new paths. This instinct had manifested itself, as far as the Maqam is concerned in two different ways. First in the composition of new Maqams which has come about when the musicians who have introduced the Maqam have put two or more melodies together, coming out with an entirely new Maqam, which differs from each of the composing melodies. A typical example of this, is the JAMMAL. This Maqam is composed of the SEBA and SAYGAH, but when sung it has a completely different character.

Secondly, the urge to create new forms was manifested when the original singers of the Maqam were able to produce a different Maqam by raising the pitch of the melody of a given Maqam, thus producing a different song. As an example we can cite the case were the pitch of the SAYGAH is raised, we have on our hands a new Maqam which is called AWJ.

Some people have reasons to believe that the Maqam is the legacy of the Abbasid Caliphs, whose reign flourished in this part of the world between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries AD. In fact some of the scholars think that the Maqam called IBRAHIMI was named after the famous singer Ibrahim Al Mousully, who enlivened many nights of the famous Caliph, Haroun al Rashid.

These theories, however, on the period when the Maqam type of music and singing came into existence and took its name are only surmised based on evidence, and like all other historical studies of similar nature are still controversial, and far from conclusive. Ali al Darwish, who attended the Middle Eastern music conference held in Cairo, Egypt, in 1932, stated that this art originated about 400 years ago. He cites as evidence the Tawashih of Andalusia. The famous singer Ziriab who had to leave Baghdad as a result of the treachery of his teachers, inspired by jealousy, to Moorish Spain, took with him the music of the Abbasids in Baghdad. This became the base of the various Andalousian melodies, known today as the MUWASHAHAT.

Thanks to the efforts of Al Darwish and his colleagues, which disclosed to us the fact that the basis of Al Muwashahat is the same of the Western music, i.e. the eight tine scale. While the Maqam is based on the three, four or five tone group scale. Therefore, it seems likely that the Maqam started during the period of the decline after the Ottoman occupation of Iraq. And it can be said that this kind of music took its origin from the music of the local people, as well as that of the other people passing through this country, whether soldier, merchant or tourist.

But as a conclusive fact, we can say that certainly the Maqam of today is effected by and contain many melodies of the Turkish, Persian, Indian, Caucasian and of course the Arabic music. In proof of this statement, we may cite the following: First, the names of some of the Maqams, such as "IDEEN", "URFAH", and the "TURKISH RAST", are purely Turkish, while "SAYGAH" traces back to the origin of this Maqam to Persia, and in like manner the "TAFLEES" can be traced back to its Caucasian origin, and the "INDIAN RAST" to India. The "SEBA" and "HUJAZ" as can be seen from their names are of Arab origin. Secondly, the similarity between the melodies of the Iraqi Maqam and these of Turkish, Indian or Persian songs. And thirdly, the Persian, Turkish or Indian words the Maqam singers use sometimes, when singing.

The principal factors in preserving the Maqam are many. But mainly, we can say that the reading of the KORAN and the special hymns sung during some religious ceremonies especially the "Mawlud", or the Wudhan, the prayers call of the Moslem. Then the Maqam survived is also due to those people who are interested in this kind of music and those singers who follow the masters and later imitate them. Whenever a good singer appears, many young people, or in the modern expression "fans", would be attracted to his singing and try to imitate his special style. Many singers are found among the craftsmen, such as labourors, weavers, carpenters or masons, and other individuals from the different walks of life. There also used to be special cafes where the Maqam was recited every night, and where the entrance fees were very small. For instance, the famous Iraqi singer Ahmad Zaidan used to sing half a century ago with a group of musicians in the Café of Fadhil, in the Qaisariyah Café and in the Masbagheh. This famous singer was succeeded by another famous one, namely Rashid al Qoundarchi, who used to sing at the Shahbender Café in Baghdad.

Different schools of Maqam singing have formed which were represented by groups of eminent singers who would be followed by their disciples and pupils. Needless to say, in the handing down of this traditional type of music differences arose in the mode of presentation of the Maqam, in the selection of melodies and so on.

This brings us to the question of the writing down of the Maqam. We have seen that the rules are bound, in the handing down process, to undergo constant changes, while like all artistic tradition passed on in this fashion from Master to pupil or to imitator, there is great danger of the tradition being lost.

This is more true nowadays when young people is a rapidly developing country like Iraq, don't have much time or interest to spare for this kind of music. Nothing on the form of the Maqam is in writing. For all the foregoing the Egyptian and western music, as well as modern Iraqi music have captured a place in the hearts of our young generation.

This is not a complete study of this subject, and could not even be termed as a real introduction to such a long and complicated art. But it is a birds eye view, to get people to know about this kind of music, about which nothing had been written so far. We hope that the reader will find this humble attempt as useful as it was intended to be.

- Maqams in classical Arab poetry:

Bayat, Rast, Saygah, Hujaz, Nawa, Husseini, Seba, Khanabat, Mansuri, Araibun Ajam, Qouriyat, Bayat Ajam, Banjikah, Basheeri, Awj, Taflees, Jammal, Awshar, Ajam Ushairan, Taher, Khalwati, Mathnawi, Saeedi, Nahawand, Hujaz Shaitani, Hujaz Atchugh, Huweizawi, Urfah, Dashti, Dasht, Arwah, Hamayoun, Nawrouz Ajam.

- Maqams in colloquial poetry:

Buheirzawi, Ibrahimi, Juburi, Mahmoudi, Nari, Mugabal, Maschin, Araibun Arab, Sharqi Isfahan (Sharqi Rast), Rashdi, Hakimi, Goulgouli, Mukhalaf, Madmi, Huleilawi, Bajilan, Qatar, Hujaz Kar Kurd, Sharqi Doukah, Hadidi.

- Qita' and Awsal:

Qazzaz, Nahuft, Qaryabash, Umar Gallah, Bakhtiar, Laouk, Zanbouri, Khalili, Abboush, Mukhalef Kirkuk, Udhal, Qatouli, Sayh Reng, Qadir Bayjan, Mahuri, Ali Zubar, Hujaz Madani, Shahnaz, Abuselik, Jassas, Saisani, Hujaz Ghareeb, Sufian, Ushaishi, Saygah Halab, Saygah Ajam, Saygah Balaban, Ideen.


Al-Muthanna Library publications
Al-Ma'arif Press, Baghdad
First Edition, 1961


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