The Music of Iraq

Jabra I. Jabra
Ministry of Culture and Information
Musical Arts Department
Baghdad, Iraq

References to music and musical instruments in ancient Iraq are perhaps the earliest in the world.

The mighty Mesopotamian goddess lnanna, whose very symbol was a bunch of reeds, was also the goddess of music; her voice was heard whenever a shepherd or a farmer blew into a reed. Music was thus associated with man's first myths and religious ceremonies. Inasmuch as music was the expression of individual emotion, it was also an expression of collective sorrow or collective joy in mass rituals. Innumerable are the Sumerian and Babylonian plaques where harp-playing, for example, is portrayed as an essential part of a public activity, religious or otherwise. Bearing in mind that the harp of Ur, technically a highly advanced instrument, goes back to some twenty-four centuries B.C., and that lnanna is mentioned or pictured in even earlier tablets and images, one can safely assume that Mesopotamia originated some of the earliest string and wind instruments in man's history.

While over the centuries civilizations flourished and died in a long succession along the banks of Tigris and Euphrates, music never lost its important function in the day-to-day life of the people. A peak was reached in the Abbasid period in Baghdad, between the 8th and 13th centuries, when the oud, or the lute, was developed, together with the nye, to a high point of sophistication. So was musical theory: Al-Farabi's book "Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir" (10th century A.D.) is still a marvel of depth and complexity on the art of music.

An age-old heritage of great variety thus accumulated, which in the periods of decline was preserved largely in the form of folk and religious music. Almost every region along the two rivers kept its own style of country music.

The southern desert kept singing modes, noted for their vocal power, that differed from those in the northern desert, and the music of Amara in the south was distinguished from that of Upper Euphrates. The Syriac churches of Iraq, some of the oldest in the world, preserved their own modes, and religious Islamic music found a home in the takyas attached to various mosques in major towns, and in the annual lamentations over Al-Hussein. Vigorous Kurdish music, associated with the hills and mountains of the north, had its own distinct qualities which also went back to times immemorial. Meanwhile a multiplicity of styles seemed to converge on the cities, especially Baghdad, in certain complex modes known as maqam. Although these multiple types of music are now brought by musicologists into a unified theoretical system markedly Iraqi, their variety in rhythm and melodic structure gives Iraqi music its peculiar richness.


Iraq has been a centre of civilization from the most ancient times. The Sumerians had already established a refined civilization before 3000 B.C., developing a number of city-states such as Kish and Ur. The famous harp of Ur was unearthed together with a gold cylinder seal during excavations at Ur's Royal Cemetery in the 1920's. Akkadians and Elamites brought in other cultures around 2500 B.C., and six hundred years later the Amorites, whose homeland was Arabia, created under the Babylonian King Hammurabi an extensive empire famous for the splendour of its civilization. Clay tablets found from this area reveal the existence of harps of different sizes, lyres, long- and short-necked lutes, frame drums, drums and wind instruments. On the higher reaches of the Tigris, the Assyrians established at first for a brief duration, then later under the reign of Ashur-nasir-pal II (833-859) control over north Mesopotamia. Wall carvings from this period show besides the above-mentioned instruments also cymbals, double flutes, oboes, long trumpets and horns. After the fall of Nineveh to the end of the seventh century B.C., Iraq became the centre of a neo-Babylonian state under Nebuchadnezzer. Within the rise of Islam at the beginning of the seventh century, Iraq became an integral part and soon the centre of the Arab empire.

In the heyday of this empire centered in Baghdad, music played an essential role in education and daily life. The best insight into the Arabs' intense appreciation of music can be gained from Ibn Abd Rabbihi's book "al-lqd al-Farid" (The Unique Necklace) or al-Isfahani's "Kitab al-Aghani" (The Great Book of Songs), both written in the tenth century. It was in Baghdad that Ibrahim al-Mawsili, the patriarch of classical music, lived and worked as a court musician and companion of the Caliph al-Rashid. In 1220 Iraq was invaded by the Mongolian conqueror Jenghiz Khan, and in 1638 by the Ottoman Turks.

The Ottoman rule ended in 1918, and Iraq became at first a kingdom, then a republic. A new and flourishing era began after the Revolution of July 17, 1968, characterized by prosperity and enlightment. This revolution is undoubtedly the most important event in the contemporary history of Iraq. Traditional music and musicians retain self-confidence and self-respect of their own musical heritage. New developments in the field of music were initiated on both the practical and theoretical sides. Thus musicians and the music-interested public were provided with all the means necessary for an intense study of music. On the level of applied music, the new Iraq strove to attain an improvement linked to the country's glorious tradition. The enormous change in Iraq's cultural life is sustained by an enthusiasm which originates in the ancient heritage of the land and in the determination for revolution under the guidance of the party and its leader, President Saddam Hussein.

The Music of the Arabs
Habib Hassan Touma

A survey of the social music life of the Arabs during the course of their cultural history clearly shows that the Arab musician has primarily been a singer from the earliest times, and still is today. In the pre-Islamic period, music practice and music centred in the person of the songstress. Today, after over a thousand years of Arab history, music life is much the same as it was in the 9th century: it is still centred in the person of the singer, who occupies a dominant position among musicians. After the centuries-old predominance of vocal music, it is only during the past few years that entire concerts consisting solely of instrumental music have been held, at which the instrumentalist can profuse with his instrument alone what is known as tarab, i.e. a real joy in listening to music.

Arabian music, empirically speaking, is the music performed by, listened to and enjoyed by those who call it Arabian, namely the Arabs themselves and their neighbours. Arabs are not only those living in the Arab Peninsula, i.e. Saudi Arabia, but all those who live in an Arab State, speak Arabic and maintain Arabian culture, which is based on the Arabic language, Islam and tradition.

We may mention the following five characteristics which help to precisely define Arabian music:
1) Non-tempered tonal system with its characteristic intervallic structure on which the Arabian scale is based;
2) Rhythmic-temporal structures with their rich formulae performed on the goblet-drum (tablah) and frame-drum (riqq) to accompany composed forms;
3) Building structural elements of composed and improvised forms, both instrumental and vocal;
4) Social occasions at which music is performed;
5) Instruments: short-necked lute (ud), plucked zither (qanun), etc.

Arabian music is modal and is governed by the so-called Maqam-phenomenon, an improvisatory process, whose most essential features are a free organization of the rhythmic-temporal aspect and an obligatory and fixed organization of the tonal-spatial aspect. However, we may classify musical forms in Arabian music into two categories: improvised and composed. The composed forms are rather few, while the number of improvised "forms" is as great as the number of musicians realizing an improvisation. In the latter case, the Arabian musician functions as an interpreter and composer at the same time. In the composed forms, on the other hand, the musician has much freedom in interpreting a piece, exact repetitions of the same compositions are rare, unless performed by ensembles.

In spite of their division into many states, the Arabs belong to one nation and have one musical culture.

The Music of Iraq
Degree of Interrelation between Folk and Art Music

Iraq is one of the Arab countries and is part of the Arab Nation. Located in north-eastern Arabia, it has a total population of nearly 13 million.

The Iraqis themselves distinguish between three main categories of music in their own country:
1) Hadar-Music, i.e. music of the large towns,
2) Rifi-Music, i.e. music of the villagers and the residents living outside the towns, and
3) Bedouin-Music, i.e. the music of the nomads living in the desert.

Rifi- and Bedouin-Music fall roughly under what we call folk music, while Hadar-Music contains Arabian art music and popular music. From an ethnomusicological point of view we can distinguish in Iraq among three main musical categories: folk, popular and art music. We can further distinguish between sacred and secular forms of art and folk music.

Let us first define what we mean by art or folk music. Sacred music, instrumental or vocal, can be reliably determined by its text and occasion of performance. To define folk and art music categories, we must refer to more criteria than just text and occasion. These criteria, which are valid ever since the Middle Ages, have been considered by music scholars writing on Arabian music since the 8th century. So it was not mere chance that they explained the musical theory on musical instruments belonging to the higher class of instruments in use, and it was not by chance that they did not mention in their treatises other instruments of less importance. We have in mind Farabi of the 10th, Safiuddin of the 13th and Meshaqa of the 19th centuries. It is therefore the position of the instrument and its musico-social rank among other instruments in the musical tradition of Iraq that determine whether an instrumental musical form belongs to a more or less important category, i.e. to art or folk music.

The Ud, a short-necked lute, is nicknamed Sultan al-Alat (Sultan of all musical instruments), and belongs to the category of art music. It was the Ud that Farabi, Safiuddin, Meshaqa and many other scholars played and used to illustrate the theory of Arabian Music.

The education of a musician presents another criterion for determining whether the music performed belongs to folk or art music. Musicians in the field of art music complete a fundamental and systematic instruction in music theory. Also, they take lessons from a master. On the other hand, folk musicians do not possess theoretical knowledge and usually do not take systematic instruction from a master. Quality and function of melodic structure play another role in classifying music as folk or art music. Compared with that of art music, the ambitus of melodies in folk music is rather narrow, fluctuating between a fourth and a octave. In folk music whole passages are often repeated exactly or with slight changes, while melodic lines in art music develop wide arcs, modulate and build to a climax. The ambitus exceeds an octave.

Individual style in the execution of a musical category is an additional criterion in defining a musical type. We find in Iraq that folk music categories are governed by a collective style of execution heard in a specific geographical area or a village. In art music one can easily distinguish between different styles of improvisations of several good musicians living in one and the same area. We can even speak of schools of interpretation, let us say, Maqam al-Iraqi or Taqsim-s named after individual musicians, such as Qabbandji or Bashir, for example.

Folk music categories are never performed in small circles as in the case of art music. It is the occasion that dictates the performance of folk music categories in the framework of a social context. In art music it is the artist himself who decides what to perform, when and to whom.

Singers of art music sing both in classical and colloquial Arabic, while a folk musician sings only in colloquial Arabic. Consequently, we can distinguish between folk and art music categories in Iraq if we consider the criteria mentioned already, namely:
1) Rank of a musical instrument in the musical tradition,
2) Education of the musician and his musical knowledge,
3) Melodic quality,
4) Execution style (collective/individual),
5) Occasion of performance,
6) Language sung (classical or colloquial Arabic).

Although these six criteria help us in making a division be-tween art and folk music in Iraq, there are exceptions, which is natural and to be expected. For example, some first-rate Ud-players in Iraq play folk melodies, and excellent vocalists of art music sing categories of folk music. There are extremely rich categories of folk music forms in Iraq, each of which can show in addition several styles of execution. At the same time there is the art music with its established tradition, rules of execution and repertoire.

Among the musical forms of art music we mention:
1) Al-Maqam al-Iraqi with its three styles: that of Baghdad, Mosul and Zubair (Basrah),
2) Taqsim,
3) Muwash-shah,
4) Qasidah,
5) Dhikr,
6) Maulid,
7) Koran recitation, and
8) Madih nabaui.

Among the musical types of folk music we mention:
1) Abudhiyya,
2) Ataba,
3) Nayel,
4) Swehli,
5) Dabke and Saz-Dance, and
6) Qasid.

Interrelationship between these musical forms of art and folk music can be shown through analysis and comparison of four structural elements, namely:
1) Tonal structure,
2) Rhythmic-temporal structure,
3) Form-building elements, and
4) Maqam-Phenomenon.

Both folk and art musical forms mentioned above are based on one modal and tonal system: intervallic distances in all cases are chosen from the same pool of the Arabian tonal system as it is practised in Iraq. Some of these intervallic distances may fluctuate in art as well as in folk musical forms, depending on the Maqam-row or portion of a Maqam-row chosen. While forms of art music are based on complete Maqam-rows which are spread at least over a whole octave, forms of folk music are based on portions of a Maqam-row. Therefore, we cannot speak of this or that Maqam-row in folk music, although the tonal material applied and executed in folk music is partly the same as that of art music. An example of this is the Maqam al-Iraqi "Bayati" and the Abudhiyya Gafli.

Rhythmic-temporal structures of musical forms in art music develop freely, while in folk music forms they have less freedom at their disposal, as far as rhythmic-temporal organization is concerned. The Abudhiyya singer is free to render his Abudhiyya according to his own conception, but yet not as free as a singer of al-Maqam al-Iraqi in art music. There, the Qari (i.e. Maqam-singer) has total freedom, from a rhythmic-temporal point of view, of course, to elaborate and present his Maqam. The following diagram shows degrees of change in rhythmic-temporal structure of a melodic line:

- metamorphosis
- paraphrase
- variations
- variants
- repetition

Depending on the skill of the musician, a musical passage in art music can be so paraphrased that other musicians can hardly imitate the passage. In folk music the average musician repeats his melodic passage exactly; better musicians decorate their repetitions with slight variants, or they vary the repeated passages. Excellent folk musicians come nearer to the paraphrase. By doing so they are creating a new style which characterizes their singing or performance and which is usually named after them. There are many excellent singers whose renditions of the Abudhiyya fluctuate between variation and paraphrase of any one of the eight Abudhiyya styles.

While in art music, for example Maqam al-Iraqi, the musician systematically develops and presents his Maqam phase by phase until a climax is reached and the Maqam-cell is fully elaborated, we see that the folk singer of Abudhiyya Gafli, which is based on a portion of a Maqam-row used in art music, has already at his disposal the Maqam-cell without necessarily elaborating it. Art and folk musical form based on one and the same Maqam-row or a portion of it have one and the same Maqam-cell. In art music the cell is developed dynamically by the musician, while in folk music it is there in the folk air itself, somehow "static", without a systematic elaboration.

It is on these three, or rather four, levels that interrelationships between Iraqi art and folk music genuinely take place. The stronger the interrelationship, the more difficult it is to differentiate between art and folk music types; the less the interrelation, the easier it is to distinguish between the two categories. In both cases, interrelationship between art and folk music forms in Iraq actually exists.

The Maqam is a characteristic musical phenomenon in Arabian Iraqi music which designates a modal framework in the music of the Arabs. It denotes not only the intervallic distances between tones of a specific order, but rather the mood created through realization and presentation of the modal framework based on such an order of intervallic distances. These themselves make up what I call Maqam-row or the Maqam-mode. From a historical point of view, the term Maqam became the common property of Arabic musical scholars in the 14th century.

The Maqam represents a unique improvisatory process in the art music of the Arabs. The development of the Maqam is determined by two primary factors: space (tonal) and time (temporal). The structure of a Maqam depends upon the extent to which these two factors exhibit a fixed or free organization. The tonal-spatial component is organized, moulded and emphasized to such a degree that it represents the essential and decisive factor in the Maqam, whereas the temporal-rhythmic aspect in this music is not subject to a definite form of organization. In this very circumstance lies the most essential feature of the Maqam-phenomenon, i.e. a free" organized rhythmic-temporal aspect and an obligatory and fixed organization of the tonal-spatial aspect. The Maqam is thus not subject to any rules of organization where the temporal parameter is concerned; that is, it has neither a regularly recurring and established bar scheme nor an unchanging tactus. Although the rhythm characterizes the performer's style and is dependent on his manner and technique of playing or singing, it is never characteristic of the Maqam as such.

This is one of the reasons why, from the Western point of view, the Maqam has sometimes been regarded as music improvised without form -, particularly since clear and fixed themes together with their subsequent elaboration and variation are absent. The singular feature of this form is that which is not built upon motifs, their elaboration, variation and development, but through a number of melodic passages of differing lengths which realize one or more tone-levels in space, thus establishing the various phases in the development of the Maqam. The Maqam is mainly based upon a systematic realization of tone-levels which gradually move upwards from the lower to the higher registers (or downwards from upper to lower registers), gradually ascending to the higher registers, until the climax is reached, at which point the form is completed.

A tone-level can, for instance, be set up around the note d and extend over the tonal range (g-a-b-c-e-f-g), whereby d becomes the pivotal point being encircled and emphasizes by its neighbouring tones. It is not unusual, however, for a tone-level to have more than one tonal centre. For example, one of the tones of the group (g-a-b-c-e-f-g) can form a secondary centre, which functions as a kind of satellite to the central tone d, giving the entire tone-level its primary and secondary centres. The full exploration of the possibilities of such a tone-level represents a new phase - with its characteristic central tone - in the building up of the Maqam. Some musicians develop a particular phase at length, others do so quite briefly; some extend the range of the tone-level and move far away from the central note, others restrict themselves to a narrow ambitus around it. But in all cases, the central tone of a tone-level is of utmost importance for the musicians, because it is the nucleus of the entire phase.

The aggregate of the phases determines the form of the Maqam, a form which is shaped by the succession of the central tones of the tone-levels. Each central tone is encircled by neighbouring tones and is sustained for a duration determined by the musician. One musician may take seven seconds to present a tone-level, another forty.

The first and last tone-level of a Maqam are centered on the first degree of the Maqam-row (Maqam-mode). The Maqam is divided into melodic passages, the number and length of which are not predetermined. In each melodic passage, one or more tone-levels are combined and contrasted; they can also replace one another. The number of tone-levels, without repetitions, is predetermined in every Maqam and can be reduced to a nucleus. Native audiences recognize standards of the originality and ability of a musician in the way he or she illustrates, combines and contrasts the tone-levels or the phases. Therefore, all possible combinations and repetitions of the tone-levels, as well as their departure from and return to the first tone-level, proceeding to the highest tone-level (the climax of the Maqam), are regarded as standards of the performer's creative originality, ability and musicianship. The realization of a truly convincing and original Maqam requires a creative faculty like that of a composer of genius. Nevertheless, this phenomenon can only in part be considered as a composed form, because no Maqam can be identical to any other: each time it is recreated as a new composition.

The compositional factor shows itself in the predetermined tonal-spatial organization of a fixed number of tone-levels without repetitions, while the improvisational aspect freely unfolds in the rhythmic-temporal layout. The interplay of composition and improvisation is one of the most distinctive features of the Maqam-phenomenon.

A taqsim is an instrumental improvised representation of a Maqam in which the tonal-spatial factor has a fixed organization, whereas the rhythmic-temporal factor is not subject to any organization. The organization of the spatial factor is independent of the medium through which it is realized (i.e. the instrument); it is, however, different in each Maqam, and can therefore be said to depend on the latter. The taqsim represents a magnificent genre in Arabian-Iraqi music. The artistic demands set by the taqsim are masterful technique and high degree of originality. It can be of long or short duration. A taqsim can run to a considerable length when the player extends the tonal-spatial organisation and aims at exhausting all the possibilities latent in a particular tonal field. This is especially the case when a taqsim has the function of manifesting the complete modal framework of a definite Maqam.

The Iraqi-Maqam is the noblest and most perfected manifestation of the Maqam concept. It is rendered by the Maqam singer (Qari' al-Maqam), who holds the main role in a Maqam performance. He is accompanied by Djalghi Baghdadi, a traditional ensemble consisting of a Santur (struck zither), Djoze (spike fiddle), Tablah (goblet drum) and Riqq (frame hand-drum with jingles). Depending on the Maqam-mood at the beginning, the singer improvises melodic passages, singing one or two vowels, then the Maqam-poem. In his melodic passages the singer moves up from one tone level to the other until he reaches the highest level of the Maqam, the mayanah. After the singer has performed the Maqam, he sings a song accompanied by the ensemble (including the percussionist).

Layali is the vocal presentation of a Maqam. The sung text is limited usually to the words "Ya Leyli, ya Ayni" (My night, my eye).

Swehli, a genre of improvised vocal folk music, prevails mainly in the Northern districts, in Mosul and the villages around it. Like the Abudhiyyah, Swehli belongs to the parlando style of singing. A Swehli-performance can last for many hours, particularly when two singers perform it alternatively. A Swehli-text consists of several lines, each of which has two verses (shatr) and treats mainly love themes.

Qasid, another genre of improvised vocal folk music, prevails among the Bedouins in the desert.


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