No Arab Avant-Garde: Popular Music in the Arab World

Arab avant-garde music and the West

By Leah CaldwellJanuary 26, 2014

    The Arab Avant-Garde by Thomas Burkhalter, Kay Dickinson, Benjamin J. Harbert. Wesleyan. 296 pages.

    IN DECEMBER 2013, an American singer made it to the finals of Arabs Got Talent, a television show broadcast from Beirut on a Saudi Arabian satellite network. The story appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, ABC, and the BBC. Much was made of how Jennifer Grout gave a “near-perfect rendition” of a song by Egyptian legend Umm Kulthoum, all the while not understanding a word of it.

    Unlike, say, a contestant on America’s Got Talent, the English language media immediately took Grout’s talent seriously — no matter if she was just a contestant on a show whose payoff was a grand prize of 500,000 Saudi riyals and a Chrysler. Not only was Grout deemed a standout vocalist, The New York Times even implied that she had showed up the Arabs at their own game: “The only performer of classical Arab music [on the show] will be an American of European stock.”

    Grout was seemingly naive about her situation, telling The New York Times: “So many times I’ve heard the comment ‘It’s Arabs Got Talent — go back to America.’ It’s like I’m starting an invasion, when really I just love singing Arabic music and desperately wanted a chance to perform it for an audience that would appreciate it.”

    When I read the essays in The Arab Avant-Garde: Music, Politics, Modernity, I was reminded that a story like Grout’s isn’t as simple as a girl liking Arabic music and performing it. There’s a depressing pattern to how stories like hers play out. Though Grout’s imitation of Umm Kulthoum was treated in the media as a novel reversal: the West emulating the East. Kay Dickinson, one of the volume’s editors, describes in her introduction how the West has been drawing musical influence from the East for centuries, just without meaningful acknowledgment. Beginning with the European colonization of North Africa and the Levant, Western artists “wandered from their home traditions toward the Arab world for fresh outlooks.” Since then, a certain dynamic has been cemented between the Arab world and Western musicians — one that has elevated Western genius at the expense of Arab musical talent. It’s a testament to the power of this dynamic when, in 2013, an American imitating an Arab musical legend can so easily outshine the legend herself. 

    “As exotica, Arab creativity is put to work on a project of revitalization, its ‘strangeness’ a primary attraction that all the while closes doors between its own practices and the avant-garde heartlands it has helped shape,” Dickinson writes. She describes the opening of the Cairo Opera House in 1869 to commemorate the inauguration of the Suez Canal; its “first performance was not a local work, but Verdi’s Rigoletto.” Dickinson says this is an example of “epistemic violence,” or “the deliberate imposition of Western models as the norm, the only, the paramount, at the expense of voices that might critique them or speak otherwise.” 

    It’s a process that has produced an embarrassing fact: Western literature presents the avant-garde as relegated to liberal democracies and select socialist states, completely ignoring Arabs. This book, obviously, is a departure from that view.

    While this collection depicts the Arab avant-garde as a contested realm where complicated questions remain, the authors employ “avant-garde” as a term with meaning, as many Arab musicians use it to situate their work. Dickinson writes that the book does not seek to “fix a single, stultifying definition [of the Arab avant-garde] but to imaginatively proliferate feasible understandings.” Within these understandings, it’s clear that the Arab avant-garde’s relationship with the West still figures prominently.

    Divided into three sections — "Alternative Modernities," "Roots and Routes," and "Political Deployments of the Avant-Garde" — the book covers many aspects of the Arab avant-garde: interviewing Iraqi-American jazz-maqam musician Amir ElSaffar; understanding the “experience of unintelligibility” in Egyptian metal; and unraveling a conflict of cosmopolitanisms in a US State Department–funded music exchange program. The volume covers lesser-known, younger musicians from Palestine and Syria but also situates a few established artists in an avant-garde context, like Lebanese icon Ziad Rahbani.

    Sami W. Asmar’s essay on Rahbani, the son of Lebanese musical greats Fairuz and Assi Rahbani, describes the musician as departing from his parents’ brand of idyllic music, which depicted the “romantic utopia of village life.” The onset of the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s necessitated a “new theater with courage to ridicule the insanity of the bloodshed,” writes Asmar. Rahbani answered that call with his theatric performances, combining satire with beautiful songs easily imagined taking place in low-lit dens, as his recordings are full of casual banter and intimate lyrics. His song “Ana Mush Kafir” is a response to those who branded him a kafir, or infidel: 

    The person who prays on Sunday
    And the one who prays on Friday
    But abuse us every day of the week
    So now he is religious and I am the one considered kafir?

     Due to his wide popular appeal, Rahbani’s status differs from other musicians in the book (save for Egyptian Sayed Darwish), which raises the question of the avant-garde’s relationship with commodification — whether artists benefit or suffer from commercial influence. Benjamin J. Harbert touches on this in his essay on Egyptian metal, which in its early days existed in total obscurity. Harbert writes, “On October 15, 1970, twenty-seven days after the UK release of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt.” Egypt’s early metal scene was born around this time, existing completely off the radar of Egyptian authorities and “resemble[ing] Theodor Adorno’s ideal avant-garde — a free space, relatively detached from market forces. For Adorno, the avant-garde has the potential to avoid the reduction to a commodity-fetish […] In Egypt, there was no money to be made from metal.” 

    By 1997, metal was on the cover of Egyptian tabloids. Fans were accused of being Satanists under the yoke of Israel and the West, providing a convenient foreign conspiracy for Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. The same year, about a hundred metal fans were arrested at dawn and tortured, never to be charged with any crime. Then, as quickly as the media panic arose, it faded again. 

    Harbert revisits Egypt’s metal scene in 2006 and finds there’s not the slightest hint of rebellion. At a concert, he wonders if metal has gone soft. The lead singer of metal band Wyvern tells Harbert, “We thanked the crowds and fans so much because if it wasn’t for their discipline and following the rules, this concert would have been a big failure.” Harbert asks metal band Stigma “if the danger of being arrested makes metal in Egypt exciting. Unanimously, the band answered with a resounding ‘No!’”

    If metal in Egypt wasn’t about bucking state authority, what was it about? Harbert asks and answers this question thoughtfully. “For metal fans, music allows a contemplation of everyday alienation by pulling the listener into a simultaneously strange and familiar fantastical world,” he writes. With this, Harbert explains how Egyptian metal fans positively received Iron Maiden’s 1984 album Powerslave, with its “album art and title track draw[n] from Orientalist images of the Sphinx, mummies, cobras, pyramids, and despotic Pharaohs, evoking the grotesque of the Orient.” For these Egyptians, the imagery “plays with the everyday theater of ancient Egypt, from papyrus dealers stalking tourists near five-star hotels to Egyptian nationalist imagery on the Egyptian pound.”

    Other essays in The Arab Avant-Garde also examine musicians’ relationships — antagonistic or otherwise — with “exotic” or “self-Orientalizing” elements. 

    Thomas Burkhalter’s “Multisited Avant-Gardes or World Music 2.0?” probes how Lebanese musicians and artists “stage war and violence” in their work, asking whether this is not a new type of exoticism. He looks at Raed Yassin’s “CW Tapes,” or Civil War Tapes, a “sound collage” that includes radio clips, politicians’ speeches, and weapon fire from archives dating to the Lebanese civil war. Burkhalter writes,

    Lured into stressing cultural differences on the Euro-American platforms, many musicians [in Beirut] strategically focus on war and violence, or they use this link to their biography occasionally. One could argue that from an international perspective, these musicians have replaced one exotic element with another: traditional-sounding music for images and noises of gunshots and rockets. My research shows, however, that judging this is very difficult.

    To show this complexity, he points to artist and musician Mazen Kerbaj’s brt vrt zrt krt album, which experiments “with distinct trumpet techniques and sounds.” Yet it was an Austrian trumpet player who “told Kerbaj after a concert that Kerbaj’s trumpet in fact sounds very much like helicopters and rifles.” 

    Burkhalter’s chapter concludes, “[T]hese musicians are still caught in old postcolonial structures and dependencies, especially whenever they aim to reach international platforms. This becomes clear in their ongoing focus on war and violence, and exotica.”

    I think this is hazy territory. When is a certain sound being cultivated for a Western audience and when is it not? Could it be that addressing violence (or a Sphinx) in music is just what has come naturally to these musicians? Kamran Rastegar’s interview with Amir ElSaffar has the Iraqi-American musician, whose “compositions make use of maqam theory within jazz,” saying the application of the “exotic” is a mix of both autobiography and awareness. ElSaffar says,

    But I think what’s happening now — the notion of creating a fusion of ‘us’ with ‘that exotic thing’ is not at all where people are coming from. What’s happening now is coming from within, especially when you find practitioners who are bicultural, or biracial, to begin with. In my case I don’t feel like I’m introducing anything exotic. Nothing is more natural to me […] So if I’m going to compose a piece that happens to have elements from these different traditions, it’s just autobiographical, it’s just what’s coming out of my experience.

    As Dickinson states in the introduction, the Arab avant-garde is far from being singularly defined: “Within all this, the struggle for meaning, its erasure, and its overwriting positively trouble the stability of the Arab avant-garde, and the present volume cannot exempt itself from these machinations. Nor does it wish to.” The book raises these different interpretations of the avant-garde, acknowledging that, for many artists, their music has a complex relationship with the West — whether it’s the 1932 Cairo Congress of Arab Music, which, with Western participation, sought to categorize Arabic music, or an Iron Maiden album cover.

    That said, some of the essays in The Arab Avant-Garde were too wide-reaching. Burkhalter seems to want to take on the entire Beirut alternative music scene and lump it with those of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. I found myself confused by generalizations — “The latest tracks, songs, sound montages, and noises from the Arab world, Asia, Africa, and Latin America seem to contain revolutionary meanings” — and, given his 90 interviews with Lebanese musicians over seven years, wanting less of a rushed account of overarching trends. 

    But other pieces made me appreciate the volume’s wide reach, especially Michael Khoury’s essay on Halim El-Dabh, an Egyptian agricultural engineer turned musician who, despite Khoury’s tagging him as the “father of the Arab avant-garde,” seems to shy from the label.

    In 1944, El-Dabh made his first arrangement on a wire recorder. Dressed as a woman, he recorded the folk music performed by a group of women during an Egyptian ceremony called a zar, which is described by Al-Ahram English as an “exorcism ritual” to “drive away evil spirits and negative energy.” El-Dabh filtered and edited the recording through the technology of his time, producing “the world’s first composition to use recorded and processed sounds.” Khoury describes the result as “simultaneously spiritual and frightening.” Though El-Dabh’s wire recorder piece, titled “Ta’bir al-Zar,” preceded Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer’s “musique concrète” by four years, the latter would earn recognition as the vanguard of the form. 

    El-Dabh was never described as a genius because he “never performed this Eurocentric articulation of individualism and, while this may have been a disadvantage, it also reveals the ideological limitations of a European avant-garde.” Khoury goes on to describe the “dismissive reaction of the European-American avant-garde” to El-Dabh’s work, even as he studied and taught at Western institutions.

    Though El-Dabh never seemed to crave the construct of the avant-garde to situate his music, it’s possible that, because of this book and other attempts to re-think the avant-garde, the term will define his legacy. El-Dabh is now 92 years old and lives in Kent, Ohio. “I’m just a simple guy who doesn’t expect credit,” he told Khoury.


    Leah Caldwell is an editor at Al-Akhbar English.

    LARB Contributor

    Leah Caldwell is an editor at Al-Akhbar English. She lives in Austin, Texas.


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