“Jazz in the Middle East” (Discover Jazz)

[The following essay appears in the textbook Discover Jazz, edited by John Edward Hasse and Tad Lathrop and published by Pearson in 2011.]

discover jazzThe term Middle East signifies not only a vast geographical region of the world stretching from Morocco to western India but also a diverse set of cultural constructs that derive from population migration, a variety of religious traditions (including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), and shifting sociopolitical attitudes toward Western culture, including jazz music. Jazz in the Middle East has developed since at least the 1920s, incorporating and interpreting Western influences (through recordings and live performances) within local practices and styles of music, producing a rich and provocative milieu of sounds. Defining characteristics of jazz in the Middle East can be found most obviously in instrumentation, musical form/genre, and performance practices.

In the Middle East, some instruments are identified with particular cultures, while others retain a more pan-regional identity. Of the latter type, the oud (‘ud), a chordophone, and darbouka (dumbek), a goblet-shaped hand drum, are common in Middle Eastern jazz. Some instruments—zither, for example—are shared among Middle Eastern cultures, though they vary locally in construction, performance practice, and repertoire.

Musical form and performance practice demonstrate the same dynamic range of pan-regional and culturally specific identities. Folk dances (such as the Bulgarian horo) composed in compound meters (groups of two and three beats, as in 3+2+2, or 7/8) are common among Balkan cultures and have served as inspiration for many jazz compositions from this area. The taksim (taqsīm), a solo instrumental improvisation found in Arab and Turkish music traditions, is another form that is frequently adapted to jazz contexts. Musicians also explore connections between musical systems, such as Middle Eastern melodic and rhythmic modes. The maqam is an Arabic or Turkish mode composed of [a set of seven successive pitches] that forms the basis of melodic construction and improvisation. While these musical materials reference regional cultures, individual interpretations can vary greatly and transcend national and cultural borders.

The Maghreb, the region encompassing North Africa from Morocco to Libya, is said to include Andalucian Spain because of its history of multicultural influences, including the lasting influences of Sephardic Jewish and Muslim populations after their forced expulsion beginning in the fifteenth century. The legacy of Andalucia as a harmonious multicultural society continues to inspire musicians to explore the intersections of these cultures. Some of these influences (such as the highly punctuated and syncopated rhythmic patterns of palmas and zapateo, and melismatic vocal phrasing) can be heard in flamenco music, including the flamenco jazz of modern-day pianists Diego Amador (Piano Jondo, 2003) and Chano Dominguez (New Flamenco Sound, 2006). In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem (Thimar, 1998) and pianist Wadji Cherif (Jasmine, 2006) both explored the intersections of Arab classical and Western European jazz traditions, shifting their emphasis among musical styles through collaboration with varied musicians.

The Mashriq (the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, including Egypt) includes some well-established jazz cultures, especially in Israel and Egypt. Cairo, long regarded as a modern, cosmopolitan epicenter for music culture, hosts an annual jazz festival informed by a long history of local jazz performance. In the 1960s, Salah Ragab, a drummer, established several combos and a big band with which he recorded several albums, including collaborations with the American experimental bandleader Sun Ra (compiled in The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab in Egypt, 1999).

Although Jewish cultures are active in countries around the world, Israel serves as an epicenter of Jewish jazz music. Through institutionalized education and a vibrant festival scene, Israeli-born jazz musicians, such as bassists Avishai Cohen and Omer Avital, exhibit influences from the Middle Eastern, Western, and Eastern European branches of the Jewish diaspora. For example, Cohen’s Adama (1998) includes oud and Middle Eastern melody and harmony. Oudist Marcel Khalife and vocalist Rima Khcheich, both of Lebanese descent, are internationally renowned musicians whose careers are bolstered by successful recordings and festival performances. Syrian Abdullah Chhadeh performs on qanun (plucked zither) and fronts several projects that have garnered success among local jazz and international festival audiences.

Anatolia and the Caucasus region, which encompasses the nations surrounded by the Black and Caspian Seas, includes Turkey, home of the Middle East’s most established jazz culture. Percussionist Okay Temiz, among others, has achieved much success, often collaborating with musicians outside of Turkey; one of his best recordings is Magnetic Band in Finland 1995 (2004ds). Jazz in Armenia traces its history back seventy years, and several organizations in Azerbaijan have recently founded a Web site (http://www.jazz.az) that celebrates local jazz culture, including the publication of an anthology that features Azerbaijani musicians.

The Arabian Peninsula and Central Asia (encompassing Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and neighboring former Soviet republics) reveal relatively little information on their jazz cultures, partly due to changes in political environments within the last several decades. In Iran, however, jazz thrived in the 1960s, through recordings, television programs, and music festivals. Iraqi-American Amir El Saffar performs both as a classical Iraqi singer and a trumpeter in the tradition of American jazz (Two Rivers, 2007). In 2010 he collaborated with Hafez Modirzadeh, an Iranian-American saxophonist and scholar/educator. The collaborative work of these artists demonstrates the potential for jazz to serve prescriptive, socially conscious goals by emphasizing mutual respect and peaceful commonality that rise above political or cultural conflicts.

American jazz musicians have explored Middle Eastern music through jazz—both in collaboration with Middle Eastern musicians and in personal interpretations of the region. Randy Weston (The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco, 1995), Ornette Coleman (Dancing in Your Head, 2000), and Pharoah Sanders (The Trance of Seven Colors, 1994) all recorded with musicians from Morocco. In the 1960s, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik (East Meets West, 1960) and flautist Herbie Mann (Impressions of the Middle East, 1967) recorded jazz albums influenced by Middle Eastern music. The best known of these is Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite (1966), inspired by his State Department tours of both the Middle East and Japan. More recently, John Zorn and the musicians on his Tzadik record label have extended the sonic boundaries of Middle Eastern music and Euro-American jazz in recordings such as Bar Kokhbar (1996) and Live at Tonic (2001).

Jazz festivals and new media technologies have increased the presence of jazz in the Middle East. Festivals stimulate local tourist economies and the rise of new performance venues and educational institutions. Media technologies, including social networking Web sites, help musicians disseminate their music and establish international audiences. Ultimately, given the variety of sounds and interpretations in circulation, understanding how these dense assemblages of “Middle Eastern” peoples and ideas are reflected in jazz is less about teasing out one discernible set of musical characteristics and more about tracing the creative paths taken by individuals in exploring these cultures.

One comment

  1. […] followed and whose music I’ve taught in my courses and written about in the textbook Discover Jazz. We discussed his studies in North Africa and the unique side ways he has forged in […]

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