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Conference Review: Middle East and Central Asia Music Forum, 6 December 2012

The Middle East and Central Asia Music Forum is usually held twice a year and organised by the Institute of Musical Research (School of Advanced Study) at the University of London. This time the day conference was supported by the British Forum for Ethnomusicology and the Centre for Music Studies at City University, and organised by Laudan Nooshin from City. All but one of the speakers were UK-based scholars, presenting papers on subjects which ranged from medieval Arabic music texts to political activism and popular music. The standard of the presentations was excellent, and the conference also included a film screening and a musical performance.

The opening paper was given by Simone Tarsitani from Durham University and focused on the performance and poetry of Islamic panegyrics in Ethiopia. Tarsitani’s paper was largely descriptive, which was perhaps appropriate since the subject matter was (for most people I suspect) fairly unfamiliar. He outlined the musical, poetic and social features of Islamic praise songs in Ethiopia (based on recent fieldwork), relating these to political developments in the last century and the current demographic situation. Tarsitani showed that while Harar has been a centre of Islamic learning and culture for several centuries, the Harari praise-song tradition has also been adopted – and adapted – by the Oromo people of the outlying rural areas. His video documentation of both Harari and Oromo panegyrics gave a glimpse of the complexity of a multi-ethnic African state through its local musical traditions, and demonstrated how these traditions are shaped by (but can also transcend) conflicting currents of Islamic practice and national politics.

Next, Miranda L.P. Crowdus of City University spoke on collaborative performance amongst Palestinian and Israeli musicians through a sophisticated reading of the music of System Ali, an ‘underground’ rap group based in Jaffa (Tel Aviv). System Ali mix languages (Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian) and musical styles (Hip Hop, Klezmer, Rock, Reggae) in an electrifying celebration and critique of the complexities of life in Jaffa. I appreciated Crowdus’s eschewal of either/or interpretations in favour of ‘both’ – the music of System Ali embodies ‘both political disparity and co-existence’ – and the music itself is powerful and a lot of fun; System Ali’s parody of Israeli nationalist folk songs is clever and poignant. However, the paper focused on the group’s own discourses and music at the expense of a more balanced (and perhaps more revealing) analysis of contextual factors such as listener responses and backgrounds, or commercialisation and self-promotion. It may be inevitable that we are partisan about the music we study, but the high stakes involved in politically dissident music often mean that it is not subject to the same sort of critique which is levelled at the narratives it opposes.

There was less danger of political sensibilities being aroused by Owen Wright’s paper on music theory in Mamluk Cairo, which dealt with an abstruse but important 14th century musical treatise by Ibn Kurr. Wright’s translation and analysis of Ibn Kurr’s work is soon to be published by Ashgate, and this presentation outlined the salient issues in his research to date – namely, that the notion of a historic pan-Islamic musical system is seriously undermined by Ibn Kurr’s rather different conception of mode and rhythm. The idea that there was a common musical tradition existing in various Islamic centres in the late Middle Ages is one that was originally advocated by Wright himself, and reflects the ideals of medieval Systematist music theory in the Middle East, which inherently tends towards unity rather than diversity. Wright’s recent research therefore contributes to a more complex historiographic model, and demonstrates the usefulness of studying seemingly marginal or challenging historical sources.

Following Wright’s paper, Nina ter Laan from Radboud University in the Netherlands discussed the interplay of music, religion and politics in Morocco during the Arab Spring. Her paper documented the role of music in an Islamic political group (Jama’a al-‘Adl wal-Ihsane) in relation to the secular ideals of the February 20th movement, and charted the group’s shift from songs about Islamic virtue and faith to politically-charged protest music. Her detailed analysis utilised the concept of the ‘street as stage’ to explore the changing contexts and social aims of musical performance and the opportunities for public expression afforded to marginalised groups by the political upheavals of the Moroccan Spring.

Stephen Wilford (City University) also spoke about the political dimensions of musical performance in North Africa, focusing on the lives of two prominent Algerian musicians, Cheb Hasni and Lounès Matoub. Both singers were assassinated during Algeria’s long civil war (which ended only in 2002), and Wilford’s research and original footage testified to the awe-inspiring power of their music for thousands of Algerian people. The significance of Raï music for disenfranchised young Algerians and its subversive engagement with social issues is demonstrated by Cheb Hasni’s hits El Visa and Beraka (The Shack), where he sings, charmingly, ‘I made love to her in a dirty old shack because I was drunk’. Lounès Matoub was a Berber speaker who openly defied the Algerian authorities by refusing to speak Arabic, and his assassination – according to Wilford – is still a locus for conspiracy theories and suspicions stemming from the civil war.

The following part of the programme was a screening of John Baily’s latest ethnographic film, Return of the Nightingales (32 mins), which depicts a music school for disadvantaged children in Kabul. The Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) was established by the Afghan musicologist Ahmad Sarmast in 2010, and although the school has a strong bias towards Western classical music, the film also showed children performing Afghan and Hindustani art music. In the discussion that followed, several people expressed their discomfort with the ‘cultural imperialist’ emphasis on teaching Western orchestral instruments, and agreed that the children appeared more comfortable and natural when performing on the rubab, sitar or tabla. Baily, whose lifelong devotion to Afghan music and culture is well known, characteristically refused to pass judgement on the school’s educational principles, but pointed out that there were historic precedents for teaching Western music in Afghanistan. However, the school’s ideology and methods, in their implicit belief in the ‘civilising’ power of Western art music, certainly bear comparison with similar projects in Israel/Palestine, which are strongly critiqued in a recent article and forthcoming book by Rachel Beckles Willson.[1]

The final paper of the day was given by the musician and ethnomusicologist Sara Manasseh, who spoke on ‘Shbahoth – Songs of Praise in the Babylonian Jewish Tradition: From Baghdad to Bombay and London’. Manasseh’s work as both a scholar and performer is based on the heritage of Iraqi Jewish songs which were passed on to her by her family and which constitute a rich and unique musical tradition. Her paper was a fascinating historical account of the repertoire, encompassing its original performance context and musical and poetic structures (which draw on Arabic and Iraqi as well as Hebrew traditions), interweaved with the story of her family’s migratory journey from Iraq to India and early recordings of Jewish song. A book and CD with the same title as Manasseh’s paper was recently published in the SOAS Musicology Series. Following her paper, Manasseh performed with her group, Rivers of Babylon, but unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the end of the conference. Nonetheless, Manasseh’s presentation was a fitting way to finish the day’s discussions, highlighting as it did the breadth and depth of cultural, linguistic and political complexity involved in the study of music in the Middle East.


[1] ‘Music Teachers as Missionaries: Understanding Europe’s Recent Dispatches to Ramallah’, in Ethnomusicology Forum, vol. 20, no. 3 (2012), p. 301; Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West (Cambridge, 2013).

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