Music & Dance

Music and dance are important to all people of Arabic speaking backgrounds and are woven into the fabric of everyday life. Across the homes of Arabic speaking people, music and dance play a vital part of family gatherings, feast days, weddings and celebrations.

Music

Oud player
Oud player. Source: dalbera from Paris, France (Saint-Chartier 2007 Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As with the Arabic language, and many customs and traditions, Arabic music transcends ethnicity, religion, and country. It includes several genres and styles of music ranging from classical Arabic music to Arabic pop music and from secular to sacred music.‬  The music is created using voice and/or a wide variety of Arabic musical intruments.

Whilst independent, Arabic music has a long history of interaction with many other regional musical styles and genres. It is a fusion of the music of the Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula and the music of all the peoples that make up the Arab world today. It has been influenced by Egyptian, Persian, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkish, Indian, Berber and Flamenco styles of music.

Oral musical traditions across Arabic speaking countries include forms of poetry and proverbs, some devoted to religious figures, such as the lives of Sufi saints. In some regions, oral literature is highly musical and takes many forms including songs for war, praise, weddings and local celebrations.

There are characteristic measures and features of Arabic music which differentiate it from other styles or forms of music:

Musicians playing at a Moroccan wedding
Musicians playing at a Moroccan wedding. Source: austinevan [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Its scale consists of tones and semitones, but it can move in quartertones, allowing for smaller tonal steps and for playing around notes in slight variations
  • Its basis is the maqam or mode and Arabic music has more than ten different modes, allowing the musician great freedom to introduce variations and modified melody

Important to Arabic music is the intensity in the tone, the emotion and the degree of feeling expressed by the musician in his/her interpretation. Individual interpretation and improvisation are not only allowed for in Arabic music, but highly regarded in a musician’s rendition.

For people of Arabic speaking backgrounds living in Australia, as for most ethnic communities, music represents their cultural heritage and many songs tell of the experience of migration and nostalgia for their home country. Traditional folk songs are performed in Melbourne’s suburbs at community events, in family homes, at weddings and at traditional celebrations.

Dance

Men dancing debke in the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh
Men dancing Dabke in the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh. Source: Biraweeya87 at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Arabic dance has many different styles, the main three being folkloric, classical, and contemporary. It is enjoyed and performed in every region, from North Africa to the Middle East, including the Arabian Peninsula, and in the Arab world’s nomadic cultures, the Bedouin and the Gypsies.

Over the centuries Arabic dance developed into distinct styles across different social classes. Local festivals in rural areas saw the use of folk instruments and more raw dance styles, while in urban centres, professional dancers performed more sophisticated and artistic dance styles. By the 1930s, the rise of the film industry in Egypt saw choreography flourish as professional dancers created elaborate performances for cinema and later for television.

Apart from serving as an important feature of social life, dance has come to symbolize a key part of cultural preservation. Many countries in the Arabic speaking world have national folklore troupes which bring dance to a wider stage and it represents a significant part of cultural heritage. In Australian and in other Western countries, regional or national Arabic dance troupes have also been formed to preserve traditional dances and maintain cultural origins.

Often heard during a dance performance is the zagroota (plural: zaghareet), the traditional ululating high pitch sound of women. It is a way of expressing appreciation for the performer, or as encouragement for them to keep up the performance.

Types of Dance

There are five basic types of traditional or folkloric dance which many people in Australia of Arabic speaking backgrounds continue to practice in family or community gatherings and celebrations:

Line Dance

This is danced by men and women, however the sexes usually do not dance together but can dance simultaneously. One of the most common dances is the Dabke (or 'Dabkeh'), which is a line dance and the national dance of Lebanon; it is also very popular in Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Amongst Assyrians, the Khigga is one of the most popular line dances and has both a slow (heavy) beat and faster (light) beat.

Circle Dance

Danced by men and women, this type of dance often includes a circle of women formed inside a circle of men, and is accompanied with singing.

Women's Dance

This involves either one woman dancing or several women dancing simultaneously.

Men's Dance

Representative of a religious dance (eg Sufi dance) or war dance, this dance involves either one man dancing or a few in a group.

Ceremonial Dance

This is danced for specific ceremonies, including religious ceremonies and may be a line dance or circle dance.

See our list of Arabic Music & Dance links to listen to Arabic music and radio, and for further information on this aspect of Arabic culture and traditions.