Throughout the Islamic era until now, manifested by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one could find many entertainers and singers such as Mohammad Abdu, and Talal Madah. Unfortunately, one can hardly find female Saudi singers. On a more contradictory note, the Saudi youth have access to social media such as YouTube, and Twitter, and are allowed to do so.
The Middle East is a fascinating region where music itself represents a highly contested area. The long-standing debate over music’s permissibility, particularly within Islamic orthodoxy, provides an important backdrop to understanding the many obstacles female Muslim singers face. Above all, music is often taken to have an excess of emotional power that requires control for the well-being of society. As Hirschkind observes, the debate over music’s theological-legal status has been partly ‘Feuled by a concern with the ability of music to bypass the faculty of rational judgment and directly affect the senses of the listener’. Moreover, across much of the region under discussion, social anxieties over music and dance, are paralleled with anxieties concerning gender, particularly in relation to women. When women as musicians and dancers are concerned, one often finds the most contentious and tightly controlled arenas of social activity, at least in the public domain. Paradoxically, some of the greatest singers in this region have been women such as Um Kulthum.
There are few musicians in the Arab world that can demonstrate the political value of music in times of crisis. Um Kulthum created a broader sense of unity through her concerts, particularly during the Six-Day War. Contestation between Egyptian vs. Saudi national identities and local interpretation of Islam between Sufi and Salafi were symbolically acted out through attempts to dominate public space through sound and its meaning.
Um Kulthum was a singer who followed the rules of Islamic modesty. She dressed modestly, relying on her vocal talent, and was an inspiration for many women in the Middle East, especially those in pursuit of music. On one occasion, she was embarrassed when she saw her picture at the center of an advertisement announcing her performances. She politely asked for it to be taken down, as her musical intention was not to be physically fawned over. She often garbed herself in traditional male attire, toning down her image as woman. Um Kulthum also sang Qaseeda, which consists of music and text devoted to Allah.
Unlike the famous and well-respected singer Mohammad Abdel Wahab, Um Kulthoum sang strictly classical music with old poetry, which were all orally transmitted with no notations as a barrier. Her pronunciation of text was impeccable and a product of the classical Arabic she practiced, reciting the Quran. Her choice to use classical Arabic was impressive and courageous, given the ordeal that vocal music of any kind was religiously taboo.
Often these popular singers were referred to as tarab singers. The term ‘tarab’ projects a strong male orientation. In the medieval courts, many women excelled in singing and playing the ud, some even amassing considerable fame and prestige. However, throughout history, the position of female entertainers has been directly challenged by conservative attitudes.
There are five different phases to becoming a tarab artist:
1) the appearance of talent, usually during childhood;
2) musical obsession, accompanied by a struggle against family and cultural barriers;
3) family and societal recognition of budding talent, and in some cases reluctant acquiescence to the novice’s musical desires;
4) training of some sort;
5) the undertaking of a performance career.
These general phases do not always follow a strict linear order and may overlap or coincide with one another.
Another tarab singer who also sang art songs, classical language, Lebanese dialect, pop, dance, Western classical (even a Mozart tune with Arabic lyrics), children’s and patriotic songs, is Fairouz. The inevitable tendency to compare her to other Arab singers, like Umm Kulthum, only leads to meaningless debates since the two women had completely different styles. In a 40-year career, Fairouz’s repertoire spanned a spectrum of material unmatched by anybody else. The Rahbani brothers (Lebanese composers) were brilliant at bringing new material to the scene. In the 1950s, audiences in Lebanon and elsewhere were used to solely Egyptian vocabulary devoted to the agony of love. Suddenly, the Rahbanis were singing about the young girl carrying a water jug or the Dabke dancers celebrating in the Jabal (mountain area). The imagery changed and elevated life’s simple moments to beauty. Subject matter in their musical monodramas followed a formula that became their trademark. There was still the love story and enough agony to go around, but they mixed this formula with humor and some cultural realism, all on a foundation of beautiful poetry and music. One such example is the musical monodrama Sahrat hub.
Since the early twentieth century, the status and visibility of female singers has improved significantly. Many achieving fame as recording artists and film stars, modern female artists have been working closely with male accompanists, composers, and lyricists. One such singer is Ahlam, a singer from Bahrain, who has become an adjudicator on Arab Idol. Some female singers now teach at public and private academies and occupy powerful positions in various music related pedagogical and government offices.
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