The exhibition ”Al Musiqa: Voix et Musiques du Monde Arab” (Voices and Musics of the Arab World) taking place at the Philharmonie de Paris until mid-August serves as an effort of good faith—firstly because it attempts to break the stereotypical representation of Arabic music as being foreign and exotic by tracing some features of Arabic music to nowadays Europe through Andalusian music to the Raï. Secondly, it also responds to what Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism three decades ago as the exhibition has on board locals explain their own culture to raise the stake of respect and appreciation for their music. Furthermore, the exhibition also includes activities for kids and families, live concerts, publications and contemporary Arabic arts that address in one way or another the theme of Arabic music.
The exhibition is a real kitsch carried out through exceptional cinegraphic medias: watercolor graphics, orientalist-inspired motifs (the tent, a speaker atop a structure that looks like a mosque arcade), red fez headgears, tomato paste & luncheon containers, the repetitive use of eight-sided stars, among others. As for the kids’ activities, zellige tiles and domes are the forms they use for building games. It is like asking children in an exhibition on British music to build a miniature London with Roman columns and Gothic-like fan vaults. Regardless of the exhibition organizers explicit intention, it just seems that ‘the Arab’ remains in their views the other and the old.
In addition to the various technical inconveniences (such as having to plug headphones to be able to listen to audio excerpts) and to the limited content (no rare recordings nor manuscript nor instruments except for one Oud dating back to the 1931 by the luthier George Nahhat), the exhibition and its organizers seem to be lacking the conceptual understanding of the musical culture. The first problematic issue concerns the assimilation of Islam by Arabs. The organizers seem to not have read what the scholar Abd Al-Ra’ouf Ortani wrote for the exhibition catalog where he asserts that Arabic ‘musics’ could not be defined by Islam nor could they be considered an expression of it. The entrance of the exhibition presents a brief history of Arabs at twenty-five stations starting with the prophet of Islam then addressing topics on pre-Islamic poetry, hida’, refers to the tradition of rhythmic singing to camels to keep them moving during travels music during the Umayyad (661-750) and the Abbasid (750-1517) caliphates. Musical influences are only briefly mentioned and are limited to the Persian and Ethiopian influences in addition to Sufism that comes across as some eccentric doctrine and exotic practices.
Furthermore, the exhibition organizers also seem to be missing on the diversity of ‘Arabic musics’, the many musics Ortani refers to. In other words, the musics of the nations identifying themselves—in any way or another—as Arab are in the first place expressions of the musical residues of the cultures that preceded Arab-Islamic conquests: such as the byzantine, Coptic, Persian, Moroccan-Berber—all of which are centuries older than Islam. Music, after all, is not like language in what concerns continuity-discontinuity. Unlike language, musics can endure despite everything. Language runs dry—take for example the Arabization of liturgy in the Eastern Church and in the Zaki Murad’s recitation d. 1946, one of the most famous voices in Egypt during the cultural renaissance era of the 19th & 20th century. He is also the father of late Egyptian singer Layla Murad in Hebrew to traditional Egyptian tunes (video below).
The other problematic issue concerns the politics underpinning the exhibition. It appears that the geographic area the most represented is the Maghreb. The largest room of the exhibition for instance is the display of the ‘Arabic music abroad’—by abroad they mean France, exclusively. No mention of the diaspora music in America, Brazil, Spain or the UK etc. After all, the main preoccupation of the organizers is the Parisian Barbès neighborhood residents, Algerians and Moroccans who fled their countries to France during and after the French colonization. Cheb Khaled and Bachar Khalife are featured given their close affiliation with France—as if this is a World Cup competition. The themes carefully chosen reflects the agenda of the organizers and it is indeed a legitimate choice. However, confining the topic of ‘Arabic music’ to that limited scope is a strategic mistake that pulls the explicit culture-tied objectives of the exhibition to more politicized ones.
The third issue relates to Orientalism. Arab authors are cited only to go away with orientalist attitudes denied in all ways by the exhibition organizers. Both Arab and non-Arab authors express similar strange and orientalist views on the topic at stake. For instance while the French and English introductions to the catalog of the exhibition highlight the ‘intrinsic melodic characteristics’ of Islamic chants, azan (call to prayer) and Qur’anic recitation; the Arabic text speak about the importance of ‘composition’! In his overview on contemporary Arabic music, the author Anis Fariji chooses to limit his inquiry to the French-educated Lebanese composer Zad Moultaka and Ahmad Al-Sayyed. By that he ignores a countless number of composers with different musical styles. This is not to mention the intolerable linguistic and historic mistakes made; take for example the words of the director of the exhibition who states that the Cairo Congress of Arab Music took place in 1922—when in reality it was held in 1932 as Egypt was on the right track of independence after the 1919 revolution). Another author misspelled the word shath—a word that refers to an ecstatic utterance by Sufis which may be blasphemous or heretic in character when in reality it expresses a state of spiritual agitation.
Other non-Arab and Arab authors seem to also be treating the subject in a superficial way. Christian Bouché reached a whole other level of inaccuracy when he discusses ‘the singing-camel’ and mentions stories of orientalists who draw parallels between Arabic singing and camels’ grunting. This is not to mention his made up stories about the taxi rides between Damascus and Aleppo during which an Um Kulthum song would play for four hours! As for the author Nadia Muflih, she insists that Nadia Gamal was a dancer and a singer, and that the famous Egyptian vocalist Abdel Halim Hafez is the Sinatra of the Nile.
The short-size large number of articles did not help the authors address their topic carefully and in great detail. It did not prevent them from oversimplifying either. Only few discussions survived oversimplification and orientalist views. Jean Lambert rightly discusses how the term “oriental music” was shredded during the 1932 Cairo Congress of Arab Music. He links the development of the term to the geo-political events of the time when Arabs and Egyptians were breaking away from the Ottoman Empire heritage and formulating their own under the rubric of the emergent Arab identity. Arab and Egyptian scholars and musicians were keen on selecting a few musical forms (especially instrumental) from the Ottoman repertoire to add them to their own repertoire. Western scholars protested that attempt as their main preoccupation was largely guided by their field of ethnomusicology—they were obsessed over preserving the musical heritage as it is.
Abd Al-Raouf Ortani explains that neither Islam nor the Arabic language nor the maqam-based musical system could account for the diversity present in a region made up of the rich mosaic of cultures, ethnicity, religions and musical traditions. He then concludes, echoing the conclusion of the 1932 Cairo Congress, that the term “Arabic music” was coined to express “a determination to formulate an Arab identity” within a given historical moment. As such, the question begging for an answer remains: in the views of whom this or that music is “Arabic”? The director of the exhibition wraps up the catalog by thanking her colleagues and authors—many of whom are Arabs. The fact that Arab authors and scholars contributed to the making of the exhibition did not save the exhibition from being a kitsch nor another orientalist tale. The exhibition is in reality both a kitsch and an orientalist tale.