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The Arab Folk Art of Hand-Clapping

posted on: Jun 4, 2021

The Arab Folk Art of Hand-Clapping
Photo: Tarab and the Art of Music

By: Meral Abu-Jaser/Arab America Contributing Writer

Hand-clapping is folk art? After reading the title, that is probably what you are wondering, how can hand-clapping in any shape or form become art? Well, it is crucial to understand that each society within its community provokes its own traditions, culture, and, most importantly, art. Now when this aspect is narrowed down to Arabs, we come upon the Arab folk art of hand-clapping. The folk art of hand-clapping has been a part of Arab festivals, ceremonies, and much more. In all Arab regions, hand-clapping is a common form of rhythm, culture, tradition, and art. Want to learn more? Well, let us talk in more depth about the Arab folk art of hand-clapping.

The History of Hand-Clapping

The Arab Folk Art of Hand-Clapping
Photo: Music in the Arabian Peninsula

Long before the development of musical instruments, people clapped their hands to define and create a rhythm in replace of today’s music. Hand-clapping came to be known as a form of art of its own. This dates back to the days of the pharaohs. It is known in the term “kaff” which the Arabic word for palm clapping. This later flourished in the Arabian Peninsula as well as other parts of the Arab world specifically in the Gulf region. Hand-clapping is considered an important part of Arab heritage and again was formed because of the absence of musical instruments.

The Arab Folk Art of Hand-Clapping
Photo: art stories

Ever thought of how two tusks sound clapping? Well, as you can see, the above image is basically a “Pair of Clappers,” which is carved from a hippopotamus tusk. This beautiful piece of art is part of ancient Egypt’s history of music. The pair of clappers was designed as a musical instrument. Back then they would clap together as a rhythm instrument; the tusks would have accompanied an Egyptian orchestra of harps, pipes, lyres, and lutes. The myth behind clapping was that the clappers’ noise helped drive away hostile spirits, keeping celebrations joyful.

Do All Arab Countries Practice The Folk Art of Hand-Clapping?

The Arab Folk Art of Hand-Clapping
The Arab League countries. Photo: Wikipedia

The answer to this question is yes and no! Do all Arab clap as a way to celebrate, express joy, and be festive? Then the answer is yes. But do all Arab practice clapping as a form of art? The answer here is no! While all Arabs have the habit of hand-clapping, not all regions practice it as a form of art. For example, most countries in the Gulf such as Qatar, The UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Arabian Peninsula perform hand-clapping as a form of art. Another list would be most of the Levant countries, such as Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. Just like there are artists who sing and dance there are artists whose main passion is to hand-clap. And yes they do enjoy and love what they do.

Now based on the Arab culture this is called tasfiq or safaqa. So basically, the clappers would accompany the performance of the Gulf art of music. Their job is to create a loud resonant popping sound which is referred to in Arabic as safaqa. This form of musical art is described as sawt where whenever there is a pauses in sawt songs, a lead clapper starts and stops a chorus of clappers that create lively syncopation.

More About the Folk Art of Hand-Clapping in the Gulf

Clapping is the basic rhythm in the Gulf art of music. When music is being performed, it is essential for a group of clappers to be present, or else the show would be dull and incomplete. It is not easy to be in the tasfiq group. This is because the group needs to follow the melody precisely. With this unique aspect, it became one of its most important pillars in Gulf music. Despite the diversity of musical instruments today, the Gulf rhythms, the collective hand-clapping, the way of harmony and the ingenuity of the clappers remain a major factor in the Gulf songs. To this very day, their performance is one of a kind. If you ever get a chance to visit a country in the Gulf, I recommend you go and watch their performance! Here is a video if you like to watch at hand.

Folk Art of Clapping in the Levant Region

The Arab Folk Art of Hand-Clapping
Photo: Roya

The above image is an example of a “Jordanian Dahiya” It is also practiced in Palestine and Iraq. Hence, when the group starts the performance, they basically clap their hands along with the rhythm and melody as well as repeating the word “دحيه.” Once you get a chance, you can view this performance, you would notice how the groups clap their hands along with the music. This is not just art but a form of culture and tradition. Before the modern method of celebrating weddings, they often were held in wedding ceremonies. When performed in wedding ceremonies the art of “Dahiya” is the main performance with both dancing and singing.

Description of the Performance

The Arab Folk Art of Hand-Clapping
Photo: The Kingdom

When the group performs, they stand beside each other with their bodies tied shoulder to shoulder while singing. The group usually forms a circle or stands as a stack side by side. Often a poem is read during the show. However, today they usually follow the song that is being performed. Other than having the folk art presented for wedding ceremonies, it usually is concluded around culture and tradition. Even when the group is a part of a singer, it is often a song in which the homeland would be glorified. Along with the show, the group would dance in a specific pattern. They would bend down a little bit and go back to a normal stand-along while clapping their hands. This is repeated until the performance is over. The duration might go as long as 2 hours and as short as 15 minutes.

Is the Art of Hand-Clapping Still Practised Today?

The Arab Folk Art of Hand-Clapping
Photo: meo

Yes! The folk art of Hand-Clapping is still practiced today by all the Arab countries that were mentioned. They might not be the same as in ancient times but they are without doubt interesting to watch and attend. Once you get a chance add it to your bucket list and enjoy your time in the Arab world. Moreover, do not forget the importance of this wondrous art. It is not just art, but also a way to praise and honor one’s tradition and culture.

Well, this ends the introduction to the folk art of clapping in the Arab world. Maybe one day, the folk art of clapping might make its way through the western world just as belle dancing, as well as the zaghrouta.

If you are interested in learning more about art, culture, and tradition in the Arab world please, check out Arab America’s blog here!