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What is Tarab and Why is it Important to Arab Music?

posted on: Nov 20, 2019


By: Ala Abed-Rabbo/Arab America Contributing Writer

What is Tarab, a definition that focuses on a cultural domain? This specialty involves artists, performances, and music associated philosophies, attitudes, and behaviors, including the different methods of listening and responding to Arab music. The Tarab culture is also linked with a craft-based jargon relating to societal, technical, and professional facets of music creation and with specific musical standards and viewpoints.

Public uncertainty toward the Tarab profession is profoundly deep-rooted, but regularly yields to, or coexists with full acknowledgment of the recognized Tarab artist. Though associates of the Tarab community tend to come from quite low financial and social ranks, successful male or female artists, particularly singers, may rank among the well-off and significant members of Arab society.

The emotional orientation of Arab composition is also ‘played out’ during the Arab cultural performance events. As opposed to the formal Western classical concert, the Arab performance leans towards interaction and expressively charged within the musicians and audiences. In the Arab culture, the fusion between music and emotional change symbolized by the Arabic perception of Tarab, which may not have a precise equivalence in Western languages.

For instance, with the physical and emotional appearances on performers can be quite visible, and the Tarab ecstasy is generally approached with an air of discreetness. When it becomes extreme or when publicly presented, the musical emotion can incite social mimicry, if not ethical and religious disapproval. The vision of Tarab is a complex notion that embraces an aesthetic-experiential principal but also links with a dense network of cultural morals, economic associations, and social hierarchies.

The Most Well-known Egyptian Tarab Singer Umm Kulthum

Who was Umm Kulthūm: Umm Kulthūm, also spelled Oum Kulthoum or Om Kalsoum, was born in Tummāy al-Zahāyrah, Egypt. She was an Egyptian singer and legend and for a half-century, mesmerized Arab audiences from the Persian Gulf to Morocco. In the 20th century, she was one of the most famed Arab singers and public personalities.

Umm Kulthum’s career extended during two world wars; the Egyptian Revolutions during the years of 1919 and 1952, the Great Depression, and the historic sociopolitical deviations of the 1950s and 1960s and such events affected her as an Egyptian citizen and as a working musician. She had a very controlling voice, equally loud from the lowest to the highest pitches of her range, and was tunefully very creative.

Umm Kalthoum trained herself melodically by learning to grasp the Arab (Tarab) musical system and learning to create such the way a jazz musician would extemporize using the Western structure. She was also an expert at ‘casting a spell’ over her viewers with her ‘one of a kind’ voice and way of singing Tarab.

Tarab in Aleppo, Syria

Aleppo, a city in Syria, has an active practice of composing and singing Tarab, Muwashshahat, and the Qudud Halabiyya. Among the great Aleppian singers are Sabah Fakhri, Mohamad Khairy, and Omar Al-Batsh. People who love Arab music know Aleppo by the name “Em el-Tarab” that translates to the “Mother of Tarab.”

While today the term is often applied to any traditional Arab music, Tarab refers to a specific musical culture that was widespread from the 19th until the first half of the 20th century. During this era, Aleppo was the focus of Tarab culture and home to many well-known singers, musicians, and writers.

Music in modern Syria reflects on cultural practices that give voice to modernist feelings. Through recourse to these metonymic depictions and recreations, Syrian artists articulate a vision of modernization in which addresses the emotions and sentimentality bases of real Syrian Tarab culture. In this manner, they offer an alternative to European ideologies of innovation that have stressed music expressions.

One of the famous Aleppian Tarab singers, Yousef Shamoun, who also belongs to the school of legend Aleppian singers, such as Sabah Fakhri, Mohamad Khairy, Bakry Kurdi, and Omar Al-Batsh, was enthused by the Syriac tradition of religious Tarab chant. “Yousef is known for both his mastery of the mawwal (non-metric vocal improvisation) and for his powerful rendition of the Arabic Maqam.”

Yousef is avid about both preserving the classical tradition of Muwashshahat as well as investigating and revolutionizing with their elegance and assemblies. He is a dynamic member of the Syrian American community. Shamoun has performed in numerous events and countries throughout the US, Canada, around Europe, and the Arab World.

The Culture and Artistry of Tarab

Tarab is an impression of charm. It is usually connected with vocal music in which the listener has wholly swathed in the sound and the meaning in a wide-ranging experiential sense and is just entirely carried away by Tarab singers.


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