Journal of the American Viola Society, Volume 23 Number 1
The Viola in Middle Eastern Music – a Fitting Sonority
By Leanne Darling

When I first started investigating world music on the viola, I immediately was drawn to Middle Eastern music. I heard for the first time a string sound that sat predominantly in the middle register, taking full advantage of a dark, rich, lyrical timbre. The scales I heard were mostly in C, G, and D, which fit very comfortably on the viola. Middle Eastern music is homophonic, with each instrument embellishing upon the melody, creating its own idiomatic voice. This leaves room for an instrument like the viola to have a more prominent role. Little did I know that the Middle East has a long tradition of viola-like instruments!

The Middle East (including Turkey, the Gulf States, and North Africa) has the longest known tradition of bowed string playing in the world. Bowed stick fiddles and bowed lyres such as the rebab, kemanche, and jozeh have existed in the Middle East thousands of years, dating back to the early civilizations of Iraq and Iran. All of these instruments have two to four strings, tuned in fifths or fourths. Although the timbre of these instruments is quieter and more nasal than a viola, the range is often very similar; for example, the rebab tunes to the viola’s D and G. A bowed instrument typically fills out a small ensemble, called a takht, which includes an oud (a lute like instrument) a qanun (zither), a ney (Arabic flute) and hand percussion such as the riq (tambourine) or the darabukka (goblet drum).

It is the violin, however, that has become the most prevalent bowed instrument in the Middle East. At the time the violin was introduced via trade through the Mediterranean in the nineteenth century, it was the most prominent bowed stringed instrument in the west, and the most portable. Middle Eastern culture embraced its fuller, more vocal timbre and gradually it replaced the rebab and kemanche in most styles. In the middle east today the violin is a featured instrument in every ensemble, probably the most well adapted foreign instrument. The violin was retuned to better suit and reflect the register of the preexisting bowed instruments, changing the open strings from E,A,D,G to D,G,D,G and other tunings of fifths and fourths, thus making the timbre darker and richer. During the early twentieth century Arabic music went through a popular renaissance through the introduction of radio and film, and the presence of leading composers such as Mohammad Abdul Wahab and singers such as Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum. These composers were greatly influenced by western music and attitudes, forming large orchestras with many violins as well as cellos and basses, but few (if any) violas. In the Middle East today the violin is a featured instrument in every small ensemble, making it the most well-adapted foreign instrument of the group.

In this part of the world, the viola has caught on like its smaller sibling only in Moroccco. There, the viola has come into its own as a traditional instrument in many styles of folk and classical music. In the orchestras of the Andalusian style (a form of classical Moroccan music) violas as well as violins are always present, usually one viola to every two violins. In the Melhoun style (a folk style based on poetry), the viola is the main instrument along with the oud. The viola is also the main traditional instrument in the popular Chaabi folk style, although increasingly the violin is used as the style has become more electronic. In most cases, playing position for the viola in Morocco is similar to that used for the rebab. The viola is held vertically on a player’s lap, with string crossings accomplished by turning the instrument rather than moving the bow.

Although many in the Middle East consider the violin the more traditional instrument, attitudes are beginning to change. Violinists such as Nidaa Abou Mrad of Lebanon and Hakki Obadia of Iraq also play viola. The viola is making its way into Middle Eastern orchestras as well. Dena El Saffar, an Iraqi American classically trained violist, plays Arabic and Iraqi music on viola and jozeh in her group, Salaam. In my own experience as violist playing in various Middle Eastern ensembles in New York City, I was always met with support and encouragement from my Middle Eastern colleagues and teachers. With its well-suited sonortity and traditions of string playing, any violist interested in world music should be sure to investigate the music of the Middle East.

To learn more about Middle Eastern Music: - Information on the Arabic Music Retreat in Mt.Holyoke Massachusetts every August. Open to musicians of all levels. Also access to retreat mailing list, a newsgroup on Arabic music. - All about the theory of Arabic music, information on instruments, and many links - A Middle Eastern music camp for musicians of all levels every August in Mendocino, California - The largest and oldest distributor of Middle Eastern music in the U.S. Many titles available online. -- Arabic music group led by violist Dena El-Saffar -- Site for the Near East River ensemble, featuring Leanne Darling on viola

Leanne Darling has been studying and playing Arabic Music for the past five years with master musicians Simon Shaheen and Bassam Saba. She has performed with the Near East Ensemble in New York and Philadelphia. As well as music of the Middle East, Darling plays rock, jazz, composes for theater and dance, and teaches StringPlay classes, her own method of improvisation for strings in New York City.

Examples of Arabic viola playing:
Hakki Obadia Hakki Obadia: Classical Music Of The Middle East
Global Village Music CD 808

Nidaa Abou Mrad, Musique de la Nahda
Editions Byblos BL CD 1000

Nidaa Abou Mrad The Art of the Maqam on the Viola and the Violin (2) – Music master – mmcd-141

Examples of Arabic violin and Arabic string section:
Sami Shawa, Master of Arabic Violin
Global Village Music CD 824

Mohammed Abdul Wahab Belly Dance
Cairophon CXG CD 610

Examples of Moroccan violin/viola playing:
Upper Egypt Ensemble Egypt – A Musical Voyage
Hollywood Music Center

Sources for recordings: -- Wide selection, if you don’ t see something on the website, call them.

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