Collections: Lisa Urkevich - The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Arabian Peninsula Music, with performers of Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (2004-2006)

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Bin Hussein Sea Band of Kuwait playing the Ihalla water jugs, 2006. Image © Lisa Urkevich.

This collection is comprised of live performances, often with dance, of male musicians from Kuwait, southern Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). The video was filmed in Kuwait, Bahrain, and in various areas of the city of Dubai. Featured is traditional or folk music whose roots date back centuries; however, this music is also quite popular today and still part of daily lives in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Many of the genres present are indigenous to the Gulf, but others are more common to Saudi Arabia and are simply being performed in a Gulf venue.

Saudi Arabia and her Arabian (Persian) Gulf neighbors have a unique music tradition reflective of environmental surroundings and the lives of desert settlers, nomadic Bedouin, dynamic coastal peoples, and the many foreign travelers who passed through the land on Islamic pilgrimage or as part of the mercantile community. Work songs have played an important role among seamen, pearl divers, shippers, cameleers, weavers, and those involved in other domestic tasks. The performance of sung poetry, sometimes accompanied by the ūd (lute) or rabābah (bowed chordophone) is also a significant regional tradition, one that has been crucial in the preservation of oral history. And chamber genres like ṣawt still flourish in many Gulf and other Peninsula urban areas where they maintain an intimate parlor quality of the quasi-gentry, or have been modified into a robust form of the sea community.

By far the most popular and frequently seen traditional music in the region is collective group singing. Large crowds of men and women will gather at night, usually segregated although there are exceptions, and joyously talk, sing and dance. Such a musical evening, which can be part of a specific event or celebration or perhaps a weekly family or community practice, is generically known as a sāmra or sāmer. Different communities will have different types of music or performance rituals at their sāmra. Sāmra that are more structured or have prescribed pieces will often have a specific designator, for instance, the classification "fidjeri" is used for a musical party that features the performance of sea music suites.

The musical examples in this collection include work songs and some chamber music, but a great deal of the video is taken from collective-singing performances that include set genres or suites (like fidjeri) as well as generic "party" sāmra. All the compositions presented are rooted in the three main categories of Arabian Gulf traditional music: desert, sea, and urban. Desert music heritage comes from the Najd of central Saudi Arabia, sea songs stem from the work environment of the Arabian Gulf, and urban songs are ūd based and often influenced by the cultural interactions of port cities. The coexistence of the three main categories, sometimes all seen during one musical event, is understandable, as there is such diversity in Gulf communities. For instance, Kuwait City is an urban area so one would find urban traditional music with more complex maqam based material; but it is also an important port of the Arabian sea, so songs and forms of the pearl divers and sea merchants are familiar, and a great deal of the population of Kuwait, including the royal family, hails from central Saudi Arabia, so Kuwait also has a strong desert music tradition.

This collection is currently in production and is not yet available to the public.

Image © Lisa Urkevich

Lisa Urkevich, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology and Director of the Arabian Heritage Project and at the American University of Kuwait (AUK). She has lived in and undertaken research in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States for over a decade. From 2003-2005, she was a senior Fulbright scholar in Kuwait, which contributed to her earlier work in Saudi Arabia where, for four years, she lived and did research in various areas of the Kingdom, from the central Najd region, to the western Hijaz, and the southern Asir near the Yemen border. Before coming to Kuwait, Dr. Urkevich was a professor at Boston University; she has also taught at Bucknell University, the University of Maryland, and Millersville University. She has four degrees in music, including a PhD from the University of Maryland. At AUK she teaches specialized Arabian music courses, including study abroad classes held in Saudi Arabia, and she developed and directs the Arabian Heritage Project, a popular center that fosters research, archiving, and outreach pertaining to the folk and artistic culture of the Arabian Peninsula. She is the author of articles on the music of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and is currently completing a book on the music of Kuwait and penning a comprehensive manuscript on the music of greater Arabia.

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