Traditional Arabic music includes a unique and inseparable connection between the performer and the audience.
Due to the improvisational nature of the performance, the audience plays a major role in performing and the performer is often dependant on the reactions of the audience and its degree of involvement.
Below is one of the most fascinating examples of this connection. In this video clip, Umm Kulthum performs Balighe Hamdi’s song “Ansak Ya Salam” with her orchestra.
The audience is made up, as we can see, of respectable people, mostly in suits, but they all behave in manner that may seem to our western eyes as ‘inappropriate’.
The video begins with applause, but in fact we are already in the middle of the piece. When Umm Kulthum begins singing, those familiar with the song see that is the second part of the first verse. That is to say that the long instrumental introduction has been played, and Umm Kulthum sang the first part.
First, note the calls of appreciation from the audience for the short violin solo (00:18). When Umm Kulthum begins singing, the audience is already overcome and expresses its emotions to the extent that Umm Kulthum is forced to stop singing (00:43). The band, well rehearsed, begins playing the previous section, meaning the part before the first verse. Umm Kulthum sings the verse from the beginning and only then continues from the same spot (03:47). This time, when Umm Kulthum reaches the same part the audience is able to contain itself, but when she reaches the end of the second section it breaks down. Umm Kulthum stops for the second time, and the skilled orchestra repeats the previous section from the beginning (04:44).
It is almost strange to us to see the audience react to small occurrences that seem to happen momentarily in great bursts of excitement. Something in her interpretation that moment, the intonation or the phrasing, caused spontaneous general excitement. Focusing on what is happening at the very moment is one of the important elements in the esthetic ideal of Arabic music, compared to the importance of larger musical forms in western music. This is a key principle which affects every possible layer, and is especially intriguing to discuss when contrasted with western music.