Update: This was the first of a series of posts explaining how the double bass was accepted into the ensembles of the traditional Arabic music. Today the full article can be found here.
Middle Eastern music, known also as Arabic music, is in fact the only non-western music that has embraced the double bass. The bass was not accepted as an integral part of classical local music in any other place in the world.
Unlike other western instruments that became part of Middle Eastern music ensembles, like the western violin which replaces the rebab (the ancient Arab violin), the double bass does not replace an existing traditional instrument, but is an addition to the ensemble that creates a unique role.
In the upcoming posts I will explain the reasons for the phenomenon. These reasons also allow learning about the unique role of the double bass in Middle Eastern music.
But first, we need to ask a more basic question:
What is Arabic music?
We’ll start with a little geography. We’re talking about the Middle East area which includes Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and stretches all the way to Saudi Arabia and beyond. Arab music also includes traditions of northern Africa, an area which has played a significant part in the history of Arab music. For more, check my “A Brief History of Arab Music until the Twentieth Century”.
And now for the music itself:
Arabic music was originally vocal music. Arabic music of the present day evolved from the music of a poet-performer, who was also the composer and the teacher. Music was passed on orally from teacher to student and from one generation to the next. This music has always had extensive room for improvisation. The practicality of this music has all the instruments playing the same melodic line, while each instrument interprets the melody and embellishes it in its own way, creating a heterophonic texture.
It is important to note that unlike western music, whose history contains continuous evolution of both instruments and musical tenets. Arab music is based on the principle of maintaining the style, performance method and instruments which have been in existence for centuries.
The Double Bass in Arab Music
It would be hard to imagine, based on the description above, how challenging was the introduction of a new western instrument with this kind of music, especially an instrument that is defined as a bass instrument.
Bass instruments were developed to fill a need that came up with the evolution of western music for various melodic voices, and further evolved with the creation of harmony, in order to play the lower notes and emphasize the base notes of the harmony. As previously noted, Arab music does not have different melodic voices, not to mention harmony.
And yet we see that the double bass was taken in as a permanent member of Arab musical ensembles as early as the 1920s (the first to use the double bass was composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and by the 1950s the double bass was an essential part of the orchestra that accompanied the leading singer of the Arab world at the time, Umm Kulthum.Umm Kulthum “the star of the east”, had enormous influence on the entire Arab world, and is considered the greatest classical Arab singer. She is known to have described her double bassist as the heart of the ensemble.
The question, therefore, is this: how was the double bass so willingly accepted as a bass instrument in a culture for which the very term is foreign?
The answer is complex, and I will offer three possible explanations:
- The ethno-musicological reason
- The musical reason
- The personal reason
By examining these reasons we will also be able to better understand the unique role of the double bass in this music.
The first explanation, the ethno-musicological reason, will be discussed in the next post.