Recent Recordings of Traditional Music 
from the Arabian Gulf and Saudi Arabia

Kay Hardy Campbell, Boston, MA

Reprinted from the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, July 1996 (with changes in orthography to HTML standards).
Copyright 1996 by the Middle East Studies Association of North America

THE MUSIC of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf flourishes predominantly within its own regional boundaries, a function of both the fragmented music distribution channels in the Middle East and the deep imprint that local traditional cultures have left on it. While the music’s popularity is strictly regional, it is full of vitality, supporting an array of male and female song stars whose audiences eagerly await performances and recordings.

The distinct sound of Gulf music echoes the internal and external historic influences on the region, interwoven with the highly syncopated rhythms and the stark unaccompanied songs of the Bedouin. Pilgrims brought foreign music influences to Mecca and Medina and left their mark on the musical ensembles of the Arabian cities in rhythms and maqmt. The trading and pearling towns on the coasts and in the Peninsula’s interior also saw foreigners come and go, who left their music and songs behind. As a result, a rich and varied yet distinctly Arabian/Khalj sound developed, echoing the voices and instrumental music of East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Music of the Gulf differs from what one typically hears in the Levant and Egypt. Its melodic lines tend to be more repetitive, reflecting the heavy influence of folk genres and the lack of significant musical interaction with the West until this century. Instead of the pan-Arab rhythms such as wahda wa-nusf, one finds a separate family of rhythms including the distinctive Khalj 4/4’s, 'adan (DUM DUM ess tek) and dawsar (tek a DUM ess, tek a DUM ess). While rhythmic shifts within songs are uncommon in the traditional genres, they occur more frequently in modern songs. Complex maqm modulations are rare. Melodic lines typically involve small intervals, resulting in tunes with a step-like quality. Vocal and melodic ornamentation is subtle, if present at all, and is characterized by the modest use of tremolo and grace notes. In combination, these melodic qualities and the striking syncopation of traditional rhythms give Gulf music its distinctive sound.

The Gulf’s folk music genres also reflect the traditional economies and subcultures which arose in the peninsula until oil wealth transformed its society. Folk music traditions flourished among the Bedouin, the pearl divers of the coasts, city dwellers and among women. Each subculture nurtured several music forms, many of which have not yet been fully studied and cataloged. While each musical subculture is distinct, none developed in a vacuum since they all garnered influences from each other and from neighboring musical cultures. Yet throughout the Gulf, strong musical commonalities exist. The voice predominates over richly syncopated rhythm, and in traditional performance venues the distinction between performer and audience is blurred as everyone in attendance participates by singing, clapping and sometimes dancing.

Bedouin Music

Throughout the Arabian Peninsula, the voice was the driving force and centerpiece of Bedouin music. Bedouin sang poetry (al-shi'ir al-nabat) and told stories in song to the accompaniment of the rabba. They sang with traditional percussion instruments (primarily the tr or frame drum) to celebrate weddings and other rites of passage. Other musical genres include the camel drivers’ songs (hid' or taghrud) and the folk dance/songs of solidarity and war preparation such as the 'arda and ayyla.

Pearling Music

The crews of pearl diving ships sang and played music as they sailed the waters of the Gulf during the six-month-long pearling season, al-ghaws al-kabr, which ran from April to September. Pearling ship captains hired a lead singer, a nihm, whose musical leadership kept the pearlers motivated throughout the arduous process of pearling. Led by the nihm, the crew and divers sang specific songs to mark the stages of their work, such as leaving their home port, setting sail, approaching the pearl beds and dropping anchor at the beds.

Traditional Urban Music

Reflecting the cultural interchange and economic activity of the cities and trading towns, urban music developed into the sawt, a more complex formalized song cycle tradition played by small ensembles consisting of the 'd, the mirws (a small double-headed drum), and later augmented by the violin in the 20th century. Performed in the majlis or dwn (salon) of the well- to-do, this music involved all those present in song, tasfq (rhythmic clapping) and sometimes dance.

Women’s Music

Women of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia still sing among themselves and their families to celebrate rites of passage much as they have for centuries. Women’s ensembles play for traditional women’s parties in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, such as the haflat al-zafff, the wedding celebration. Headed by a mutriba, a lead singer/instrumentalist who is often an 'd player, these groups perform both traditional women’s songs as well as the latest popular music hits. In Saudi Arabia these ensembles are made up of women musicians only, while in neighboring Gulf countries many ensembles are mixed.


The earliest sound recording of Gulf music is said to be a 1904 wax cylinder of an Omani singer recorded in Vienna by Phonogrammarchiv. The earliest extant field recordings made in the region are probably the collection of approximately 150 wax cylinders recorded in Jeddah circa 1909 now kept at the Oriental Institute in Leiden. Though not commercially available now, they contain rich musical information for future researchers. The first commercial record companies entered the Gulf in the late 1920s and early 1930s, recording the traditional urban ensembles led by singers such as Muhammad Zuwaid of Bahrain. The sawt continued to dominate Gulf record ed music until the 1950s and 1960s when male singers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf pioneered the use of larger ensembles modeled after those popular in Egypt and Lebanon. Saudi singers Tall Maddh and Muhammad 'Abduh were among the first to venture into this format. They brought Gulf music to the rest of the Arab world in the 1970s and 1980s with such pan-Arab hits as Maqdr (Maddh), Ab'd (’Abduh) and Y Srya ('Abduh). Today, they are still active and are considered the leaders of the “older” generation of singers/composers, though neither of them has reached the age of 60. In a return to a more traditional style, Muhammad ’Abduh recently recorded a CD series, entitled Sha'abyt (Folk Songs) Sawt al-Jazrah (MACD 528), in which he sings traditional and modern songs with a small ensemble, using 'd, violin, rhythm and a men’s chorus. ’Abduh composed the melodies with words by popular poets, including Prince Khalid al-Faisal.

Oil wealth and exposure to pan-Arab and world popular music brought inevitable change to the music scene in the Gulf. Recording studios equipped with the latest electronic capabilities produce songs and instrumental pieces for a new generation of popular singers. Among these are ’Abd al-Karm ’Abd al-Qdir, Kuwaiti songstress Rabb, Saudi Arabia’s ’Abd al-Majd ’Abd Allah, Slih Khayr and Ab Hill. Their music continues to use the aesthetic of the Khalj style, while they experiment liberally with electronic and world music innovations.

Fortunately, the governments of the Gulf have actively fostered preservation of folk music traditions. The Gulf Folklore Center in Qatar is prime among the region’s folklore institutions, with research facilities, periodicals and a museum dedicated to folklore. Saudi Arabia’s colossal annual Festival at Janadiriyya outside Riydh also spotlights folk music. Television and radio stations in all the Gulf countries feature folk music and folk dance shows, in which local bands play and talk about their music.

In recent years several substantive high quality recordings of traditional music have become commercially available. The following sampling of these CDs will give the listener a strong introduction to the rich and multifaceted traditional music of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

1. A Musical Anthology of the Arabian Peninsula, recorded by Simon Jargy and Poul Rvsing Olsen. This impressive four-volume collection is the result of field recordings made in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf primarily in the early 1970s. Each volume focuses on the music of the major traditional folk cultures of the region. Produced in 1994 by Archives Internationales de Musique Populaire of the Muse d'thnographie in Geneva, the anthology's volumes include extensive liner notes in English and French by Jargy. Rare photographs illustrate the musicians in context. The anthology is available through Gary Thal Music, Inc. Box 164 Lenox Hill Station, New York, NY 10021-0164.

Volume 1 - Sung Poetry of the Beduins, VDE Gallo-780. Sixteen recordings of Bedouin musicians singing poetry are included in this CD. The raw sound of Bedouin singing, taped in the field from Palmyra to Tarif, UAE, is unadulterated here. Excellent liner notes with detailed descriptions of the recording settings, singer/poets and musicological information make this genre more accessible to the listener.

Volume 2 - Music of the Pearl Divers, VDE Gallo-781. This CD was recorded from 1970-1975 among the surviving members of the pearl-diving community in Bahrain. It features three nahm', pearl diving song cycles, which include the characteristic low pitched drones, syncopated rhythms and tasfq, as well as improvisational solos by Bahrain’s best pearl-diving lead singers.

Volume 3 - Sowt, Music from the City, VDE Gallo-782. Sowt features eleven recordings of the traditional ensembles playing the traditional urban song cycle of the region. It includes an unusual 1930 recording of a Yemeni Shaikh singing to his own accompaniment on an antique pear shaped 'd of Sana’a.

Volume 4 - Women’s Songs, VDE Gallo-783. This recording, which won the French International Grand Prize of the Academie Chares Cros, presents 19 women’s and children’s songs recorded between 1969 and 1990. The traditional women’s ensembles recorded include multilayered percussion accompaniment on the tr, mirws and tabl. Several girls’ songs are also included. The liner notes are particularly useful in their musicological description of each song and its social context.

2. Anthologie de la Musique Arabe, La Musique de Bahrein, AAA 104. Digitized recordings from Odeon and Baidaphon labels of sawt from the early decades of the 20th century are featured on this CD. Three masters of Bahraini sawt are presented: Muhammad Ibn Fris, Muhammad Zuwayd and Dh Ibn Wald. Each sings with a small ensemble of 'd, violin and mirws, giving the listener a rare chance to hear some of the earliest commercial recordings of Gulf music. (Available at Rashid Sales Company)

3. Oman, Traditional Arts of the Sultanate of Oman, D8211, 1993. High quality field recordings made in 1990 and 1991 explore several traditional musical subcultures in Oman, including the Bedouin, sailors, women's and urban traditions. An excellent sample of the ayyla and a hypnotic example of the camel driving song style taghrud are noteworthy. The musical variety and excellent quality of the recordings distinguish this CD. (Available at Rashid Sales, HMV)

4. Al-Tawhd, W 260001, Maison des Cultures du Monde, 1994. Composed by Siraj Omar, Lyrics by Prince Khalid al-Faisal. This modern musical epic features vocals by Saudi luminaries Tall Maddh, Muhammad ’Abduh, ’Abd-al Majd ’Abd Allah, ’Abd Allah Rashd and Rshid al-Mjid. Al-Tawhd was performed live with folk dancers at the Kingdom’s folk festival at Janadiriyya. It experiments with electronic instruments, varied orchestrations and lyric forms, while adhering to typical Gulf melodic characteristics and a strong foundation of traditional rhythms. The lyrics extol the leadership and character of the modern Kingdom’s founder ’Abd al-Azz Ibn Sa’ud. This recording is unique in its demonstration that key components of the Gulf sound can remain evident even in the largest modern orchestrations with non-traditional instrumentation. (Available through HMV)