Tuned to terrain, tradition

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Performing arts of the Arabian Peninsula rich and dynamic

Dr Lisa Urkevich presenting a lecture at Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah

Dr Lisa Urkevich presented the last lecture of Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 23rd cultural season, discussing the music and tradition of the Arabian Peninsula at the Yarmouk Cultural Center on Monday evening. Dr Lisa Urkevich is Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology and Chair of the Department of Music and Drama at the American University of Kuwait.

She was recently appointed general editor of the College Music Society (CMS) Symposium, overseeing all ten publications of CMS, which is the largest academic music organization in the world. In 2015-16 she was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University. She was the 2015 recipient of the Alumna of the Year Award from the University of Maryland, USA. “Tonight, we complete the last lecture of our 23rd cultural season.

Throughout this last season, we have received discussions and presentations on a wide variety of scholarly fields of study ranging from Gulf studies to the history of the development of the Arabic language. We have seen studies of Ottoman firearms and Indian weapons, incense burners and book illustrations”, stated Bader Al Baijan, Chairman of the DAI Steering Committee. He continued, “This evening, we are returning to Gulf Studies.

Dr Lisa Urkevich will be sharing her research experience in the performing arts of the various cultures of Arabia. She is no stranger to our cultural seasons and has delivered presentations accompanied by live performances by various musicians representing different aspects of the different musical forms of the area. These performances have been popular and well attended.”

Dr Urkevich stated that the Arabian Peninsula covers an impressive physical area with remarkably diverse terrains within which reside variegated, ancient cultures. Regardless of the fact that music has played an important role in so many communities for so long, music research has been lacking due to the breadth of the land, a dearth of documents, and socio-political obstacles.

In her talk, she discussed some of her findings based on two decades of fieldwork covering thousands of Peninsula miles, as presented in her book Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula with accompanying videos. She gave a personal telling of her research experiences in dealing with the many geographical areas, subcultures, and rich and dynamic performing arts of the Arabian Peninsula with a number of rich anecdotes.

Dr Urkevich lived in Saudi Arabia from 1994 to 1998 and that is where her interest in Arabic music was piqued as a young scholar. “I started studying music in the Arabian peninsula in 1994 and I didn’t complete this book until 2015-16. It took 20 years of research and two years to write the book.” She shared that the reason it had taken so long was on account of the oral tradition of the region that had meant very little written source material available until the mid 20th century.

So she took it upon herself to go collect the data firsthand in order to make her analysis. Dr Urkevich lived in different areas of Saudi Arabia Riyadh, Khamis Mushayt, Taif and Jeddah, and travelled to other corners of the country. She shared the many challenges she encountered in her research and travels in several anecdotes.

She pointed out that until recently Saudi Arabia was considered a very closed country and extremely restrictive for women. She relayed her personal struggles and encounters when travelling to and getting access within Saudi Arabia. She shared that others who do not have access to the isolated communities of people in the vast peninsula, may mistake it for being a land without music. But this is not so. She shared her photos from Souq Okaz, where an ancient poetry competition was held. She informed that today festivals and re-enactments are held there and it is the second largest festival in the Kingdom after the Janadriyah festival.

Dr Urkevich touched upon her experiences with segregation in order to highlight the extent at which it took place in the country and also described how communities were living unbeknownst to anyone through the seventies. She gave the example of a village outside of Khamis Mushayt, called the hanging village whose people had lived in isolation for five hundred years and were only found by accident in the late 70s by a mining helicopter. She pointed out that the Hijaz mountains separate the country both physically and culturally.

“The northern music of Makkah, Madinah have a specific music while the central parts of Riyadh from the Najd, the music of these tribes flow into Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.” She shared that a lot of the Bedouin music from Kuwait is exactly identical to that of this region to stress the point that national borders do not have that much of an impact on music. Dr Urkevich shared various clippings from recent trips in the Hijaz, featuring their performers and particular rhythms.

She shared that long ago, Makkah rivalled Baghdad and Cairo as a musical center, and was a melting pot for international sounds and music. She revealed that each area, tribe and people had developed their own style and revealed that a lot of folk musicians felt isolated and neglected and were looking for a wider audience and appreciation for their arts.

She shared a video of music from Taif being performed outside on account of the pleasant weather and pointed out that the people who live on the very top of the mountain ranges play metallic instruments because the weather is harsh with rain and wind. She shared images of performers with barrels, date tins, mortar.

Coming down the side, the sound evolves to more drums. She showed the audience performers from Arij Al Umma, dancing with their distinct footwork, colourfully dressed, they dance in leaps like gazelles.

On the flat plains, the African influence on percussion within different genres of performing arts becomes evident. Dr Urkevich showed a diwaniya performance of Samri in Al Qassim region of Saudi Arabia before concluding her lecture with a Sawt performance by the Bin Hussein band of Kuwait.


By Cinatra Fernandes
Arab Times Staff

This news has been read 8579 times!

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