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September 5, 2008

Arabian Nights



You know how I've been complaining that everyone's been going off on their hols and not getting back to me about jamming, joining bands etc?

Well...

IT'S MY TURN! Ha-ha!

Yes. We're off! Where? Morocco. Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains. By accident rather than design we're headed to a 99% Muslim country during the holy month of Ramadan. It should be an interesting experience, full of culture shock.

It's our first time visiting North Africa, so we're not 100% sure what to expect. When Tim and I travel we tend to do so in quite an immersive fashion, trying to blend in with locals, adopt local customs... eat where the locals eat... that kind of thing. Of course, during Ramadan there's somewhat less eating to be done during daylight hours. By all accounts the festivities after sundown will more than make up for any inconvenience during the day.

It got me thinking about what the soundtrack to our travels will be. I'm no stranger to many forms of world music, but my knowledge of North African culture is limited. I'm guessing that as Morocco is predominantly Berber/Arabic, we'll be treated to some quite exotic sounds.

Having a brief trawl around the internet, it looks like Arabian music is quite different from the standard fare over here. There are no I-IV-Vs, that's for sure! In fact, harmonisation seems pretty scarce. It looks like you predominantly get a solo performance (or chorus of instrument and voice singing the same notes), accompanied by a bassline supplied by a variety of drums. Interesting!

The music is based around quarter-tones rather than half-tones. In other words, there are twice as many notes available to the musician. Okay, so obviously, unless you're really good at tight quarter bends or you're using a slide, as a guitarist you're stymied from the get-go. Well, not completely, but the range of scales open to you are significantly reduced.

Scales themselves are termed 'maqam' and there are something like 100 main and sub-scales at your disposal. Note, that the maqam equivalent to C major would count as different from A major as there is no real concept of 'key' as far as I can tell.

Okay, so maybe discarding the concept of a 'key' is somewhat harsh, as you might move from one maqam to another which to Western ears might sound like shifting scales within one key signature, but... well... as there's no real harmonisation, so perhaps 'key' is irrelevant after all. I think that kind of highlights one of the main things about music theory... that it's really just a framework applied to 'what we know works'. Sometimes, when you try to shoehorn alternate musical styles into Western 'music theory' the wheels fall off the wagon.

Looking forward to the trip... If we're not back by a week on Monday then send out a search party. We'll probably have taken the wrong camel headed south...

Feel free to check in with The Project, though. If I get the chance (and a phone signal) I'll see about sending postcards from my mobile.

1 comment:

Dave Jacoby said...

They have their pop music, too. I have a CD I bought about 20 years ago called Pop Rai and Rachid Style that's certainly understandable to western ears as pop music.

But quarter-tone music is interesting, too. I've been wanting to get a fretless guitar.....