Levantine-Egyptian musical turath, and the wasla suite

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NOTE: for musical examples on this page please see here (under Egyptian-Levantine turath)

The traditional ensemble: takht

Voices of the traditional takht ("platform"):

  • mutrib or mutriba (vocal soloist, male or female)
  • madhhabgiyya (chorus, also known as bitāna)
  • oud (fretless lute)
  • qanun (plucked zither)
  • nay (reed flute)
  • kamanja (spike fiddle; later violin)
  • riqq (tambourine with jingles)

Temporal-tonal structures


(see https://maqamworld.com/en/forms.php for more details on the following)

NOTE: All examples are in this folder.


  • taqsim, Instrumental improvisation in maqam bayati, performed on the oud by Gomâa Muhammad Ali. Taqasim tend to serve musical functions, either preparing the maqam in the ears of the other performers (especially the singer), or effecting a transition from one maqam to another. Usually the taqsim is non-metric, but can also be performed "on the beat" (`ala al-wahda), i.e. with a regular meter, usually performed on percussion. The taqsim may also be accompanied by a drone on the tonic. The taqsim is a sectional form, comprising multiple phrases each ending with a qafla (close) and gradually revealing the maqam.
  • Dulab (in Bayyati). A short instrumental introduction; like the taqsim, designed to display and establish the maqam. Many dulab examples are available at http://maqamworld.com.
  • Sama`i el-Aryan, in maqam Bayati. Note the "rondo" form: a taslim (refrain) in the home maqam follows each of 4 khanat (variable melodic sections), each of which appears in a different maqam. The sama`i iqa` (rhythmic cycle) is sama`i thaqil in 10/8, except for the last khana, which is often in triple meter. The sama`i was introduced by the Ottomans, probably in the 19th century.
  • Bashraf. Another Ottoman form, similar to the sama`i, but heavier, slower - often deploying a long rhythmic cycle , e.g. of 56 beats (al-dawr al-kabir). A famous Bashraf is Farahfaza
  • Longa. A fast instrumental composition in 2/4, again in "rondo" form. Listen to Longa Riyad, by the famous Egyptian composer Riyad al-Sunbati (1906-1981), in maqam Farahfaza (~G minor). Here is a contemporary version, by an acclaimed NY ensemble.
  • Tahmila. A composition incorporating improvisations on various instruments, featuring each one in turn. This version of Tahmila Rast (or Suznak) is performed by Sami al-Shawwa, the most famous violinist of early 20th century Egypt. Here is a contemporary version, by a well-known Michigan orchestra.


  • Layali and mawwal, performed in maqam Bayati, by Ibrahim el-Haggar & Sami Nussair, Cairo (1991). From UNESCO AUVIDIS.
    Mawwal text: "I try to smile, though my heart weeps. How could I but weep under such tribulations? but I smile to conceal my tears."

The layali ("nights") is a non-metric vocal improvisation, analogous to the instrumental taqsim, using textual formulae: "ya layl" (oh night), "ya `ayn" (oh eye). The mawwal, which typically follows, is a non-metric vocal improvisation on a colloquial text called mawwal, though the same word also refers to vocal improvisations on a text that is not technically a mawwal.

  • Muwashshah. A metric vocal genre, putatively based on the textual genre of the same name (invented in Andalusia, the muwashshah broke from the older qasida model by introducing strophic rhyme schema), though in fact the poem may often be a qasida (classical Arabic monorhyme). While the name of the poetic form hearkens back to Andalusia, many of the muwashshahat were undoubtedly composed in the mashriq - Egypt and the Levant.

The distinguishing features of the musical genre are: classical Arabic, use of a wide variety of meters, strophic setting, use of vocables ("aman", etc.), use of responsorial chorus. A prelude (badaniyya or dawr) is followed by a series of strophes (khana or silsila) introducing new rhymes (but often there's only one, and it functions as a kind of "bridge"), and ending in a qafla (which often repeats the opening melodic material, so sounds like a repeated dawr).

Even in the mashriq the muwashshah is often treated as a direct Andalusian heritage; in fact many poems and their settings were composed in 19th century Egypt and Syria; others are anonymous, but evidence for a direct Andalusian linkage is lacking.

Try singing two muwashshahat:

  1. Lamma Bada (early recording of Shaykh Sayyid al-Safti), (modernized arrangement by the Lebanese diva Fairouz with lyrics and form
  2. Fika kullima ara hasan, with lyrics and form
  • qasida. Munira al-Mahdiyya (c. 1884-1965) was Egypt's most famous female singer of the 1920s. Shakawtu fa qalat. (I complained and she answered) is a metric qasida (classical Arabic poem, set to an elaborate through-composed melody), recorded c. 1925. Originally improvised, the qasida became subject to compositional treatments; this melody was probably composed by the famous Egyptian composer Zakariyya Ahmad (1896 - 1961).
  • dawr. The early 19th century dawr was a simple strophic song in colloquial Arabic. But by the end of that century it had become the most evolved of through-composed precomposed forms, incorporating also improvisatory sections: ahat (vocalizations on the syllable "ah") and hank (solo improvisations over a choral refrain). Relatively new, the dawr is nevertheless classed as "turath" as it evolved before the modern era. It represents the pinnacle of the nahda (Arab cultural renaissance) era, as represented by the great 19th century composers and performers, such as Muhammad `Uthman and Abdu al-Hamuli.

We also have a modernized version of Dayât Mostaqbal Hayati, by Shaykh Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923), in which even improvised sections are written out, and the "ah" section sounds a bit like a Webern tone-row (listen at 7:28). Sayyid Darwish was the most important and innovative composer of the early 20th century Arab world, despite his early death at 31. See also the score, which clearly indicates the complexity of dawr compositions, even to those not trained to read musical notation!


Cyclic compound form in a single maqam, analogous to the North African nawba or Iraqi maqam. The wasla would begin with instrumental pieces (a taqasim, followed by dulab or sama`i), followed by a series of muwashshahat, then the solo vocalist performing layali and mawwal, all interspersed with additional taqasim, and culminating with a dawr or qasida. The qanun (zither, literally "law") established the definitive tonality (originally its strings were fixed in pitch throughout a performance; only later were the orab (levers) added to enable adjustments).

(In a sense the "long song" (ughniya) popularized by Umm Kulthum and incorporating many sections and maqams, can be viewed as the subsequent evolution of the wasla.)

Saleh Abdel Hayy (1896–1962) was one of the last singers to continue performing wasla in Egypt into the mid 20th century, singing Leeh binafsig in Wasla style:

leeh ya binafsig bitibhig wanta zahr haziin
wal-‘ayn titaaba‘ak wa tab‘ak mihtishim wa raziin

How do you cause joy, oh violet, when you are a sad flower?
The eye follows you, while your character is shy and serious.

Poem: Bayrum al-Tunsi (d. 1962)
Melody: Riyad al-Sunbati

In Syria the form persisted, especially in Aleppo; hear also: Sabah Fakhri (b. 1933): Sabah Fakhri[1][2]

Sabah Fakhri slides