Arabian sawt

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The sowt (classical Arabic: sawt) is considered the principal traditional urban art music genre of the Arabian peninsula. Its name links the genre to the Abbasid era; in his Kitab al-Aghani, al-Isfahani referred to the song as "sawt" (literally "sound" or "voice"). However the modern sawt seems to have emerged in the late 19th century, promoted by a famous Kuwati poet and musician, `Abdallah Muhammad al-Faraj (1836-1903) who composed many models. al-Faraj, heir to a wealthy merchant family, also re-introduced the Syro-Egyptian ud, and the mirwas (from Bombay, India, where he was educated).

As in early Islamic times, there thus appear multiple musical influences: Shami, Iraqi, Indian, African, Persian. Several subgenres exist, and regional variants are found. Singers are usually accompanied by ud and mirwas (double-headed drum) as well as hand-claps (tasfiq) by two interlocking groups; sometimes other instruments are introduced as well.

The full sawt cycle is a compound form, and includes the following components:
1. taqsim on the ud
2. tahrira: long recitative song, ametric.
3. sowt: measured song accompanied by percussion, usually similar to the muwashshah, but sometimes with adaptations to Hindu poetic meters.
4. tawshiha: a variation with different melodic formulae
5. basta: a lively song in Yemen style

Two main genres are the sowt `arabi (in 6/8 or 12/8); and the sowt shami (in 8 beats). In both prominent offbeats are common. Sometimes local musicologists distinguish also sowt bahraini, yamani, and khayali, as well as sowt san`ani from Yemen (capital San`aa). The first is more lively, while the 2nd features compound rhythms, and the third is no longer used.

Modern sawt uses vocal techniques closer to Syro-Egyptian style, and may add kaman (violin).

(above notes taken from Music from the city, recorded by Simon Jargy (VDE CD-782))

Sawt Shami, performed by Muhammad Zwayyid (vocals and ud), Raashid Bin Sanad (mirwas). Recorded in Abu Dhabi March 1975. From Sowt: Music from the city, recorded by Simon Jargy (VDE CD-782).

From the album notes:

Muhammad Zuwayyid (about 70 in 1975, now deceased) was probably the last master of the traditional sowt. Recording begins with taqsim (bayati on D) leading to a tahrira (free vocal) section, and finally a metric section in 8 beats, featuring rhythmic syncopations produced by mirwas and claps.

The sawt shami is based on 8 beats.

Poem in classical Arabic uses double hemistiches (misra`) and rhyme "bi". Each stanza is two verses followed by a third refrain line on a modulating melodic phrase (tawshiha). Concludes in maqam rast on C.


They say: a cross adorns her chest.
I respond: thus the Messiah, her prophet, is my beloved.
O cross, I do not dislike you for a religious cause,
But out of jealousy to see you between her full breasts.
O vessel casting anchor in a haven of marble.
While the waves roar in the darkness of my wanderings,
Did she ever heed me, heed the desire (burning) in my chest?
Heed my loving passion and my moaning?
I used to say of love: it is but a wild dream,
Til I saw your eyes which undid me.

Kuwaiti sawt, performed by Awad Dokhi, composed by `Abdallah al-Faraj. 8 beat type.


Bahraini sawt, in 12 beat rhythm (sometimes called sawt `arabi), performed by `Abdallah Ahmad with dancers. Modern version of sawt; note addition of instruments.