Unlike what may be popularly believed, music has always had a place in Saudi culture, a folkloric tradition that dates back many hundreds of years
Music has been an integral part of Saudi culture since time immemorial. The rippling rhythms of sand dunes and the haunting sighs of desert winds are replicated in the music produced by its people, which may seem crude at first encounter, but ultimately reflects a culture that takes pride in its stark simplicity.
The musical chants of ancient Bedouins, sung to alleviate the monotony that arises from the long hours of repetitive camelback swaying spent on journeys of a great distance, would be set upon the beat of their mounts’ plodding hooves. This primordial rhythm would be reflected in wide range of drums that are the main instrument used in Saudi music, throughout the different cultures found in the diverse regions across the Arabian peninsula, from Najd to Asir to the Hijaz.
From huge drums producing a mellow baritone to a hand-held tabla that generates a softer, lighter sound, these combine to create a multitude of percussive tones, which form the background to traditional folkloric poetry recitations, dances and celebrations.
During such events, alongside the rhythm of the drum, audience participation is usually encouraged in the form of clapping (tasfiq), to maintain the drum-created melody.
Blend of cultures
Since carrying heavy musical instruments would not be conducive to a nomadic way of life, many of the other instruments used in Saudi Arabia, particularly in urban areas, originate in neighbouring regions such as the Levant, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. For example, the simsimiyyah, a lyre-like harp primarily found in Yanbu’ on Saudi Arabia’s western coast, has been found to originate from the coastal regions of East Africa, in particular Egypt. This is also true for instruments such as the ‘oud, a stringed lute, the surnai, a double-reed wind instrument and the nay, a reed flute.
Such blending of cultures has always been a part of Saudi tradition. Continuous interaction has continually taken place between those residing in the Arabian peninsula with those from cultures all around the globe, particularly the yearly throngs coming on the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca. This has resulted in adding multiple dimensions of richness to Saudi culture, as can be seen in the development of traditional Saudi music, which all can enjoy no matter their origin or background.
By: Maryam Al-Dabbagh