Living among the locals

Arabic Folk Music and its origins

Our region is rich with folk music, but a lot of us don’t know much about its origin and how it came to be. 

This is why I spoke with my good old friend Ibrahim Hassoun, Dubai-based Palestinian musician who told us more about the subject, the music, and the instruments. 

From Egypt, the Gulf (Khaleej) to the Levant, folk music tells countless stories of people, lands, and traditions.

Ibrahim Hassoun

Ibrahim Hassoun (right) with Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf (left)

Hassoun’s family left Lebanon for the UAE when he was only a child. There, he developed his talents, growing up to become a percussionist and a dedicated folk musician. 

A tribute to Palestinian folk music – Ibrahim Hassoun on the drums

His father, younger brother, and uncles are all musicians as well.

His late grandfather, Youssef Hassoun, was a well known poet of the Palestinian revolution. He was also a musician and a vocalist.

“Not only did my grandfather perfect various forms of ataba or rhyme, he contributed to the tradition with various new elements,” Ibrahim Hassoun told me.

Palestinian Youssef Hassoun’s poem ‘Ya Jarti’ (My Neighbor)

Folk music is cultural; it carries the stories of countless peoples, their struggles, and triumphs. This is why most folk songs revolve around work, trade, or agriculture, Hassoun explained. 

You often find common people singing folk music as they go about their daily tasks; the laborers at work, the women carrying domestic chores, etc, he added. 

Folk music in modern songs

Hassoun believes traces of folk music can be found in contemporary Arabic hits, but this is only the case with songs that do not integrate foreign melodies.

“If we look at new music, we find that the Arabic song is still carrying the characteristics of its folk roots, evolving only just a little. Many famous singers like Ali Eskandar, Ali El Dik, Fares Karam, Mohammed Abdu, Abu Baker Salem, or Mohammed Munir and Mohammed Munib, have maintained the basics of folk music, whether through rhythm, instruments, or even lyrics,” he explained.

Iraqi Folk

Folk differs from one Arab nation to the next. Though instruments, dialects, and aesthetics might be shared, every country has its own flavor. 

In Iraq, Fog al-Nakhel is a popular folk song. Its popularity, however, has spread throughout the Arab world, making it one of the most widely known tunes in the region. 

The original lyrics say,“Fog ilna khell,” meaning “I have a friend up there,” said to be telling the story of a poor man who was infatuated with a woman after seeing her standing on the balcony of her rich family’s home.

The words changed with time to become:“Fogel-nakhal” or “above the palm trees.” This alteration must have happened as the song spread to other countries that are not accustomed to the Iraqi dialect and accent.

Egyptian Folk

Egypt is among the countries that celebrate and boast several genres of folk music. 

Songs touch on various subjects that include the area of origin and the surrounding environment. 

Other recurring motifs are Egyptian women and their role in the folk scene. This is evident in the high number of female folk, or shaabi, singers. 

“Even their style of ghazal, or how they express infatuation or love, is very different from other Arabic countries,” Hassoun said.

Another joint theme is, of course, the Nile and the vast agricultural lands.

Instruments commonly used in such music include the mizmar (horn) and the tablah (hand drum.) 

Palestinian Folk

As is the case in Egypt, women play an important role in the production of Levantine folk music. 

Here, folk songs are often about the mountains and the wars (due to the recurrent wars the region has seen).

Some of the instruments used are the mijwiz (dual bamboo pipes,) the yarghul (double-pipe,) and the tablah (drum).

“Improvisation is one of the basics of Arabic folk music, especially in the Levant where it’s called ataba, or rhyme,” Hassoun said. 

Ataba is a traditional staple in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. While in Jordan, Bedouin folklore is more prevalent.

Khaleeji Folk

Unlike Egypt, and the Levant, Gulf or Khaleeji folk music is exclusive to men, while women only play a minimal role. 

Most of the music is produced and performed during jalsa (social gatherings where men sing, play music, and dance).

“The common instruments in this region are rhythmic. In the Arab world, Khaleejis are widely renowned for their rhythms and percussions. In a typical Khaleeji orchestra, you can find 10-20 rhythmic instrumentists,” Hassoun explained.

Due to the geographical nature of the Gulf region, local folk music often tells the tales of adventures in the desert, horses, camels, and hunting.

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About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

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