Centres of Polyphony

Vocal Polyphony in the Middle East

The region of the Middle East, according to the main elements of its musical cultures, unites a vast region, which comprises parts of three continents: parts of western and central Asia, northern Africa and a small part of Europe (the European part of Turkey). Garland Encyclopedia frames the Middle East within the regions from Northwestern Africa (Morocco) up to Kazakhstan and Northwestern China.
As imperfect as most generalizations are, we can characterize the Middle Eastern region as having the following features:
 Vocal polyphony does not play an important role in most of the musical cultures of this region;
 Traditions of very developed instrumental polyphony (particularly of the string instruments) are quite usual for many Middle Eastern musical cultures;
 Despite the absence of vocal polyphonic traditions, group singing (mostly in unison or in octaves, sometimes with heterophonic elements) is quite common in folk-singing traditions of this region;
 The Middle East is one of the most advanced regions of the world in terms of early professionalism and the role of the solo performer in musical culture;
 Although vocal music has primary importance in a musical culture (this idea is clearly expressed in the classifications of one of the greatest thinkers of humanity Al-Farabi), musical instruments, and particularly string instruments, play an important role. This idea is also clearly expressed in the writing of another great thinker of the Medieval Middle East – Ibn-Sina (Avicenna);
 Following a great tradition of writing about music from Ancient Greece, many of Middle Eastern musical cultures have a great tradition of theoretical works about music, with lengthy discussions ranging from the role of music in society to specific scales and melodic models. The music of Ancient Greece itself is considered by many to be a part of the Middle Eastern family of musical cultures;
 Also starting from Ancient Greece, Middle Eastern thinkers have long discussed the value of different kinds of music. There were suggestions that certain scales, modes or musical instruments should be banned (for example, Plato suggested a ban on the aulos, a double-reed aerophone). This tendency was dramatized after the advance of Islam, and resulted in a general disapproval (and sometimes a strict ban) of non-religious-related musical activities in some of the Middle Eastern countries. As a live example of such a ban, our friend and colleague from Monash University spent two years in an Iranian jail for performing classical music.

Pearl Divers of the Persian Gulf
Arguably the most prominent vocal polyphonic tradition from the Middle Eastern region has been recorded from the pearl divers of the Persian Gulf, around the island of Bahrain. Bahrain has never been an easy place in which to live. Water is so scarce that the Arabs used to dive into the gulf and collect fresh water on the bottom of the sea from underground springs. Until the 1970s pearl diving in the Persian Gulf, and particularly around the Bahrain Islands, was a thriving industry. Pearls from this region was considered to be the best in the world. Most industry was connected to the sea: fishing and collecting pearl. The best time for collecting pearls is from June to October. Small one-masted boats carried several pearl divers (from 1 to 4). Each dive could be the last for each of them, as sharks and poisonous jellyfish were very frequent in the sea. Every diver would usually make 30-40 dives a day (Rovsing-Olsen, 1978:12, 2002:87).
The traditional polyphonic songs of pearl divers are called nahma. The most salient feature of nahma songs is the exceptionally low vocal drone – hamhama (two octaves lower than the main melody). Scholars think that hamhama might be connected symbolically to the voice of the whale (Lambert, 2002:651). The leading melody is performed by a professional singer nahham. Nahma songs were documented in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. These songs are divided into two groups: working songs and entertainment songs. Working songs are rhythmically organized around short cycles (only one of the songs – yamal – is in free time). Entertainment songs (fjiri) are considered to be “prestigious forms, and their origins is the subject of rich legends” (Lambert, 2002:651).
Nahma is accompanied by clapping and the sounds of percussive instruments. No drone in instrumental music has been documented.
Much less known is the two-part singing of the Bedouins. The Garland article mentions choral singing during the ritualistic combat dances of Ababda Bedouins (Saleh, 2002:624) and Rovsing-Olsen provides an example of Bedouin polyphony (see Rovsing-Olsen, 1978).

Polyphony in Jewish music
Polyphonic singing is not a very common feature of Jewish traditional music and liturgical service. “Despite efforts by German immigrants who introduced their choral tradition to synagogues in Haifa in the 1930s, and by Sephardi musicians such as Rahamim Amar (in Sephardi synagogues the choir sang in unison), few synagogues employ a trained choir. This lack of choral music can be traced to the fact that the orthodox establishment identified choral music with non-orthodox synagogues, and it has led to a lack of a native choral repertoire for the synagogue in Israel (unlike Europe and North America)” (Seroussi, 2002:205). As far as I know, the elements of vocal polyphony in Jewish music were first studied by M. Ravina, who delivered a paper at the Anthropological Congress in Moscow in 1964. This issue was specially researched in more detail by Gerson-Kiwi in her 1968 publication (re-published in 1980). Interestingly, despite the generally accepted fact that “choirs have not made an inroad into the Israeli synagogue” (Seroussi, 2002:205), polyphony is observed mostly in synagogue singing. More specifically, Gerson-Kiwi discusses three regional styles of Jewish polyphony: Yemen Jews, the Samaritans and Corfu Jews (with a plenty of musical examples).
Yemenite part-singing is connected to the liturgical forms, and Gerson-Kiwi mentions them as “Psalm-polyphony or a prayer-polyphony” (Gerson-Kiwi, 1980:69). She distinguishes four forms of polyphony among Yemenite Jews:
(a) Vocal drone (exists in prayers). This is two-part singing with a drone. The melody has a short range – third only (A-C). With the additional tone “G” the range increases to a fourth. Dissonant seconds are frequent between the drone and the melody. “As the diapason is so narrow, the main interval is the second, but the sharp dissonant clusters do not in the least irritate the singers: their auditive perception can only follow the horizontal path, and in this selective hearing the chords simply do not exist. But they do exist for the unbiased observer and they have to be registered as a definite style of part-singing” (Gerson-Kiwi , 1980:70). Generally, I am always skeptical about the idea that “singers do not hear these clashing intervals”, and Gerson Kiwi herself writes later in this article (see later) about secondal dissonances that they “seems to be so congenial to the Yemenite singers that there can be no question of haphazard intonation” (Gerson-Kiwi. 1980:72).
(b) Choral polyphony of acclamations in Organum Technique (in Asmorot). This is a massed response from the entire congregation (including children) singing in a loose organum of many different pitches. The author mentions that East African mass choruses have the same kind of “sound columns” as in the Yemenite Jews’ singing. According to Gerson-Kiwi this singing style must be very close to the real sound of the medieval organum (According to Riemann’s 1898 publication, parallel fourths and fifths from the medieval musical tractates were considered to be a theoretical abstraction. The appearance of the Icelandic tradition of two-part parallel singing in perfect fifths changed the attitude towards the early organum practice)
(c) Vocal ostinato technique (in psalm reading). This form is based on simultaneous singing of the main tune and accompanying short ostinato-motifs. Ostinato-motive is developed around the tonic, and Gerson-Kiwi considers it to be “another trend originating from a basic drone form”.
(d) Heterophonic part-singing (in religious hymns). Heterophonic singing starts as an organum, but “very soon softens down to a heterophonic singing in the narrowest possible space of a second.” These dissonances “seems to be so congenial to the Yemenite singers that there can be no question of haphazard intonation” (Gerson-Kiwi. 1980:72).
(e) The style of parallel organum (in Yemenite wedding songs). In this style as soon as the leading singers starts a song, he is joined by the “chorus which adds the lower fourth to the principal melody and maintains this organal technique until the end” (ibid, 72):
The presence of vocal polyphony among the Samaritans is particularly interesting as the Samaritans have been in “nearly complete social and cultural isolation” (Gerson-Kiwi, 1980:73). Three forms of polyphony had been distinguished by the author:
(1) The canonic diaphony, based on a completely linear logic of development with strict rhythmic organization, and without clear harmonic connections to each other: “one could even venture to say that we have here an early example of atonality, though the canonic sections are thematically connected with each other and follow the same modality. But in this interchained fabric where one section overcrosses the other, these orders are no longer effectual, and the auditive impression is that of a complete disruption of tonality”. According to Gerson-Kiwi, this technique is designed to shorten the prayer by reciting two different verses simultaneously. The author draws parallels with the technique of motet of the ars antiqua (ibid, 75)
(2) The organal homophony, resulting from reciting the text of “The Song of the Sea” by the whole congregation. The thick sound consists of the low consonances (tonic, fifth and the octave) and the array of the dissonant sounds.
(3) Vocal drone organum. So, drone is present among the Samaritans as well: “The solid sound columns moving over the drone with perfect ease and brilliant tone color, provide one of the most advanced forms of a spontaneous polyphony” (ibid, 78).
The third polyphonic tradition, discussed by Gerson-Kiwi, is in Greece, among the Jews of the Isle of Corfu. Two distinct styles are distinguished:
(1) Bourdonized Third Parallels. As the name of the style suggests, the main melody is followed by a harmony-triad, and the drone is used to give support to the melody.
(2) “Tenor-Motet” Style. This style consists of the organum-like movements “of fifths, thirds and even seconds” with slight ornamentation in the refrain.
Then Gerson-Kiwi discusses the possibility of the external influence of traditional polyphony on Jewish polyphonic traditions from southern Albanians, Northwestern Greece and Albanians living in southern Italy and comes to the conclusion that there are clear signs of such an influence.

Some other sources from the Middle East also suggest the presence of organum-type liturgical singing. H. Husmann discusses the singing in parallel fourths in Syrian Christian churches. He notes the closeness of the Syrian tradition to the medieval organum and suggests that the medieval organum has a Syrian origin (Husmann, 1966). Elements of drone are heard on the recording of family singers from Hadramawt, Yemen (see the audio track #5 from the accompanying CD of the Garland Encyclopedia, volume 6, Middle East, where the soloist and chorus parts are overlapping).

There has been a long-running misunderstanding of information about Armenian traditional music in Western ethnomusicology. This misunderstanding started, I think, with Paul Collaer. In his widely known work on Mediterranean polyphony Collaer provides several polyphonic examples from two Caucasian peoples – Armenians and Georgians (Collaer, 1960:58-66). Although both Armenia and Georgia are from the same region (Caucasia), where they were the closest neighbors for at least a few millennia, sharing many elements of culture (including being among the first Christian countries in the world), according to the parameter of polyphony and monophony their singing traditions are drastically different. Georgian vocal music (discussed above) is entirely based on a polyphonic model, while Armenian vocal music is entirely monophonic. I remember this well-known fact has been discussed many times by Armenian and Georgian ethnomusicologists at various scholarly meetings while they were both part of the former Soviet Union. So where did the examples of “Armenian polyphonic songs” come from? Both Armenian two-part songs with secondal dissonances, reproduced in articles by Collaer (“Akhalakri” and “Shallakko”, both on page 58) are in fact instrumental melodies, performed on blown instruments by two (or three) performers, one (or two) holding the drone(s) and one playing the improvised and ornamented melody. By the way, the second melody from Collaer’s article, “Shallakko”, (or “Shalakho” as it is best known in Caucasia), is in fact a dance tune, and a very popular one in entire Transcaucasia. It has been widely known in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, at least from the end of the 19th century, when Armenians constituted a major part of the population of the Georgian capital city. I remember myself playing “Shalakho” on a piano (or sometimes on a guitar) at many parties, to the great enjoyment of my clapping and dancing friends. The popularity of this dancing tune was so big that I remember somebody putting the madly swirling “Shalakho” melody together with the broken chords from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in the 1980s, creating a new popular crossing between the oriental scale with augmented seconds with the “Neapolitan harmony” of Beethoven’s elegiac music.
The monophonic nature of Armenian musical culture is so well known that by far the best musicological work on the history of Armenian music is entitled “History and Theory of Armenian Monodic Music” (Kushnarev, 1958). Interestingly, cited in the “references” of Collaer’s article, the title of this outstanding book is translated without the word “monodic”.
The only work I know of which is fully dedicated to the problem of polyphony in Armenian music is a paper of Armenian ethnomusicologist Barsegian on polyphony in Ancient Armenia. The paper was delivered at the 1988 conference on traditional polyphony, held in Borjomi, Georgia (Barsegian, 1988). Barsegian analyzed the literary sources from the 5th (Favstos Buzand) and 7th centuries (Movses Kalankatuaci). According to Barsegian, the ancient Armenian term “Bazmadzain” (“many sounds”, or possibly – “ many different timbres”) and “chorekdzain” (“four sounds”) was used in regard to instrumental music and instrumental ensembles in ancient Armenia.
By the end of the 19th century two talented Armenian composers Kristofor Kara-Murza and Makar Ekmalian introduced harmonized (in European style) versions of Armenian folk and liturgical music and started performing them at concerts and liturgy (Manukian, 2000:725). More genuine polyphonic versions of Armenian monodic compositions connected to the traditional singing style were created by the great Armenian composer, ethnomusicologists and choirmaster, Komitas (1869-1935).

The Bedouins have also been documented as having some forms of vocal polyphony. For example, a choral singing tradition has been documented in Egypt, among the nomadic tribe of Ababda (branch of the Hamitic Beja tribes), who live between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. They are known to have “ a display of martial dancing skills in which warriors are paired in freely improvised mock combats, a form both ancient and widespread, is accompanied by choral singing, clapping, stamping, and strumming on the tanbur” (Saleh, 2002:624)
Elements of polyphony were recorded in Turkey (Feldman, 2002:192-193). “…In the zikr, elements of polyphony permeated every musical moment. This polyphony, while rudimentary – it was based mainly on octaves – was so pervasive that the music of the zikr must be placed in a different category from other genres of Turkish urban music, which insisted on strict monody.” (Feldman, 2002:192). And of course, the official policy of the Turkish government to distant themselves from the Ottoman past and come close to European musical traditions, among other tendencies, resulted in the creation of classical choirs and a massive exposure of choral music on radio and TV (Feldman, 2002:117), although this seems to have had a little impact on traditional singing practice in Turkey which is mostly monophonic.

Share it on