“To really have the spirit of the Middle Eastern music, you shouldn’t be looking at a piece of paper, you know, you should be looking at each other or closing your eyes or looking at your instrument.”
Right before the pandemic, Dena and I were practicing for an upcoming Turkish concert. After our rehearsals, I often hang around and find myself in an engaging conversation with Dena. It was one of those days, Dena and I began to talk about Middle Eastern Ensembles, the differences between Western musical practices, and the practice of oral transmission, also known as meşk.
This blog post originated from those fruitful conversations that we had with Dena. Here, I want to share some of her comments about listening practices and reflect on my own experiences as an Alevi female musician.
Whether subtle or obvious, the stage harbors multiple meanings. Presentation, performances, instrumentation, and many other components play significant roles in constructing cultural imaginaries. But where do we draw the line between representation and exploitation? This question becomes especially important for vulnerable groups such as the Middle Eastern communities in the United States. Given the mainstream media’s long history of stereotyping and othering Middle Eastern people, how do we represent Middle Eastern musical traditions without manipulating or commodifying them?
Salaam is the only Middle Eastern music band in Bloomington, Indiana. Since its founding in 1993, Salaam members have performed on various platforms with international artists from various regions. The diverse background of Salaam members creates a colorful repertoire from traditional Egyptian music to flamenco of Spain.** The name “salaam” is also a well-thought band name: it mirrors their core purpose, which is to be “a musical ambassador for peaceful coexistence.”**** As a bağlama player, I shared the intimacy and passion of being on the stage with its members. Observing their work ethic, stage preparations, and other seemingly simple details provided me with the amazing opportunity to dive into the world of Middle Eastern ensembles.
Dena: Finding the Balance
Dena is an Iraqi-American musician who was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Although Dena is born into the Western culture and is classically trained as a violist at Jacobs School of Music, she understands and harmoniously incorporates two cultures in her life. Despite her classical background, I have barely seen Dena using musical notation to practice our Turkish repertoire. When I asked about it, she told me that she decided not to write anything down and learn it by ear:
“Honestly, written music is really, really compromised. It is not a way to learn it. If you learned from the page and you played, it wouldn’t sound like Iraqi maqam […] To really have the spirit of Middle Eastern music; you shouldn’t be looking at a piece of paper, you know, you should be looking at each other or closing your eyes or looking at your instrument.”
The practice of oral transmission (meşk) is the primary system of music transmission for most of the Middle Eastern traditions. Although there are specific notation systems, I must say, they contain very limited information and often do not include the necessary nuances of the piece. Therefore, most musicians create healthy social relationships with their masters and transmit knowledge from generation to generation. The master-apprentice relationships among generations create a sort of belonging to the tradition. This transmission practice also challenges the compelling idea of autonomous individuality.
Dena’s comment about looking at people to have the spirit reminds me of my own experiences in Alevi musical gatherings (religious rituals and other social events) where I follow my peers’ eyes, listen to their breaths, and watch their bodies for cues and signals. As an Alevi female musician, my experiences in such performances taught me to focus on my senses to become a part of a larger group. Alevi deyiş and nefes (religious hymn and other religious tunes) include many references to spiritual figures, dates as well as Alevi understanding of Islam.****** In order to perform Alevi music thoroughly, both musicians and listeners need to attend these qualities and histories which requires more than musical notations.
Alevis are the second largest religious group in Turkey, after Sunnis. Their identity is based on religion as opposed to ethnic affiliation, since members of this group have diverse ethnic origins. Alevis hold strong resemblances to Shi’is given their common devotion to the Twelve Imams, including Ali and his family, yet their esoteric teachings, pre-Islamic traditions, and mystical practices that took shape in the thirteenth century differentiate Alevis from the other sects of Islam.
While I was studying in a conservatory, I came to appreciate both ways and make sure that I remember my responsibility for my community every time I am on stage. Dena also finds a balance between both cultures in her professional life, where she can fluently practice two different musical traditions. Instead of applying Western norms to Middle Eastern music, she acknowledges the fact that there are different ways of learning:
“I love to play Bach. Everything is communicated perfectly from the page. Everything! It’s so cool. I love that […] There are some Arabic orchestras that utilize the Western violin sections, and it’s fun, but it also seems so shallow at some point. It’s just like there’s no personal expression. It [doesn’t feel right] after playing this rootsy Iraqi music which is less famous and less understood. It helped me to get away from that kind of commercial music […] It was cute, but it’s not deep. It’s still out there for that kind of thing anyway.”
What makes Dena fluent in Middle Eastern music is not only her musical ability but also her willingness to be immersed in listening and learning practices.
Dena, as a bicultural musician, is able to provide some background on the stage (historical and political information and a few musical terminologies), which gives adequate context for largely Western audiences. This educational approach of hers seems to me like a strategy to demonstrate the richness and diversity among Middle Eastern musics and musicians. Collaborating with different artists, Salaam challenges this attitude considering Muslims as a monolithic group.
Assumptions and imaginings are common traps that people often fall into when they tried to understand and interpret Muslim cultures. Consider the “world music” industry that is highly influenced by the imperial and colonial narrative. In the context of Middle Eastern music, we see an exaggeration of behaviors, décors, and costumes. Popular culture takes advantage of this abstract knowledge about Middle Eastern cultures and reproduces the orientalist mindset and portrays the Middle Eastern people as exotic beings.
There is a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. It’s important to listen critically and be suspicious about the consumption of other cultures. Then, the question in my mind, specific to music, is how to interpret other musical traditions without being insensitive to performers and their community?
When I asked Dena how she finds the balance between these two traditions, she compared her ability to switch between styles with bilingualism:
“Maybe it’s just like languages. If you speak Spanish, English, and Turkish, you might occasionally mix a few things, but you’re pretty good at keeping them separate, right? I think it’s the same. The longer you’ve done it, the easier it is… To add more things, more languages, more instruments, or more styles…I have these ways that it’s like a language to explain it.”
Following Dena’s metaphor of language, performers can also put multiple traditions into conversation with one another without exceeding the borders of respect. More than sounding “right,” the great endeavor of Middle Eastern ensembles is to protect local meanings while remaining globally accountable. And as Dena says, the longer you’ve done it, the easier it is.
As a final thought, it is worth noting that our bodily experience is a source of meaning-making. Dena’s emphasis on learning by looking at each other or closing our eyes validates the importance of investing in multi-sensorial skills. We may all agree that “meanings and experiences […] are filtered and colored through sensations of the body,” but we must also accept that bodies are further shaped by gender, age, race, ethnicity, and class (Madison, 2020:227). Although this seems to create a deeper separation among us, boundaries are not barriers but “crisscrossing sites” where we could discover identities, understand intersections, and celebrate our differences.
** Currently, the group has four members: Dena El Saffar (viola), Tim Moore (percussion), Tomas Lozano (guitar), and Cemal Silay (bağlama). Since the members of the group play more than one instrument, they also include other instruments to their performance (such as oud, hurdy-gurdy, or joza). Please visit their website here.
**** To learn more about Salaam, please check out the video interview that was conducted by Muslim Voices Project in 2010.
****** For example, in many examples of Alevi deyiş we see God as an immanent truth, emphasizing the vahdet-i vücut (unity of existence), which is the philosophy that interprets everything as a shadow of God For a detailed discussion on vahdet-i vücut (unity of existence) and Alevi-Bektashi doctrines, see John Kingsley Birge, The Bektashi Order of Dervishes (London: Luzac Oriental, 1994): 87-161
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Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance, 3rd ed, Los Angeles: SAGE, 2020:227
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Ezgi Benli is a Ph.D. student in Folklore and Ethnomusicology Department at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is also a musician who is deeply invested in Alevi music. Her current research focuses on musical and listening practices of Alevis and is primarily concerned with critical listening. She is currently an assistant at Archives of Traditional Music at IU and teaching bağlama at community-based arts programs.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com / www.ezgibenli.com