A Cellist’s Guide to Playing Arabic Music

In adapting the instrument for Arabic music, cellists have developed a complex set of techniques and approaches over the last century.

By Kira Weiss | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine

As a 15-year-old, I received an unexpected invitation to sub for a cellist in an Arabic music fusion band. Coming from a small town in northern California, I had developed a big-fish-in-a-small-pond mentality and immediately said “Yes!” without so much as a thought about how this style of playing might differ from my Western classical upbringing.

When I opened the sheet music a few days later, I was quickly sobered. The songs were filled with confusing symbols—slashed flats and sharps that seemed to be missing a line. The MP3 files confirmed that these were not notes I’d ever heard or played on my cello.

I practiced with the recordings for hours in the weeks leading up to the concert, trying to fine-tune my intonation for these microtonal intervals. Needless to say, I did not become an expert in this style by the time of the concert. However, this experience sparked a musical and intellectual pursuit in understanding the relationship between the cello and Arabic music that has led to my studies in ethnomusicology with Scott Marcus at UC Santa Barbara. Drawing on what I’ve learned since from lessons, interviews, books, and recordings, this is the “how-to” guide to approaching Arabic music I wish I’d had at 15.

History

The cello became a common addition to traditional Ottoman-Arabic ensembles in early 20th-century Egypt. The cello followed in the footsteps of its older sister—the violin—which had almost altogether replaced regional bowed instruments by the end of the 19th century.

Over time, these small ensembles developed into large, orchestra-like groups that included traditional instruments as well as a large violin section, two to three cellists, and a bassist. This model spread to other countries in the region via Egypt’s vibrant entertainment industry, and by the mid-20th century, the cello had become a standard instrument in Arabic music ensembles across the world.

In adapting the instrument for Arabic music, cellists have developed a complex set of techniques and approaches over the last century. In general, this genre is characterized by stylistic freedom, oral transmission, ornamentation, melodic and rhythmic mediation, the use of quarter tones, and improvisation.

Style

Arabic music is heterophonic, a word that comes from the Greek roots hetero– (different) and -phony (sound). Music is considered heterophonic when musicians perform different variations of a single melody simultaneously. In other words, musicians play the same melody and “spice it up” by adding their own embellishments, ornaments, and runs. Because of this, each instrument has a great degree of stylistic freedom. 

As an oral tradition, Arabic music has been passed down by ear, rather than by notation, for centuries. Today, sheet music is commonly used in Arabic music ensembles, but instrumentalists are encouraged to play more than what is notated on the page. For example, ornaments are not always notated in sheet music, but ornamentation is considered essential. Common ornaments for cellists include portamento and glissando, trills, turns, mordents, grace notes, tremolos, ghost notes, hammer-ons, and vibrato.


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Vibrato? Yes, you read that correctly! Cellists commonly consider vibrato an ornament in Arabic music because it is used sparingly and intentionally in specific melodic contexts. Cellists and string players generally agree that vibrato in Arabic music is wider and slower than in Western classical music.

To get a wider vibrato, I’ve heard two common tips:

  1. Use flatter fingers to place more of the “meat” of your finger on the string.
  2. Angle your left hand so that your fingers point toward the bridge. (Imitate a violinist’s left-hand position!)

In addition to a wide vibrato and the ornaments listed above, cellists also use special techniques to achieve certain colors and textures. For example, cellists occasionally “float” the bow over the fingerboard to imitate the raspy, breathy timbre of a traditional bowed instrument called the rabāba. 

Mediating Rhythm and Melody

For cellists who begrudgingly hold down the bass line and live for the moments when they finally get the melody, Arabic music is for you! Cellists generally play the melody in Arabic music ensembles. Most play the melody with the bow, but typically one cellist switches to pizzicato during the verses of a song. The cellist playing pizzicato serves as a mediator between the rhythm and melody, bringing out important notes while emphasizing the main beats of the rhythm.

Quarter Tones

First rule of thumb for approaching quarter tones: abandon your fears and train your ears. Many of the modes (maqāmāt) in Arabic music have quarter tones, so it’s essential to learn to play these pitches in tune. Once your ears get comfortable with quarter tones, it’s time to pick up the instrument.

Here’s a simple way to play a quarter tone:

  • Play an open string.
  • Place your second finger in first position.
  • Place your index finger exactly halfway between your second finger and the nut on the fingerboard.
  • Check with a tuning app to make sure the pitch is about halfway between half-steps.

When it comes to quarter tones, listening is as important as playing! If you can train your ears to hear quarter tones, your fingers will follow.


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Repertoire

Traditional instrumental genres in Arabic and Ottoman music include dulāb, samā‘ī, longā, bashraf, and tah․mīla. The websites arabicicsheetmusic.com and dokanbach.com have sheet music for these genres as well as transcriptions of famous songs that cellists commonly cover (see Emad Ashour’s version of “Han El Wed,” for example). Note: cellists typically read in treble clef in Arabic music and play an octave below what is written.

There is a handful of compositions that blend Western classical music with traditional Arabic music including the following three: 

• “Al-Fellāh․a” (“Le Paysan”) for solo cello, Youssef Greiss (1932)

• “Improvisation on a Peddler’s Tune” for solo cello, Gamal Abdel-Rahim (1981)

• “Gana El-Farh․” for cello and piano, Mohamed Saad Basha (2003)


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Method Books and Theory

Here are some resources for learning to play Arabic musical modes (maqām) on cello:

The Inspiring String, Arabic Orchestral Cello Method by Emad Ashour and Mahmoud Abdel Maksoud (2020). This method book introduces maqāmāt through scales, exercises, and excerpts from folk songs and modern repertoire.

Inside Arabic Music: Arabic Maqam Performance and Theory in the 20th Century (2019) by Sami Abu Shumays and Johnny Farraj. This is a great introduction to maqām. Also be sure to check out Abu Shumays’ YouTube channel for lessons and the companion website, maqamworld.com.

Improvisation

In Arabic music, instrumentalists are generally expected to be able to improvise. The traditional form of solo, melodic instrumental improvisation in Arabic music is called tāqāsīm. Playing tāqāsīm requires a deep knowledge of the maqām system including common phrases and modulations. Consult the sources listed above to get started.

Learning By Ear

The best way to learn to play Arabic music on cello is by listening. Be omnivorous in your listening. Seek out instrumental pieces, songs, and recordings from many regions. Listen to recordings by cellists such as Naseem Alatrash, Emad Ashour, Kinan Abou-afach, Yahia Mahdi, Bashar Sharifah, and others.

The more you listen, the more you’ll find that there is no single way to play Arabic music on the cello. Playing styles differ according to era, region, instrumentation, and personal taste. Over time, you will attune yourself to these subtle differences and find your own voice within the tradition.