Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar

By Habib, Kenneth S. | Notes, June 2016 | Go to article overview

Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar


Habib, Kenneth S., Notes


Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. By Lisa Urkevich. New York: Routledge, 2015. [xiv, 356 p. ISBN 9780415888707 (hardcover), $160; ISBN 9780415888721 (paperback), $63.95.] CD, music examples (with text transcriptions), illustrations, lyrics and terms in Arabic script (transliterations), translations, tables, notes, appendix, glossary, bibliography, index.

Not often does such tremendously-needed, well-grounded scholarship come to an academic and general readership as Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar by Lisa Urkevich. The fact that permission to enter and exit Saudi Arabia is significantly restricted, as is traveling between provinces within it, and the fact that social mores greatly limit contact between the sexes outside of family life, only make Urkevich's navigation of the processes required to accomplish her research among men and women in their various contexts and locales all the more remarkable. Stemming in part from the teaching associated with her professorship at the American University of Kuwait, and based on two decades of research during which she mostly resided in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait while negotiating the challenges in conducting the supporting fieldwork, this book by design combines the attributes of an ethnographic monograph and a textbook for a wide readership.

In a succinct refutation of outsider stereotyping of Arabia as "musicless," the opening of the preface points to the region's "extraordinarily rich and diverse music traditions" before going on to describe the goal of the book as introducing and celebrating "Arabian Peninsula musical arts" with a focus on "folk and traditional urban music" (p. ix). This section also provides valuable contextualization of the book, including coverage of its utility and methodology with specificity and candor. For example, occasional problematic suggestions came with the helpful contributions that Urkevich received from external reviewers, and she points out, for instance, that addressing "certain social issues like gender and religion from a western anthropological standpoint would have offended many regional citizens, which was inconceivable" (p. xi).

The introductory chapter describes the geo-cultural makeup of the Arabian Peninsula along with national groupings, associated tribal ties, extent of historical influence by inbound migrant cultures, and intersection of traditional and modern lifestyles. Within the contrasting backgrounds lies a well-established distinction between Bedouin, or tribal nomads, and their descendants on the one hand and hadar, or settled peoples, and their descendants on the other hand, with each hating their own music and traditions. Urkevich points out that in distinctions such as this, the line between the two is sometimes blurry. Further, in terms of four large categorizations of traditional musical arts, those of the Bedouin and hadar can be seen to overlap in an association with land, along side those that are associated with sea, with incoming immigrant cultures, and with urban classicism (p. 4). Another general introductory issue has to do with certain negative connotations of music within society. Owing both to tribal perceptions of music making as being akin to manual labor, and thus degrading, as well as to some religious interpretations of Islam that see musical arts as indicative of "poor moral values," music can carry a stigma for those making and listening to it. This can be all the more so for women, and of particular value here is Urkevich's coverage of the changes in gender relations and perceptions of music making since the late nineteenth century, when women and men more often attended musical gatherings in mixed company and before music came under the more pointed religio-political attacks of the twentieth century (pp. 5-7).

Following the introduction, the book unfolds in two large parts, each of which covers the sizable geo-musical areas under study: "Part I: The Najd and Upper Gulf Region" and "Part II: The Hijaz and Southwest Region. …

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