Being a musician in Saudi Arabia is tricky business. Because Islam is so elemental to public culture in Saudi Arabia, and because some of the more fundamentalist (and outspoken) Muslim clerics consider music to be “haraam” (forbidden/sacred) the Saudi state has historically adopted a firm stance against all but the most traditional or devotional music. The playing of any instrument beyond the voice (and the beat of the small “duff”drum, as long as it doesn’t have metal or jingles, though only on carefully prescribed occasions) is particularly questionable.
Despite this concern, musically-minded Saudis usually can find a way to express themselves through song. Many put their talents into the officially-sanctioned religious vocal music. Others learn to play instruments and embrace modern forms, though even the most popular recording artists generally base their lyrics on classical poetry and avoid the “baby baby baby” (habeebi, habeebi) lyrics of Egyptian and Lebanese pop.
Though there are a few singers who revisit highly syncopated Bedouin song styles, Saudi public musicians–all of whom are men–generally perform in what is called the khaleeji (Gulf) folk tradition. The most famous khaleeji performer is Tariq Abdulhakeem, a well-known composer who wrote hundreds of songs, including the Saudi national anthem, for himself and other vocalists. (In this picture, he’s the one on the left.) Another popular Saudi Arabian musician is the amazing oud player Abadi al Johar, whose musicianship has earned him the nickname, “the octopus.” (See al Johar wow a crowd in Paris.) The most beloved Saudi “pop star” is likely Mohammad Abdu, whose nickname is Fanan El Arab, “the Arabic Artist.” We’ll learn more about Abdu below.
Saudi Arabian music overview from AmericanBedu.com | National Geographic on Saudi Arabian music | About Khaleej music | Why do some Muslims consider music haraam?: Read this extensive explanation, but also note the rebuttals in the comments below it | Hang out with this Bedouin musician in the Wadi Rum desert | Hear some very funky modern Bedouin music by Firas Shatila
In class we’re going to listen to:
— Mohammad Abdu: “Majomooat Ensan”
Mohammad Adbu is deservedly one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest stars. Popular both on the Arabian peninsula and internationally, Abdu blends Gulf music (khaleej) and contemporary Egyptian-style in his own personal style of Arab-fusion. His most respected work, “Aba’ad” (part of which we sing in class as “Layla,”), is an epic love song that maintains its intensity for over twenty minutes. Watch Abdu and his totally awesome band perform Aba’ad live. If you want to follow along, here are the many lyrics and an English translation.
Want to learn more about what’s going on in Mohammad Abdu’s private life? If so, you’re not alone.
— Rashed el-Majid; “Salamat”
Rashed el-Majid is a prolific young Saudi pop star “whose voice seems to come from a deep and mysterious world.” Known by the nickname “the Sinbad of Khaliji,” he has already performed on over 600 songs and 30 albums and continues to captivate Saudi Arabia’s youth by creating music that has much in common with Egyptian and Lebanese pop.
More about the Sinbad of Khaliji:
Watch a captivating el-Majid perform “Salamat” live | Saudi Arabia’s religious police probably wouldn’t want to hang out with Rashed in the mall | So many things jiggle on Rashed el Majid’s web page