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Lisa Urkevich
Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula:
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar
[book] Routledge

I have more books on my shelves about the world's traditional music than any reasonable person should. Now I have another that is among the handful of the best: Lisa Urkevich's Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. It comes at a time when many have forgotten the rich tribal variations of the region. Urkevich discusses the music, to be sure, but keep an eye on the “tradition” that is part of her book's title; for in them she adds context and texture to the songs, melodies and rhythms of this story. 

Urkevich's writing is lucid and informative. She breaks the book into two major parts: the Najd and Upper Gulf Region, and the Hijaz and Southwest Region. Geography is a good place to begin when discussing tribal traditions, so schematic maps open chapters or provide illustration when specific styles are discussed. The book is visually laid out better than most; it offers guideposts but lets the reader dive into any chapter without the need for reading earlier chapters.

I am particularly fond of the more than 65 boxes used for ethnographic and additional commentary. It's a simple device that works exceptionally well. More than 150 black and white vintage and contemporary photos (plus 32 color plates) offer unusual insight into whatever topic is being discussed. In the chapter on sea music traditions, for example, there are photos of a traditional pearl diver and his gear, on-board group singing participants, and a ship being caulked in Kuwait. These are not typical photos and they add substantially to the discussion of the music and traditions.

There are also more than 70 musical example transcriptions, 45 song translations alongside the original Arabic, 31 audio examples on an accompanying CD, an extensive glossary, and the use of Arabic script for hundreds of key words that have been transcribed in the text.

The chapter "Sea Music Traditions, and Ṣaūt" illustrates how Urkevich approaches a topic. First, a discussion of the history of Gulf pearl diving is given; next, a description of the role of musicians in the work environment and the various genres that one hears on the boats and shore songs related to the work; and lastly a couple of those boxes going more into the life of the pearl divers in history. As the chapter progresses, further descriptions of song styles appear, accompanied by photos, transcriptions, and translation.

Similarly, I enjoyed the descriptions of the Asir and Baha provinces in the Southwest Peninsula. Urkevich discusses how metal barrels and various frame drums are used. She also describes an Asir wedding, including an in-depth view of the female-only party that is part of the celebration (this, from 2012). Again, as with so much of Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula, it is music that is presented in the context of tradition that makes this volume better than most.

You can glean the scope of the book from its table of contents. There are chapters that touch upon Bedouin arts, Bedouin women's music and dance, Gulf wedding practices and songs, Hijazi women and music making, and influences from Africa and Persia.

The Arabian Peninsula is complex and has always been so. This fine volume by Lisa Urkevich opens more doors to understanding the region than you might expect. While it reaches into the twenty-first century in its coverage, the only topic I might wish for more of is how the traditions she so accurately describes are being changed with the advent of the Gulf wars, the war on terrorism, and the modern era in general. That's not a shortcoming of the book, but simply a topic I wish to understand better in the context of her discussion. I highly recommend Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula. - Richard Dorsett


A talk by the author, and a performance by the ensemble Bandar Al-Sharif

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