Thinking Historically, Being Present: Kuwait, Summer 2016

An Arabic translation of this article can be found here.

Introduction: 129° F

Many of my friends an colleagues in Kuwait were shocked that I came during a time of world record high temperatures to study music during the past summer. Temperatures reached a blistering 129 degrees Fahrenheit during mid-August, but it was not the first time I experienced such heat. During the 2014-15 academic year, I spent ten months in the Sultanate of Oman on a Fulbright scholarship studying the oud  and performing with the Oud Hobbyists Association. After visiting Kuwait twice during my stay in Oman, I decided that it would be the ideal place to return for summer 2016 after my first year at UCLA. My connection with the oud began a few years before I traveled to the Gulf while I was studying Arabic during my undergrad in Morocco and later in Egypt, where I attended classes and participated in concerts with Naseer Shama's bayt al-'ud al-'araby (Arabic Oud House). Due to friendships I retained during my undergraduate studies with Kuwaitis and other students from the region, I always retained a strong interest in Gulf music (often referred to as khaliji music), and specifically musical traditions that utilize the oud.

 Kuwait City resides on a large bay, which historically was an ideal natural harbor for maritime trade vessels from around the Indian Ocean.

Music aside, the Gulf's historical connections with other nations and cultures surrounding the Indian Ocean also drew me in. As the place of the Arabic language's origin and of great wealth due to the current oil economy, GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) nations play a vital role in the affairs of the larger Arab world. At the same time however, Indian Ocean connections also help distinguish this region from the rest of the Arabic speaking world in some very important respects (Bishara 2014); culturally these include cuisine, clothing, language, and music. Internally, the Arabian Peninsula is also an extremely diverse region and historical connections, migrations, and cultural movements from within are equally important as those between continents on maritime routes (Urkevich 2015). The musical styles I have been interested in developed historically on similar networks of exchange between Yemen, the Gulf (my preferred term to “Arab” or “Persian” Gulf), East Africa, and India, during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Considering the significance and complexity of this history, a large part my field work is reviewing historical sources in English and Arabic on music, maritime trade, and migrations. In addition to my research, I have also been involving myself with a broad community of musicians and local organizations. When I first arrived to Kuwait, I connected with a NGO called Loyac, which promotes concerts, the arts, and community service. I have been participating in some of their public music performances and also giving oud lessons through their organization. While I am deeply interested in the history of the region, my involvement at Loyac and other musical activities have kept me in the present.

In the midst of an oud lesson with Hussa - photo credit: Faris Ali

Ṣawt and the Diwaniyya

One of the musical genres I have been particularly interested in is called ṣawt, popular throughout the Gulf region among oud players, poets, and music connoisseurs. The genre's instrumentation usually features oud, violin, and small cylindrical drums called merwas. There is a dynamic and ever developing relationship between lyrics, melody, and rhythm in ṣawt. Performers may substitute and interchange melodies, poems, and rhythms creating endless combinations of the three; however, some poems are more commonly paired with a particular melody and rhythm. Today, there are about four rhythms commonly performed in ṣawt and a far greater number of melodies drawn upon by singers performing the repertoire.

Ṣawt has historically been a point of contention between Kuwaiti and Bahraini musicians and scholars arguing as to whom founded the genre. Similarly, and due to the genre's Yemeni influences, others argue that ṣawt in the Gulf region is merely an extension of other genres performed in Southern Arabia, which consists of the Hadhramout province of Yemen and in the Dhofar province of Oman (Kathiri 2009). As these heated scholarly debates have somewhat subsided, most consider the renowned poet, 'Abdullah al-Faraj (1836-1901) to be the founder and innovator of this genre after his return to the Gulf region from Bombay in the late nineteenth century. For centuries before the discovery of oil, the economy of the Gulf and the greater Arabian Peninsula relied heavily on trade with port cities surrounding the Indian Ocean from East Africa to modern day Malaysia and Indonesia. As the capital of the British Indian Empire, Bombay was the main economic hub of the region where many Arab traders, mercenaries, and laborers lived during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Al-Faraj's father was a rich businessman and worked in the pearl and horse trade in Bombay (two of the most desired exports from the Arabian Peninsula during that time), and encouraged him to pursue the arts and music (al-Faraj 2001). When al-Faraj returned to the Gulf in the latter part of the nineteenth century, he brought back with him an original repertoire of songs, poetry, and melodies mixing a variety of Yemeni and Indian influences. This repertoire was later developed by other musicians throughout the twentieth century into the genre ṣawt performed today.

Kuwait and Bahrain have both been historically the most prominent nations for ṣawt performance and record production; however, many musicians in Kuwait tell me that only the older generation of musicians in Bahrain still perform ṣawt. They add that in Kuwait, ṣawt performers and enthusiasts have been much more successful in maintaining and developing the tradition. In fact, performers of the younger generation in Kuwait are often invited to Bahrain and Qatar to perform for older audiences and musicians who are the few connoisseurs of ṣawt left there. Perhaps Kuwaitis have been more successful at maintaining the genre because the context of its performance has also been kept alive: the diwaniyya, which remains a vital political and cultural institution in Kuwaiti society. A diwaniyya is a large meeting room for men connected to a family house where extended family, friends, and colleagues meet and socialize. Musical gatherings and concerts held inside diwaniyyas are commonly referred to as jelsāt, samrāt, or qā'dāt. Many diwaniyyas are purposed solely for musical performances and often for specific genres depending on the taste of the owner. During one jelsa, some friends told me it was more common for women to participate in these musical gatherings during the 1950s and 1960s, but this was before more conservative ideologies took hold during the late 1960s and gender segregation became more prominent in various social contexts in Kuwaiti society. Currently, the music conservatory in Salmiya, Kuwait continues to blur these lines teaching men “female”  traditional musical genres and women “male” traditional genres. Ṣawt is considered one of the “male” genres taught to women in the conservatory context.

The performers end of diwaniyyat 'ahal al-marwās; from the left: Khalid al-Shati, Salah Hamed Khalifa (son of a renowned ṣawt performer Hamed Khalifa), Fahed al-Kendary, Abdullah al-Jadda, Yousef al-Jadda, and a guest playing merwas.

During the past summer, I attended many qā'dāt (sin qā'da; commonly used in reference to a ṣawt performance) in the diwaniyya pictured above, which is dedicated specifically to the preservation and performance of ṣawt. The name of the diwaniyya is called diyaniyya 'ahal al-marāws (roughly translates to “diwaniyya of the people of the marwās”) and was established as a meeting place for ṣawt performers and other musicians. Located in a rural suburb outside Kuwait city called Chabt, the diywaniyya was founded by a group of friends and connoisseurs of ṣawt (two of them are pictured above: Fahad and Abdullah) who consider performing ṣawt a hobby, and pay for the diwaniyyas' expenses out of their own pockets. In addition to a variety of old tape decks and large speakers, they have decorated the diwaniyya with old photos depicting ṣawt performers, a plethora of antiques, ancient gramophones, and old record collections - most of them gramophone 78 rpm records that were common before vinyl. After the ṣawt performance during my first visit, we sat and listened to some of the old seventy eights which included mostly music from the Gulf region, but also recordings of famous Egyptian stars such as Umm Kalthoum, early twentieth century Hindi film classics, and some 1930s jazz hits by Louis Armstrong and Russ Morgan.

Also partly visible in he picture above, it is worth noting the model of the old Kuwaiti maritime vessel, the boom. Such models are common in majālis (living rooms similar to diwaniyyas), diwaniyyas, and in households around the Gulf and serve as reminders of the maritime past. In diwaniyyat ahal al-marwās, the model holds particular significance as boom ships were also a primary context of ṣawt performance before the oil boom. Musicians were hired to perform on the decks of ships as they traveled from the Gulf to the coasts of South Asia, Southern Arabia, and East Africa. In a travelogue documenting his time on a Kuwaiti boom sailing from Yemen to Zanzibar in the 1930s, Australian Alan Villiers recalls a variety of musical activity at sea from gramophone records playing, to ṣawt performances, and a the Kuwaiti crew singing songs in Farsi at port in Kenya (Villiers 2006).

Recording ṣawt: From Indian Ocean Trade Routes to Cassette Decks

As with many musical traditions around the world, the development of the record industry during the early twentieth century had a great effect on the development of ṣawt and its transmission to preceding generations. The first recordings of ṣawt were made in the late 1920s by the second generation of performers after 'Abdullah al-Faraj. Before the age of the oil economy, many of these earlier performers still traveled maritime trade routes between Iraq, the Gulf, and Western India. The record pictured below from the diwaniyya's record collection features Sālim Rāshid al-Sūri, an Omani ṣawt singer who spent extensive time recording in India during the 1930s. Famous Kuwaiti musicians who followed similar routes recording in Cario, Baghdad, and Bombay during this early period include  Salah and Daud Ezra, and 'Abd al-Latīf al-Kūwaytī who made the first recordings of ṣawt in Baghdad for the Bayḍafūn (Baidaphone) company in 1927. As early as 1930s, ṣawt records were being sold in Yemen as the record industry began to recirculate ṣawt repertoire on maritime routes between the Gulf and Yemen (al-Salhi 2015).

Diwaniyyat 'ahal al-marwās and other circles of musicians in Kuwait continue to document and record ṣawt by videotaping and sound recording almost every performance they host. Today, many musicians and diwaniyya owners make their own private audio recordings, archive them, and distribute them using social media. Like the enthusiasts at 'Ahal al-marwās, many musicians throughout Kuwait make live recordings with old cassette tape decks or boomboxes, and later convert the cassette audio into a digital file. Despite also having new state of the art field and portable recorders, many prefer the sound of cassette recordings because of their distorted, warm, and “living” (ḥayy) feeling. Here is the link to 'Ahal al-marwās's Soundcloud page, “mrwas_q8,” where they upload many of the musical performances (or qā'dāt) they host. The recordings here feature some of the most renowned ṣawt performers from Kuwait and the gulf region today including Ibrahim al-Khashrim, Salah Hamed Khalifa and Suleiman al-Amari. Please give them a listen, follow, and show support for ṣawt music internationally! The diwaniyya also has an Instagram account under the same name: “@mrwas_q8”.

Documentation and Social Media

The picture below is of myself and renowned musician and ṣawt performer Naser Abo Awad, recording into his Phillips cassette boombox. I was invited to do so in order to document my presence as a guest musician at the jelsa in his family's diwaniyya. As others have mentioned previously in our field (Seeger 1987), being a musician often makes the ethnomusicologist an subject of fascination and worthy of documentation by members of the culture she is studying, rather than the other way around. As an American playing oud professionally and as a teacher here in Kuwait, I have attracted considerable attention from local news media, local musicians, and also considerable attention on social media networks. Throughout the GCC, social media apps such as Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have some some of the most active users in the world while having economically and culturally transformed Gulf society in recent years (Elzaini 2015). Through connections made on social media, I knew many of my friends and colleagues before personal meetings or even before arriving in Kuwait. Many musicians similarly use social media to document jelsas and their own daily musical activities sharing them with others. By using apps like Instagram and Snapchat, I have been able to document and keep a fairly large community within Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the broader region up to date about my experiences here as a researcher and musician. I commonly make posts about my research, participation in interviews, concerts I attend, and my own performances in both English and Arabic. This has allowed for a greater breadth of interaction and communication between myself and other researchers, musicians, and an interested public throughout the region.

Ethnomusicologists have long wrestled with the concept of field work, what it entails, and what its boundaries are. Similarly, others have pointed out that ethnomusicologists can offer inventive approaches to participant observation research and ethnography as both social scientists and musicians (Titon 2008:38). As a foreign researcher in an area of the world that continues to struggle for nuanced, accurate, and honest representation, I continue to wrestle with the concepts of ethnography and “field work.” As a musician and researcher, the field is everywhere from my Instagram account, to the stage, and to the actual process of picking my MA paper topic that I will write this year (which musicians, scholars, and fellow ethnomusicologists here in Kuwait commonly inquire about and critique). As others have indicated, defining the field is perhaps not as important as being reflective about our experience, how we gain knowledge, and how knowledge and experience is written about (Rice 2008; Berger 2008). In this installment for Notes From the Field, I have hoped be informative about my experience, but also convey a brief glimpse of a fascinating history and the current activities of musicians here in Kuwait. It was certainly all worth the heat.

 A post I made on my Instagram account thanking members of the Bin Hussein group for their hospitality and hosting an 'uns, which is a celebration where a variety of traditional musics are performed including sawt. The occasion of the 'uns was to celebrate Khalid Bin Hussein's return to Kuwait from Germany, where he was accompanying his wife going through a successful cancer treatment.


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