Middle Eastern Violin: Arabic Violin Style

Middle Eastern Violin: Arabic Violin Style

by David Brown

Although bowed instruments were known to the Arabs, Turks and other Oriental peoples before they were known in Europe, it is the European violin that is now most commonly played. Since Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt, the violin has been played in the Middle East. Turks adopted it from the Italians, and it has spread to Iran. Known in Arabic and Turkish as keman (Iranians just say violin) it is held both in the usual under-chin fashion and gamba style on the knee. Moroccans play gamba style, Egyptians and Iranians under-chin, Turks employing both methods. Often Moroccans use the normal GDAE tuning; Turks tune GDAD, Arabic tuning is GDGD, and the Iranian masters have used all these tunings and others. The playing styles are very highly ornamented, with slides, trills, wide vibrato, double stops usually with an open drone string, and as it is a fretless instrument can produce all shades of intonation of the Arab, Persian and Turkish classical systems. Tone colors range from a very rich western classical tone to more nasal, thin penetrating timbre reminiscent of the indigenous bowed lutes, the rebaba and kemanche. The use of Western notation, with additional symbols for the partial sharps and flats, has allowed the old classical repertoire of the Middle East to be put in book form. Arabs write the music from the note C as Rast, Turks the note G, and the two systems differ in the exact intonation of several pitches. Some of the music in the Arab repertoire was written by Turks during the Ottoman Empire’s occupation of Egypt and the Levant, and as such one can compare the Cairo and Istanbul versions of the same music (allowing for the transposition).

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