An historic drawing of a group of five Aleppo musicians performing on (from left to right) a daff, a saz, a ney, a kamancheh, and a pair of naqqāra
I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way

I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way

Introduction

On March 21, 2019, Google released their first ­­­­AI powered doodle to celebrate the birthday of J.S. Bach. The AI was charged with the task of recreating a Bach harmonization of any given melody through analyzing over 300 Bach chorales. A learned musician might scoff at this idea on the premise that this is now how you learn music. But in the arrogant scoffs toward the machine’s ignorance, the musical elite forget the magic of what happened. Something which had no way to learn Bach previously, now has the ability to create art.

Do all the results sound like Bach? No, it still wasn’t the “right” way to learn and technology doesn’t have the capacity to learn functional Baroque harmony yet. But the machine knew its goal and every so often, it got close.

I spent my whole day on that machine–testing its abilities with a wide array of melodies. I spent hours exploring how the AI handled themes from Die Kunst Der Fuge and comparing its results to my own melodies. I witnessed a machine become a composer at its first opening of opportunity. Technology, which never had the option to compose in the style of Bach before, made its first steps into creating art in a style of its choosing.

I relate more to this AI than I do to theorists and academics who laud pedigree, process, and a more perfect pedagogy. I too am collecting information about an artform I cannot learn “correctly” and am creating new, more “incorrect” art by learning through whatever bits and pieces I may find.

Moving Away From Classical Music

I create music in a hostile atmosphere which will never give my voice the home it deserves.

I was never fond of the New Music scene (or whatever semblance of a scene it may have). I already discussed the racial violence and orientalism/otherism Middle Eastern and North African, along with Black and other PoC, musicians face. I create music in a hostile atmosphere which will never give my voice the home it deserves.

I started to realize in college that I was limiting myself and my potential by staying in the classical field. Instead of wasting my time educating others on the basics of inequality, I could instead collaborate with like-minded artists to create artwork that best expresses what we want to share.

I needed to be around individuals who challenged me to be better, and surrounding myself by musicians who don’t know how racism works or how to even communicate with a person of color wasn’t doing it. I needed to find artists I can work with outside the realm of Classical music.

As the realization that Classical music has and always will be racist in its core sat in, I admit that I felt weak. My love for Classical music was one-sided. If I wanted a future as a musician, I couldn’t be loyal to that one genre. I realized that my relationship with the field was abusive. I gave it all I could, and was spat on in return.

Classical music has and always will be racist in its core.

I discovered that, if it weren’t for colonization, I would be studying my own culture’s music. And would probably have more success as an artist. So I took my Bachelors of Music degree and set out on my next journey: to learn the musical tradition of my own people.

A score sample showing a melody transcribed into Western staff notation.

Reconnecting with My Culture

I am one of the lucky immigrant children. We still had family in Lebanon who we would visit. We stayed connected to our roots. While I’m not fluent in Arabic, nor can I read it well, I at least know the basics and can hold a conversation. Barring the language barrier, I managed to learn the basics of oud in Lebanon, and heard a concert there.

My ability to research Middle Eastern traditional music is limited.

But my ability to research Middle Eastern traditional music is limited. I was the only artist in the family, everyone else being working class folks who only knew baladi. There were songs I grew up with, sung by Fairouz and Umm Kulthum. I knew the Rahbani brothers, but didn’t know the names of any other composers. After all, it’s the singers we talk about in conversation, rarely the composers.

And while I was connected to people through my family, I cannot say that I feel welcome or comfortable speaking to everyone. Lebanon, like anywhere else, has a spectrum of beliefs between leftist, liberal, and conservative. And these beliefs also tend to vary depending on the region. Navigating those beliefs while growing up in a different culture means that I’m not as able to connect as quickly and easily as I would like to others in my community. Navigating issues like homophobia, language barriers, and religious differences in a manner that is safe is necessary before building community.

As I said in my previous article, colonization takes a culture’s beliefs and indoctrinates the populace so that the colonizer’s beliefs replace those of the colonized. My family didn’t know a lot about our own culture and subscribed to the belief that Western classical music was a higher form than their own music. They knew we had a classical tradition, but couldn’t help me get closer to what it was.

A reproduction of an image from a 1994 manuscript featuring a drawing of the musician Sadiq Ali Khan performing on a rebab as well as two other annotated drawings of a rebab with extensive text, in Arabic.

Initial Research

I started off a lot like that Bach AI. I was broke, needed to work as much as possible to stay afloat, and didn’t have any connections. I knew what the right way to learn was. I wanted to find a teacher or go study at a summer institute or even a school. But those options weren’t available to me.

But I also wasn’t going to let colonization win. I needed to learn however I could.

I didn’t have the lesson plan or the pedagogy. But I had a few hundred songs, a few singers, and the internet. Like the doodle, I also started with a tiny sample of a much larger, broader style. I spent hours, days, and months studying these scores. I found a website called maqamworld and I compared all the music I could find to these maqamat.

I spent all my free time, gathering these bits and pieces, trying to recreate this style like an AI.

My Limitations

I did all the research I could, but it cannot be understated how limited that time was. As soon as I graduated, I struggled to find a job. I looked around for freelance work and took whatever jobs I could.

I battled mental illness, and it didn’t really go away. A year after graduation, I talked to a psychiatrist and found out that my post-grad depression was actually PTSD. Taking care of my mental illness is itself a job.

I worked on my credit ratings and applied for a dozen credit cards. Lacking any jobs or credit, I had to use a new credit card to buy a used car. It wasn’t a lot, and I had a plan to pay it off before the 0% APR plan expired. But then I got in a car accident. And after that I was forced to leave an abusive job.

In this entire mess, I was constantly shifting between 2-3 jobs. Now I’m glad I found some stability, but a freelance workload is still not easy. Occasionally, I would add a retail job here and there.

(Some might also argue that composition is not a job, but my mental illness doesn’t care. Labor is labor, and my spoons are spent.)

All of this is to say that I’m chronically exhausted. And not just exhausted but stressed from poverty. After working more hours than full time, I still am barely paying my bills, barely covering my debts, and have almost nothing to spend for myself. And on top of all that, I still have PTSD, which means that I need to work at about half of what I’m doing now to stay healthy.

I’m sharing this information because it is a huge deterrent to learning things the right way. It means that not only can I not afford a teacher, but I can’t afford to take time off to see people’s workshops, to meet and network, to go to concerts, or do almost anything a composer does to build a career. I manage to sneak these things in when I can, but it’s very limiting.

The effects of poverty are exacerbated by my language. I would be able to learn Middle Eastern music theory much more easily if I knew Arabic. But I don’t know it well enough to study books and resources, so I’m stuck with maqamworld – which is an amazing first step, but doesn’t get you to where five terms of Western music theory would.

While colonization kept my family from knowing and believing in their culture, it kept me from being able to finance an education of my own heritage, and deprived me of the very tongue needed to speak and understand my culture. All of these limitations made learning my culture’s music properly impossible.

An historic photo of 3 Aleppo musicians performing (from left to right) on some sort of not completely identfiable frame drum, an oud, and a ney

Feeding the AI

LGBT+ composers of color might be pretty discouraged by now. If it’s not poverty, it’s sexism, if it’s not sexism, it’s homophobia, if not homophobia, racism. And I haven’t even touched on the unique issues transgender and non-binary PoC face. Or how the field is also uncaring to disabled people or that everyone’s ignoring some serious fatphobia. For minorities who face oppression from many angles, being a musician can be deadly.

For minorities who face oppression from many angles, being a musician can be deadly.

But our work is not futile. We just have to find a different path. We need to carefully think about the people who recommend us a “correct” path and recognize when those are unavailable to us. Classical music is designed to keep QPOC out, so following a traditional route means we walk right into its trap.

But we still run into the problem that learning however we can will result in something that doesn’t quite make the mark.

And that’s okay.

After I fed my AI on all the Middle Eastern music I can find, I set out to compose a piece free of unwanted Western influence. I failed with that goal, but with whatever knowledge I could, I created a piece that’s not quite traditional Middle Eastern music, but it’s also not classical either.

These conditions led me to create a piece I’m most proud of: Decolonized Arabesques.

Sure, the piece has influences from both traditions, but that doesn’t make it part of those traditions. Instead, my work came out with something entirely different. Just like the Bach AI as it gathered its own style trying to become Bach, I found a personal style trying to reject what I learned and strive for a pre-colonized ideal of what my music should be.

Conclusion

It still hurts, and will always hurt, that I will never be able to shake the violence Western culture has done to my culture and my discovery of it. But just because I speak English does not mean that I can’t speak about my culture. Just because I’m in the U.S. does not mean I’m not Lebanese, and just because my music resembles a Western style does not mean that it is not 100% Middle Eastern.

The voices of minorities with a colonial scar on their sound are capable of creating amazing, new, and awe-inspiring music.

Every composer has a personal voice, and the voices of minorities with a colonial scar on their sound are capable of creating amazing, new, and awe-inspiring music. We just need the support of our colleagues from all walks of life. The fringes of New Music, visual artists who love to collaborate, our friends and family back home, multi-media artists and curators. It is time we recognize that we are people free of a social order instead of begging for acceptance from classical musicians who can never love us for who we are.


If you enjoy their work, Nebal also manages a Patreon which features a weekly blog and exclusive content.  Nebal Maysaud is a queer Lebanese composer based in the Washington D.C. Metro Area. Since buying their first notation software in 2009, Nebal (pronounced [niˈbæ:l]) has grown to become an impactful, socially minded composer. Their music is a convergence of faith and identity, using their artwork to advocate for the traditionally silenced. Their music is influenced by different artists of various traditions, including Vaughan Williams, Khalil Gibran, Arvo Pärt, Walt Whitman, Fairuz,... Read more »


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way

  1. Rusti

    Thank you for this perspective, and for sharing your story, Nebal. Your writing is deeply personal and thought-provoking! I’m glad that New Music Box is willing to support and share perspectives such as these. I’ve seen the comments on your articles both here and on Facebook, and they are disheartening. But Nebal, I hope you keep writing and that NMUSA keeps helping to fight the good fight too. Uplifting marginalized voices is so vital because the classical music world has so much work to do, and we can really only learn by listening to those who are affected most by our missteps.

    Reply
  2. Erik

    Nebal, I’m enjoying reading your articles. They are challenging me as a queer white individual. I frankly disagree with many of the conclusions you draw, but I am finding more common ground on a second reading of this series. My biggest question in this particular article stems from your assertion: “I discovered that, if it weren’t for colonization, I would be studying my own culture’s music.” From what I understand, your family moved to the USA before you were born, and you elected to study (western classical) music here in this country. I don’t understand what you mean by colonization in your specific pathway to study music. I wonder if perhaps you would be so kind as to elaborate on that particular point. I have only ever studied music in America and in Western Europe, so I’m not sure what music academia looks like in non-western cultures – has western classical music dominated the academic music scene in places like Lebanon?

    Also – I do believe that your most passionate comments (and perhaps the most inflammatory) in each of these posts conflate the racist institution of higher education (which is a huge issue across the board, including the arts!) with the role of art itself. …Academia in America is certainly for the economic elite; music/the arts are considered leisure activities, which are also relegated to the economic elite (practically speaking – economic elite, read: white male)–so both of these things leave little room for minorities to succeed in our current construct, which we as young people MUST change. Still, there are and historically have been artists of many cultures who have borrowed/stolen techniques/aesthetics from one another, not for preservation of white superiority, but for the advancement of art as a medium of expression. And this, I think, is a separate issue. If you’ll permit me to use an easy example: we can see this from Mozart’s incorporation of other (white) European cultures, i.e. Italian Galant style (itself a term derived from the French language – yet another example of integration of European cultures, more of an equal give and take rather than a propping up of whiteness or a hostile deletion of the minority culture, which are indeed a “thing”), to say nothing of his influence by and on French and English composers of the time. And of course, there is Haydn, who perhaps less sympathetically incorporates Hungarian folk music into his Viennese School composing style, surely to provide a sense of the exotic (not necessarily commendable). Given these composers’ proclivity for incorporating many cosmopolitan artistic elements, I find it hard to get behind the assertion that they–or composers like them–are somehow behaving differently when incorporating music from non-western cultures, like the janissary band that you mentioned.

    Of course, I’m not suggesting that incorporating other music is never able to be labeled cultural appropriation! We have plenty examples of this in American music of the past – Gershwin’s P&B, Cuban Overture…Rhapsody in Blue, even. Then there’s the tokenization of Black music and musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, etc. – white people started to enjoy this music, and those black gentlemen were co-opted to “dignify” black music so white people could feel good about consuming it. All of this is shameful and causes problems in programming this music. And we should be calling out academic institutions, orchestras, and other ensembles in this country for propping up this sort of behavior in new music.

    But I stop short at advocating white composers to return to “pre-whiteness” and speak solely to their own ancestral communities: first of all, that can’t happen any more than you can shed yourself of western (white) art music influence in your own compositions. Secondly, I am proud to incorporate elements from a variety of european cultures into my music composition and interpretation (I’m first and foremost a performer of music – composing is something that I am relatively new to…). I am proud to also be influenced by my American neighbors of African, Asian, and South American descent , not to steal their stories, but to share in contributing to the human story through art.

    Anyway – all of that to say, I value your compositional voice in the Classical Music Community as a human individual. I am excited to hear what you have to present to us as a human culture through the arts. May it inform how we think about race, class, gender, our relationship as humans with the earth. May it be influenced by your experiences as a person from the Middle-East, the queer community, the American Immigrant community, the Millennial Community. And may people borrow and steal your ideas to influence their own art to keep telling humanity’s story through music.

    Reply

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