The Arab Influence on Irish Traditional Music

The Arab Influence on Irish Traditional Music

Tracing connections between North African and Celtic culture.

The temperament of the Irish people is a well-known stereotype throughout the world: drinkers and scholars, fighters and farmers, exhibiting mirth and megrim, laughing at wakes and crying at weddings. The paradox that tempers this Irish fatalism is that in the face of a world that breaks hearts there is still that which makes life worth living. The sentiment is beautifully put in an ancient poem called ‘Dear Harp of My Country’: ‘But so oft hast thou echoed the deep sigh of sadness, that ev’n in thy mirth it will steal from thee still’. These qualities are the vestiges of the Celtic warrior clans that spread across Indo-Europe from the Iberian Peninsula to Anatolia. To the empires that came and went around them, these semi-nomadic tribes lived primitively but had highly developed religious and civil constructs. In lieu of a written history, a rich oral tradition extolled the values of pride, loyalty, and hospitality and the civilised world came to call them ‘noble savages’. Celtic culture may have been influenced by much older traditions, in which these qualities, held in the highest regard, perhaps acted as a conduit of affinity.

The Celtic soul seems embodied most in Ireland’s traditional music, the roots of which are comfortably obscured in the mists of myth, legend and contrivance. Contact with Middle Eastern cultures such as the Phoenicians and Berbers are conjectured to stretch back as far as 1,000bc. Alliances with the Carthaginians are well documented, and trade could hardly have been avoided with the prosperous Egyptians. With the dissipation and virtual disappearance of Celtic culture in Europe, its last living refrain is the Irish. Follow those tendrils and connections between Bedouin and North African oral traditions and druidic tripartism are revealed. Biting thorns be damned, and uncanny correlations between the Middle Eastern maqãm and the modal and interpretive nature of native Irish music are unearthed.

The Bedouin people were, and are to this day, armed nomads with a social mores that valued courage, hospitality, loyalty to family, and ancestral pride expressed through a primarily oral tradition. Their social structure was tribal with chieftains, or shaykes, and clans. Bedouin music genres were simple and pragmatic. Hudã was the song of the camel drivers, rhythmically mimicking the camels’ steps. Nasb related the remaining aspects of nomadic life: love songs, war songs and dirges. These desert dwellers came in frequent contact with the sedentary urban communities on the Arabian Peninsula.

During the j’hiliyah era, roughly defined as the time of pride or impudence in the Arab world before Muhammad, a particular school of musicians was esteemed. The qiyãn were women slaves specifically trained in music, language, and the arts of love. They existed within every class level throughout Arabia and North Africa. A qaynãh (singular of qiyãn) was expected to be able to recite and sing the works of the day and, naturally, the praises of her master. Common history, folklore, and art were entrusted to these women and they were well rewarded according to their merits. Like the Bedouin, the qiyãn employed a dual musical tradition. Sinãd were lyrical poems that treated upon serious themes such as fame, pride and arrogance, and dignity. Hazaj were songs strictly for entertainment, lighter love songs and the dirges of repose.

The connections between the fundamental aspects of hard nomadic life, the sophisticated vessel of qiyãnic culture, and the role of the druids and filí as purveyors of pre-Christian heritage in Ireland cannot be ignored. Lebor Gabala Erin, the Book of Invasions, is the definitive mythological account of the settling of Ireland. The plausible historical theory distilled from it is that the settlers were Celts from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) and their arrival on the island was over a long period of time and several migrations. The progenitor of the Irish people is Míl Espáin who, according to Lebor Gabala, comes out of the Middle East to conquer Spain, his sons carrying on into Ireland. There is an apparent effort in other ancient Irish texts to point out Arabic influences as well. In the Accallam na Senórach for example, arabesque designs appear on warriors’ shields. These kinds of connections are alive today. Musician and author Ciaran Carson writes of the temptation to ‘roll’ notes on the flute, once the technique has been acquired, without restraint. He calls this largesse of notes arabesque and equates it with the busy stereotypical artwork in the Book of Kells.

One of the principle aspects of the druidic religion is the way the world resolves in threes. So it’s not surprising that the goddess Bóand of the Side had three sons who personify the music of life. W. H. Grattan Flood names these boys in his studies on ancient Irish music, in which he resolves their archetypes into a tripartite modal structure. The Greeks are credited with introducing modes, scales rendered to produce a particular mood or feel, but it was the Arabs who developed and regurgitated them to the Christian Church and modern music theory. In current occidental music there are seven modes, but for the early Irish there were goltraí, the dorian mode which related acts of heroism; geantraí, or phrygian, for laughter and merriment; and suantraí, lydian, for inducing rest and repose.

As a bagatelle, I compared several anonymous arrangements of ‘Brian Boru’s March’ with the melody from O’Neill’s Music of Ireland. The march is believed to have been written in the eleventh century and commemorated The Battle of Clontarf, thus would fall into the heroic category. Indeed, it agreed with the goltraí and did not fit the other two. This was the case as well with ‘Oró, sé do Bheatha Abhaile’, probably written in the late sixteenth century celebrating Gráinne Mhaol, the Irish pirate, and her defence of Ireland against enemy hordes. Another is ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’, a Fenian air relating a soldier’s vengeance for his slain lover, with an older melody of unknown date that resides exclusively in the goltraí mode. As it should, traditional music has evolved into a more complex animal through the advent of Christianity and the incursions of European and Scandinavian influences. Church propriety relegated the tripartite pagan construct to the vapours of common memory. Unfortunately, determining the age and the category extant tunes may inhabit by their titles alone is for the most part fruitless. Carson explains that ‘… The names of tunes are not the tunes: they are tags, referents, snippets of speech which find themselves attached to musical encounters’ (Carson, p. 7). That the ancient Irish modal structure has its influence in the Middle East becomes evident in the way the two cultures approach those encounters.

Out of modal theory, Arabian musical form evolved a phenomenal concept called the maqãm. Musicologist Habib Touma defines the maqãm as an integration of space and time, the governing aspect being space, or the actual tones being played. Rhythm is only a background for a tapestry of preconceived tonal structures, but improvised notes in performance. The only compositional feature of the maqãm is the arrangement of tonal series, or phases, that must climax and return to the original theme. Oudist and recording artist Dick Barsamian paraphrases the maqãm as the feel of the piece, determined by each and any of the modes within it. A piece can involve several maqãmat, and the concatenation of them within a piece is called a taqsím. Though a taqsím can be either preconceived or improvised, the notes played within each maqãm of the taqsãm are always improvisational – endless variety within a fixed framework. Touma maintains that ‘this interplay of composition and improvisation is one of the most unmistakable characteristics of the maqãm’ (Touma, p. 43), and it guarantees each performance of a melody retains a familiarity but remains unique. As Irish traditional music does not settle upon definitive names for tunes and airs, it does not allow for absolute melodies either. A player receives a piece of music aurically, retaining certain inflections of the melody as mnemonic markers and then reinterprets the piece with new additions, omissions and inflections. This elective process is certainly the nature of oral tradition in general, thus, the music’s vibrancy within a culture would be assessed by the creativity of its interpretations. Perhaps because the foundation of Irish traditional music conformed to a framework of three modes, its interpretive liberties became subtler, a quality that’s been translated into the present; and therefore, the music appears to be more uniform or established to the occasional listener: the impetus of the immediately recognisable (and mellifluously mimicked) Celtic music genre.

It would be folly to allow these speculations, on cultural exchanges three-thousand years ago, or the parturition of a cultural identity from the fontanel of myth, or the solidarity between two worlds based on their common rigid fluidity, any purchase on their own. But in consideration with other contemporary relevant studies, on the lore of dindsenchas, Bob Quinn’s and Heinrich Wagner’s philological work, and investigations into the fenny history of traditional instruments, whatever lilted on the simoom that was imbibed by the Celtic soul so long ago, might still be realised and embraced.

There is a recurring theme throughout ancient oral traditions in the Middle East, most extensively in Old Kingdom Egyptian art. A figure accompanies the instrumentalist(s), almost certainly gesturing to them in deliberate patterns. Egyptologist Lise Manniche explains that the well-established theory of chironomy, a system of hand signing, may have been an inchoate form of musical notation. The chironomist could have been dictating the actual notes, rhythms, or modes for the musician to follow satisfying some religious function. Possibly the figure’s presence was an artistic device used to visually represent the sounds that were performed on that occasion. Although the chironomy of Pharaonic Egypt remains shrouded in speculation, its utter disappearance in Egyptian art by the New Kingdom era is equally intriguing. The artful, if not direct, connection Ciaran Carson reveals between chironomy and traditional Irish music today is one of economy. Ancient musicians may have simply, but over some length of time, absorbed the role of the chironomist. Physical communications between the musicians themselves during a performance became more efficient, spontaneous, and intimate. ‘… Silent questions will be asked by the participants,’ Carson writes, ‘an eyebrow raised, a finger pointing to the heart, a deferring nod in someone else’s direction. Such gesticulations of the body are a language’ (Carson 29).

Carson, Ciaran, Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time With Irish Music (New York: North Point, 1996)
Cunliffe, Barry, The Ancient Celts (New York: Oxford U.P., 1997)
Denyer, Ralph, The Guitar Handbook (New York: Knopf, 1986)
Early Irish Myths and Sagas, Trans. Jeffrey Gantz (London: Penguin, 1981)
Ellis, Peter Berresford, The Druids (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995)
Flood, W.H. Grattan, A History of Irish Music (Ireland: Irish U.P., 1970)
Hourani, Albert, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap of Harvard U., 1991)
King, John, Kingdoms of the Celts: A History and a Guide (UK: Blandford, 1998)
Manniche, Lise, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1991)
MacKillop, James, ed. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (New York: Oxford U.P., 1998)
O’Neill, Capt. Francis, O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Productions)
Tales of the Elders of Ireland [Accallam Na Senórach], trans. Ann Dooley and Harry Roe (New York: Oxford, 1999) Touma, Habib Hassan, The Music of the Arabs (Portland, OR: Amadeus, 1996)

Published on 1 September 2002

Michael Ladd is a musician and writer. He lives in Massachusetts, USA.


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