Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Khaliji Music: A Unique Blend of Indian and African Influences

Khaliji music, a genre unique to the Gulf region, combines tradition and modernity, with distinct instruments, rhythms, composition, and dialect.

Khaliji Music
Emirati dancers perform for the first time since 1990 at Iraq’s Babylon cultural festival 27 September. KARIM SAHIB / AFP

Yousef Sharqawi

An extensive musical richness that emerged from cultural, commercial, political and economic exposure to Africa, India, Persia and the peninsula itself characterises the Arab Gulf region. Since the 1940s, the Gulf has produced a unique musical heritage and lyricism that developed into its own genre.

The music of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait is so similar that it is difficult to tell the difference between them. This naturally resulted from these countries’ shared culture and history.

Introduction to Khaliji Music

Khaliji music blends a rich heritage with a refreshing contemporary style. For over five decades, the genre has consistently produced chart-topping hits that resonate across the Arab world.

Music produced in the Gulf region in its dialect is considered a genre of its own. According to Gulf Sound, Khaliji music is different from the music produced in the rest of the Arab world in many aspects, such as instruments, rhythms, composition and dialect.

Styles of Khaliji Music

Rolf Killius, ethnomusicologist and museum consultant at the Qatar National Library, categorises music according to people’s natural environment and the origin of musicians.

He divides Khaliji music into music from the sea, music from the land and regional music with roots outside the Gulf Region.

Despite being drastically different environments and influences, he believes a link lies in “the striking interlocking pattern and the extensive and creative use of poetry.”

Sea Music

Sea music is the most important category of Khaliji music. Sea music scholars Poul Rovsing Olsen and Ulrich Wagner agreed that pearl divers’ music was “the most refined music that emerged in the region.”

According to Killius, most scholars divide this music into work songs, popular in the past as the sea shanties of pearl divers, and leisure time music called Fijiri. Work and Fijiri music consist of many different subgenres and songs.

Fijiri is intrinsic to ushering in the pearl diving season and was sung aboard merchant ships. The descendants of sailors still sing their songs, albeit with a smaller audience.

Fijiri is associated with evening hangouts and is sometimes called diving music. According to al-Ittihad, listening to a random song, you can hear “the sound of the Nahham or pearl diver singers, singing about the raging sea and its horrors, the suffering of divers, the longing for family, masts creaking, oars striking, sails spreading and anchors mooring.” It should be noted that Fijiri music relies on 18 maqams, and the rhythms are expressive by nature.

In addition to Fijiri, Killius describes a second musical style called Sawt, “urban music combining influences from the local Bedouin and fishing communities with music from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.”

This music consists of two elements: the scales and method of playing the oud taken from Classical Arabic music, accompanied by polyrhythmic structures and lyrics taken from Gulf communities’ musical traditions.

Land Music

Dr Lisa Urkevich, a specialist in heritage and music of the Arabian Peninsula, differentiates between the influences of Bedouin and urban communities in this type of music.

One of the subgenres is Ardah, music that accompanies a type of sword dance popular among tribes in the region. Notable instruments are the bahri tabl, or Arabic sea drum, and tar, a long-necked string instrument.

Ardah is one of Saudi Arabia’s most famous folk dances. It garnered attention when Saudi students performed it at the Annual Heritage Month Festival at Indiana University South Bend.

Ardah was also featured in the World Cup’s opening ceremony in Qatar.

Regional Music

The roots of this music extend beyond the Gulf region. Genres such as liwa, habban and tanbura have roots in East Africa and Persia but fused with the regional culture of the Gulf.

Liwa has retained two features of its African origin: the underlying rhythmic structure and certain phrases from Swahili. It is a group dance accompanied by percussion and an aerophone called surnai or zamr.

Killius traces liwa and tanbura to Africa, specifically present-day Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Upper Egypt. Habban, on the other hand, can be traced to the Iranian coast. Habban is the name of a dance and a musical instrument made of goat hide.

The tanbura is a triangular lyre and the name of a dance. It is also a type of zar that involves a spiritual ritual performed in a place called the al-Makeed under the supervision of the shepherd of al-Makeed. This type of music is played throughout the Gulf. It can also be found in Nubia in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, with unique features from one country to the other.

The late Bahraini musician and researcher Majeed Marhoon wrote a book entitled Folk Music in the Arabian Peninsula, explaining the subgenres in detail.

Indian Influence

Khaliji Music
A Kuwaiti band performs traditional music during an event at the Yarmouk cultural centre in Kuwait City on November 1, 2017. Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP

India’s ties with the Gulf region can be traced back to the era of the Indus Valley Civilisation. India is not far from the Gulf and used to have a deep cultural connection with the region. Historical evidence suggests the existence of trade exchanges between the Gulf region and the Indus Valley around 2,500 years ago. Along with trade, this prolonged relationship likely brought about cultural and musical influences in the two regions.

The Indian lute was once present in the Gulf region, especially in Kuwait. It has had a significant impact on Kuwaiti music. Although the Indian lute has disappeared, historical accounts of singers indicate that they used the instrument.

Historian Ahmad al-Bishr al-Roumi pointed out that Abdullah al-Faraj was the first to bring the instrument from India. Al-Faraj, who learned to play music as a child in India, returned to Kuwait a few years after his father’s 1854 death.

According to Bahraini singer Mohammed Zuwaid, the lute is also called the Bombay Lute, after the Indian city of Mumbai. He noted that many famous singers have played the Indian lute. It has had a profound cultural and historical impact on the Gulf region.

Indian drums are present in Khaliji music through the cylindrical bahri tabl. Rolf Killius points out that its “playing mode and form is similar to a group of drums in northern India called dhol.” The jahla drum is reminiscent of the gatham pot drum used to play Karnatic music in southern India. Killius compares the rhythms and style of the small double-headed Khaliji drum, mirwas, with the udukku drum in Kerala.

African Influence

The relationship between the Gulf and Africa has deep historical roots. In his book Slaves of One Master: Globalisation and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire, Historian Matthew S. Hopper points out that as the demand for dates and pearls increased worldwide, so did the demand for slavery, with a significant number of slaves originating from East Africa.

Consequently, during this time, the African diaspora in the Gulf region grew considerably, making up around one-fifth of the Arabian Peninsula’s population by the turn of the 20th century.

The African influence on Gulf music, particularly in Bahrain, can be found in the pentatonic scale and 6/8 and 12/8 time signatures.

Emirati Dr Aisha Belkhair, who holds a PhD in the social history of Dubai, examined the African-Emirati experience. Despite their integration into society, Africans remained attached to their music. Belkhair says the liwa dance “has striking similarities to African dances, such as Tanzanian and Kenyan.”

Music served the Afro-Arabs, keeping them connected to their ancestors. The songs were often performed in African languages, primarily Swahili, which meant that Arabic speakers could not understand them.

In addition, Belkhair points out that some African pearl divers would seek out musical groups before returning to their wives and children after their months-long trips. Their hunger for music was insatiable.

“Many Khaliji singers are of African descent, especially women in the 20th century, such as Aisha al-Marta in Kuwait, Moza Saeed in UAE, Moza Khamis in Oman and Etab in Saudi Arabia,” Belkhair adds, “They rebelled against the norms, it was unacceptable for women to sing or appear in front of men and the world. Now, these pioneers have opened the door for other singers to follow suit.”

All these influences have enriched Khaliji music and established its popular presence in the MENA region.