Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Music and Dance

Sword Dance,Ardah, in Saudi Arabia

Most cities now have crowded music shops. With the coming of satellite TV, many people can access music channels such as MTV and VH1. However, music has been considered ‘sinful’ by some Saudi religious scholars. This is based, in part, on certain religious interpretations which speak of the idea that music and art are distractions from God.

Saudi folk music has been shaped by the nomadic Bedouins and the pilgrims who brought musical influences from around the world. Their migratory lifestyle prevented carrying excess baggage, including musical instruments. Simple rhythms, with the beat counted by clapping or striking together everyday implements formed the basis of the music. The music varies from region to region – for example, in the Hijaz, the music of al-sihba combines poetry and songs of Arab Andalusia, while the folk music of Mecca and Medina reflects these two cities’ influences from throughout the Islamic world.

Famous Saudi musicians include Tariq Abdulhakeem, Saraj Omar (who composed music for the Saudi national anthem), Ghazi Ali, Mohammed al-Senan, Mohammed Shafique, Talal Maddah, Abadi al-Johar, and lately Abdul-Majeed Abdullah.

Saudi rock artists include Sound of Ruby, Wry Wreathe and Wasted Land. The recording artists from Saudi Arabia are exclusively male and such recordings are almost exclusively made in Cairo, Beirut or, increasingly, the UAE. These artists are rarely heard in ‘world music’ circles and when they sing beyond the Arab world it is almost exclusively at ‘white tablecloth’ affairs, in hotel ballrooms, performing to an audience of expatriate or visiting Gulf Arabs.

Western music is now embraced by many of the younger generation, particularly R&B and gangsta rap.

Sword dance

Dance is also popular among Saudis. The national dance is the men’s sword dance known as the arda. An ancient tradition with roots in the country’s central area known as the Najd, the arda is a combination of singers and dancers carrying swords with a poet or narrator. Men carrying swords stand in two lines or a circle, with a poet singing in their midst, and perform the traditional dance.

There are about fifty other folk dances. Al-sihba folk dance is a unique blend of Arab and Spanish dance and is typical of the Hijaz region. Another traditional dance and music is al-mizmar, which is usually performed in Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah. Samri is a folk dance involving singing poetry to the accompaniment of the daf drum. Two rows of men on their knees sway to the rhythm. The miramar is sometimes called a hair dance, because the hair is worn long and loose and is swung from side to side and tossed in circles and figures of eight. The emphasis in movement is in the delicate footwork and in the upper body.

With no cinemas or theatres in Saudi Arabia itself, live dancing is an important entertainment, although outlets are limited. The Jenadriya, an annual two-week cultural festival held near Riyadh, features handicrafts such as weaving and woodworking alongside performances of traditional music and dance from around the country. Weddings and private family gatherings are popular singing and dancing events for Saudis. Men and women are typically segregated at all such events.