For more than a thousand years, performers, listeners and scholars have recognized tarab as one of the most important esthetics in Arab music.
It has no English equivalent, explains A.J. Racy, author of Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab. It is a term full of subtlety and layered meanings, both historical and regional. At its heart, tarab is about musical affect and relationship: a deep emotional response by a listener that leads to a feeling of connection between listener and performer. In this way, he says, tarab evokes “intense emotions, exaltation, a sense of yearning or absorption, feeling of timeless- ness, elation or rapturous delight.” In short, “ecstasy.”
Tarab appears to have come into use first in reference to early Arabic poetry recita- tion. After the seventh century ce, it came to be associated also with recitation of the Qur’an, which today endures as a highly popular virtuosic vocal art form. Music historian George Sawa notes more than 500 mentions of tarab in the Book of Songs, produced in Baghdad in the 11th century, including instances where listeners wept, laughed, danced and tore their clothing.
Far more recently, for decades during the mid-20th century across the Arab world, listeners would gather around radios on the first Thursday of each month to tune into live radio broadcasts of concerts by Um Kulthum, the famous Egyptian vocalist and mutriba—“one who elicits tarab.” Those lucky enough to be inside the Cairo concert hall often wept openly, shouted and begged her to repeat verses.
The tools of tarab are, of course, musical instruments, from the simplicity of the human voice and percussive hand clapping to hand drums, end-blown woodwinds and stringed instruments that are both plucked and bowed.
As Islam spread west and east, both instruments and musical ideas flowed along trade routes, and they were assimilated, adapted and often locally renamed. Even though the term “tarab” is used primarily in the Arab world, similar concepts are present from Morocco and Spain in the west to Malaysia in the east, and from Kazakhstan in the north to Somalia in the south. Notably these include haal in Persian music and duende in Spanish music.
Europe encountered Arab music through many routes, but perhaps most impor-tantly through the legacy of Ziryab, a ninth-century Baghdad émigré in al-An- dalus, now southern Spain. Arriving in Córdoba in 821 ce, he helped spark a flowering of music that today echoes in a Moroccan music style that some call Tarab Andalusi. Currently linguists dispute whether or not “tarab” is the root word for “troubadour.”
Beginning in the 1800s, Arab musicians assimilated Western instruments—primarily fretless, tonally versatile violins, violas, cellos and basses. It did not fundamentally affect the esthetic of tarab, and the best Arab and Arab-influenced musical performances, then as now, almost regardless of region or genre, remained nearly always highly inter- active events.
A resurgence of Arab music occurred in the early 20th century with independence. The advent of mass media and recording technology— including the flowering of now-classic Egyptian musical films—brought up the question, still argued, of whether or not a recording can elicit genuine tarab.
Today, as satellite and digital media allow the music from Arab and neighboring cultures to flow around the world at an unprecedented pace, tarab remains like a heartbeat, in the words of Syrian master musician Muhammad Qadri Dalal, “the connection between performers and audiences.”