Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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Country in south-eastern Arabia.

1. Introduction.

2. Cultural regions.

3. Performers and performance events.

4. Musical instruments.

5. Documentation and research.




1. Introduction.

The current territory of the Sultanate of Oman constitutes the core of a former empire of possessions and coastal trade routes that flourished in the first half of the 19th century. This declined into progressive isolation until 1970 when, following the discovery of oil, the present state was consolidated and gradually opened to global relations. The richness and diversity of performing practices in Oman in the late 20th century reflects historical trade relations and population movements, particularly those that brought substantial numbers of Africans and Baluchis to eastern Arabia. Omani society is transforming from a weakly governed tribal system into an Arab nation-state. The ongoing processes of negotiation among heterogeneous ethnic groups have drawn expressive behaviour into the centre of personal, social and national concerns; performances that combine music, poetry and dance are particularly important. Recent innovations also include a symphony orchestra in the capital, Muscat, and the legalization of dish antennas that give access to global television broadcasts.


2. Cultural regions.

Within Oman there are several broad cultural regions with distinctive characteristics (see fig.1). The coastal areas are culturally and ethnically oriented towards the sea. Substantial populations of Baluch, Iranian and African origin on the north-eastern coastal plain (the Batina) have maintained specific practices, side-by-side with dominant sedentary Arabs and sedentarized Bedouins. The port city of Sur, on the central Omani coast, formerly a hub of the African slave trade, has its own heavily African traditions with strong Sudanese elements. The same applies to coastal Dhofar around the ports of Salala and Mirbat.

The interior, known as ‘Inner Oman’, is orientated towards the desert and adjoins the ‘Empty Quarter’ shared with Saudi Arabia. The population is almost exclusively Arab, with much emphasis on Bedouin values, tribal descent and an Islamic orthodoxy which discourages most musical performances and particularly proscribes the ownership and use of musical instruments. The mountains and southern coastal regions which border on Yemen have a proto-Arabic population practising distinct musical forms. The Musandam peninsula, the northernmost Omani exclave on the entrance to the Gulf of Oman, also has an autochthonous population with local musical traditions.

Regional characteristics have to be seen against pervasive commonalities that cross regions and genres. Dances with weapons in which two facing lines of dancers antiphonally recite poetry – much of it panegyric – or march in a procession, wielding guns, swords or sticks, are widespread. They are known as ‘āzī, ayyāla, wahhābīyya, razfa or razha in the north, and as hubbūt (for the processional form) in the south. These dances are associated with the Arab/Bedouin element that is culturally hegemonic in the evolving nation-state. Together with the recitation of Bedouin/Arab poetry in the assembly of men (majlis) and the performance on camel-back of Bedouin songs (wanna and taghrūd) (fig.2), they have become the symbolic expression of Omani identity. This is privileged in state television broadcasts and at national events, to the exclusion of most other ethnically marked forms. Noteworthy exceptions are the ‘sea arts’ (funūn al-bahr), which are folklorized revivals of sailors’ work songs that recall the erstwhile Omani domination of the Indian Ocean. These have predominantly African characteristics and are performed by Omanis of African descent.

(i) The Dhofar.

The towns of Salala and Mirbat are important centres for arts performed by professionals of African descent, many of them patronized by the sultan’s court. The rabūba or rabāba (probably from rabāb, spike fiddle) is a dance in which two facing lines of men and women pass through each other in a highly stylized pattern, accompanied by singing, drumming, hand-clapping and ululation. The drums include those of musundu type. The shubāniyya (fig.3), an art that celebrates the return of sailors, calls for the alternating dancing of elaborately dressed and made-up girls or young women and of men, to men’s singing and drumming. The shubāniyya, having lost its original function with the disappearance of sailing ships, is being folklorized, as are several other African-Omani arts in the Dhofar and in Sur.

The bar‘a in contrast, continues as an integral part of weddings and votive events. In this art a chorus of women responds to a male lead singer (mutrib) within the texture of various drums including the small cylindrical mirwās and a frame drum (daff). Male spectators dance one pair at a time, holding short daggers and moving in tightly prescribed jumps and turns. The melodic instrument accompanying the bar‘a was formerly the flute (qasāba), but this is now being replaced by the ‘ūd lute. Amplification has now become common.

(ii) Sur.

This port maintains the strongest African traditions in Oman, several of them being associated with healing. These include maydān, mikwāra, and tanbūra or nūbā, the latter named after the East African lyre. All these arts employ Kiswahili in their texts and drums of musundu type along with cylindrical drums.

(iii) The interior provinces.

West of the coastal belt, all of Oman is characterized by arts with predominantly Arab/Bedouin traits that correspond with those found elsewhere among Arabs in Southern Arabia. We find men’s dances with weapons, the use of short strophes, a narrow melodic range (rarely exceeding a 5th), and over-lapping cycles of metric patterns, melodic-textual phrases and dance movements. The most significant element of these arts is the versed poetry (shalla) in dialectic Arabic. This praises the sultan, shaykhs or a locality, or alternatively may narrate historical events or impart moral or practical advice. The Bedouin healing ritual (ra‘ba) is enacted to treat snake bites and malaria (fig.4). It consists of the responsorial shouting of short, narrow-ranged melodic phrases by men kneeling closely along the stretched-out patient (see Yemen, §I, 1(vi) rābūt).

(iv) The Batina.

This wide northern plain, and in particular its coastal palm belt, houses a very diverse population, the result of migrations from the inner Gulf, southern Iran, Baluchistan and East Africa, and the progressive sedentarization of Bedouin nomads. Performance groups and arts mirror the ethnic situation. The masked dance and hand puppet theatre (pakit) of the Ajam people with poetry in a Persian dialect is found only in Sohar and Sahham. In Sohar, Sahham and the adjoining Muscat and Zahirah regions men and women participate in the laro dance. We also find the Baluch sayrawan performance, and the mālid religious ritual performed in its Shi‘a and Sunni forms by long-settled Arabs. Certain repertories of women’s songs (ghinā’ nisā’) and men’s dances (kwāsa and liwā) and the zār healing ritual are deemed to be the privilege of descendants of African slaves.

The arts with weapons, generically known as the razīf and associated with the Arab majority, represent tribal and residential groups through local variants of general Arab/Bedouin practices. In the wahhābiyya or ‘ayyāla, two lines of men face each other at a distance of ten to 15 metres, reciting in turn rhymed poetry over short phrases of narrow melodic range. Individual dancers (zāfin) carrying swords or other weapons circle counter-clockwise; they dance between the lines and may conduct sword duels. The accompaniment consists of at least the two cylindrical drums, kāsir and rahmānī. The drummers, usually of African descent, ‘visit’ the lines in turn, whereupon the men lean on their long sticks, bow and hold their heads obliquely while nodding in synchrony with the drumbeats (fig.5). The cycles of melodic/poetic phrases, drumming patterns, drummers’ visits and dance movements are of unequal length; they overlap and interlock, thus creating entities that are far greater than any of their components. In ex.1 two lines of dancers alternate in reciting the same text (‘Greetings to our sultan, Qābūs bin Sa‘īd’) 12 times before they proceed to the next verse. The drum cycle is shorter than the melodic phrase/verse; the two come together only after eight repetitions. The movement cycle of the drummers and dancers (not notated here) is completed only after 24 verses. The underlying principle of multi-layered cycles is also found in other arts.

Women’s songs (ghinā nisā’) are performed at weddings and circumcisions by groups known as firaq al-dān. These consist of a female or male lead singer (mutriba or mutrib), a chorus (harim) and two drummers using kāsir and rahmānī. Any member of a firqat al-dān may be male or female, although no males (apart from usually at least one drummer) are socially considered as men. Halīma bint Amīr leads the pre-eminent firqat al-dān, which consists solely of women of slave descent.

The ghinī nisā’ texts consist largely of formulaic praise (madīh) of the celebrants, the locality or the sultan. They address ritual subjects during the application of henna and at other key phases of the wedding, and they may also draw on popular music of the Gulf region. Texts are presented in responsorial form, the chorus singing a refrain while hand-clapping or dancing. Since the mid-1970s amplification has become integral to the art.

Qurba is a new art which first appeared in Sahham in 1987. It evolved into a highly popular wedding entertainment particularly attracting young males. It is named after its lead instrument, the Scottish bagpipe, which ‘sings’ popular songs inspired by the Gulf repertory to the accompaniment of several drums and hand-clapping. Qurba also draws on other local arts, in particular ghinā’ nisā’, liwā, and the sūma which, like qurba, permits individual male spectators to enter the performance circle with dance movements that include shoulder-shaking and emphasize the pelvis.

Mālid is a highly complex art that calls for the ability of ‘readers’ (qurrā’) to recite correctly from prose and rhymed writings about the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and for hawwīm to accompany their choral responses with stylized movements. The overlapping antiphony of readers and hawwīm in the huwāma section of the four-part fasil al-mālid generates a form of polyphony highly unusual for West Asia.

The Zār (see Sudan, §1 and Yemen, §I, 7) ritual seeks to appease spirits (rīh al-hammār or zār) that have possessed individuals and afflicted them with maladies. It is enacted in various forms such as ‘arabī, habbash, swehlī, each having different melodies, texts and rhythms and addressing different classes of spirits. In all cases, an abū or umm al-zār (‘father or mother of zār’) sings to the response of a chorus of men and women and over the loud beating of special zār drums of cylindrical or conical type which are believed to be inhabited by spirits. All elements of the zār cult, which is practised from the Sudan and Egypt to the Arabian Gulf, have prevailingly African characteristics.


3. Performers and performance events.

The Omani concept of performance is designated by the Arabic term fann (plural funūn; literally ‘art’). This refers both to the enactment of expressive behavioural skills by an organized group on appropriate occasions and to the body of knowledge, rules and implements associated with such performances. Fann does not cover everything that outsiders might consider as ‘music’, such as the call to prayer (adhān), Qur’anic recitation, children’s songs and work songs. On the other hand, fann extends to movement (‘dance’), costumes and paraphernalia (e.g. weapons, incense-burners and amplification equipment), and also to norms of social behaviour.

The arts are enacted on appropriate occasions by formal invitation. The ‘arts with weapons’ (razha, etc.) are performed on National Day (18 November, as designated in 1970) and at the two major Muslim festivals, ‘Īd al-fitr and ‘Īd al-adhá. This occurs by government order, directly in support of the national policy and hierarchy.

In this evolving nation-state the arts are an arena and medium for the negotiation of identity. Weddings and circumcision ceremonies call for enactments that differ regionally. In the Batina (northern coast) all weddings will have women’s songs (ghinā’ al-nisā’) including ritual henna songs, but additional arts depend on the ethnic identity the celebrants wish to project. If Bedouin, razfa badawiyyah is performed; if Baluch, the celebrants invite laro or sayrawan artists. If they wish to appear religious, there is a votive ritual in praise of the Prophet Muhammad (mālid, the local rendition of mawlid; see Islamic religious music, §II, 4). The young and progressive patronize the qurba (see §(iv) below), while affluent urbanites seek to engage as many different groups as are available.

Performance of any art requires an organized group of people with the appropriate skills. The ‘arts with weapons’ are performed by teams (firāq, sing. firqa) that represent particular tribal or residential groups; they are not paid for their performances. Their leader (ra’īs, ‘aqīd or mas’ūl) and his helpers are usually determined by consent and confirmed by the respective shaykh; the general participants are volunteers from the male population. (In the Batina, circles of men who praise the Prophet Muhammad in performances of mālid are similarly constituted under a khalīfa and a shawwūsh.) Yūsuf al-Maqbali leads his village wahhābiyya team (‘arts with weapons’) and as a government functionary he organizes ‘official’ representation of Sohar province through the arts.

Other types of performance groups work for remuneration. They include men and women, almost always of African slave origin. These groups do not represent any larger social entity such as a tribe or village. They are also characterized by complex issues of ownership claimed through inheritance of the drums. Tālib bin Gharīb, who is of slave descent, is leader of a variety of slave-associated male arts.

Some slave-related professional groups include males known as wilād al-hawā (‘sons of love’) who are socially considered not to be men and may enter the spheres of non-related women. Women of slave descent have the freedom and privilege to perform before non-related men. This means that in gender-segregated events, performance groups containing ‘slave’ women and wilād al-hawā males may entertain and enact rituals in both the public/male and private/female domains.


4. Musical instruments.

The most prominent category of instruments, eponymic for enacting the arts, are the drums tubūl, (sing. tabl). ‘Carrying the drums’, ‘making a (drum) beat’, and ‘having the drums’ are all idiomatic expressions where al-tabl does not stand for a particular instrument but designates a social event (ramsa) at which music is performed. Several types of drums are common. Double-headed cylindrical drums in varying sizes have membranes which are tightened by lacing. They are usually played in pairs called zāna or al-kāsir wa al-rahmānī. These terms refer to distinct musical functions, not necessarily to any particular size. The drums belong to an organological type found all over the Middle East and Europe. Of African origin are the conical drums usually called musundu or msindu whose single membrane is always attached with wooden pegs. Single-headed frame drums known as tār or daff are used in various forms or sizes, with or without attached rattles, by men or women; varying contexts include votive rituals, wedding and circumcision ceremonies and television entertainment. During weddings and circumcisions, they often appear together with pairs of small cymbals (tūs, sing. tasa).

Of the wind instruments, the double clarinet (jifte) is specific to the Baluch of the Batina. The oboe (mizmār or surnāy) is the essential instrument of the liwā dance and is of the common West Asian type. The jifte and mizmār (which is difficult to play) are both being replaced by the Scottish bagpipe (qurba) introduced by military musicians, whose sound quality is perceived as similar. Side-blown trumpets (barghūm) made from antelope horns are on occasion used in the dances with weapons. The end-blown conch trumpet (jim), for which, locally, African origins are claimed, is used in liwā and the funūn al-bahr. The end-blown flute (qasāba) is reported only from the Dhofar and is now very rare, as is the spike fiddle rabāba. The six-string lyre (tanbūra or nūbān) of East African origin is played exclusively by musicians of African descent in Sur. The Egyptian and Lebanese type of short-necked lute (‘ūd) is slowly expanding in popularity. In the south it has already replaced the flute and rabāba, and it is at the centre of a new performance genre, ‘ūd, that is finding its place in wedding celebrations.


5. Documentation and research.

The Oman Centre for Traditional Music in Muscat was established 1985. It conducts and sponsors research and houses a large and growing archive of video and audio documents relating to Oman traditional arts and crafts.

(See also Arabian Gulf; Bedouin music; Islamic religious music (with an illustration of Mālid, fig. 4).



and other resources

J.R. Wellsted: Travels in Arabia, i: Oman and Nakabel Hajar (London, 1838/R)

G. Adler: ‘Sokotri-Musik’, Die Mehri- und Soqotri-Sprache, ed. D.H. Müller (Vienna, 1905), 377–82

S. Al-Khusaibi: The Use of Traditional Music in the Development of Mass Media in Oman (Beverley Hills, CA, 1985)

D. Christensen: ‘Traditional Music, Nationalism, and Musicological Research’, Music in the Dialogue of Cultures: Berlin 1988, 215–23

D. Christensen: ‘Worlds of Music, Music of the World: the Case of Oman’, World Music – Musics of the World: Cologne 1991, 107–22

S. Al-Ghilani: ‘The Traditions of Poetic mutarahah in al-lughz and ghazal in the Art of ar-razhah’, Publications of the Oman Centre for Traditional Music, ii (1994), 85–92

S. Al-Khalifah: ‘Al-razhah and al-‘ardah: a Comparative Study’, ibid. 81–90

D. Christensen, ed.: Dictionary of Omani Traditional Arts, being a Revised Translation of Youssef Shawki’s ‘Mu ‘ajam músíqa ‘Umán al-taqlîdîyah’ (Wilhelmshaven, 1994)

D. Christensen: ‘Music Making in Sohar: Arts and Society in al-Batinah of Oman’, Publications of the Oman Centre for Traditional Music, ii (1994), 67–80

Y. Shawki Moustafa and Gum’ah Al-Shidi: ‘Al-huwāmah and at-tawhid in the mālid: a Comparative Study Conducted in some wilāyat of the Batinah Region’, Publications of the Oman Centre for Traditional Music, i (1994), 109–18

Y. Shawki Moustafa: ‘Collecting and Documenting the Traditional Music of Oman’, Publications of the Oman Centre for Traditional Music, ii (1994), 9–35

L.I. Al-Faruqi: ‘Mawlid and mālid: Genres of Islamic Religious Art from the Sultanate of Oman’, Publications of the Oman Centre for Traditional Music, iii (1995), 17–34

R. Stone: ‘Oman and the African Diaspora in Song, Dance and Aesthetic Expression’, ibid. 54–66


Oman: Traditional Arts of the Sultanate of Oman, coll. D. Christensen, UNESCO/AUVIDIS D8211 (1993)

Anthologie musicale de la peninsule arabique, iv: Les chants des femmes, coll. S. Jargy, VDE-Gallo CD-783 (1994)
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