Twelve chords reaching for the heart: on listening and maqamaat

Iraqi Maqam

As the habits of our days become denser one can foresee with a hidden pleasure the joy that will overcome us. By custom I, the undersigned, busy myself during the week finding that cultural jaunt of the weekend. For sweet preference one that has an oriental flavour. Unfortunately, what’s on offer for these specific needs is rather limited. Nevertheless Moussem, the Belgian nomadic art centre, succeeds on a regularly basis in bringing those flavours to my local cultural centre. This time the offer was the performance of traditional Iraqi maqamat (plural of maqam) in the Bozar, the Brussels Centre for fine Arts. I, the undersigned, had to smile at the prospect of an evening softly heavened by intense melodies carefully purring around a core of melancholy. My dearest companion on the other hand had no clue what treat she was in for; only equipped with a joyful dose of curiosity for the unknown and convinced by the reverence with which she had heard me talking about this musical style.

As we arrived a little sooner than expected I decided to try and explain where the force of this music were to be found. So as to prevent her searching for it whilst listening, and allowing her to just enjoy. The attempt went as follows:

al-mūsīqá al-‘Arabīyah is a mishmash of middle-eastern regional folk and musical traditions. Misleadingly the name translates as Arabic music, yet Iraqis are not Arabs but their traditional music is considered part of the Arab musical canon.

If the western canon of classical music orbits harmony and drama the Arabic canon orbits maqamat. A maqam is a sort of melody modulation: a fixed scale of which there are around a hundred in the Arab canon of maqamat. Like a regular scale, where every step and the final goal is regulated, a maqam allows the artistic freedom to choose how to proceed to the next step. The room between the fixed parts of the scale is the responsibility of the musician. Not only is the performance of a maqam the art of improvisation on the side of the musician; it is also the art of recognition on the side of the listener: because these maqamat are fixed every performance seems to be familiar, as if it recalls a nostalgic nursery rhyme or of a local folk song one used to sing. What’s more, one might even contend all traditional chants and songs from the Middle East are to be found and recognised in the maqams. Yet the novelty of a performance stems from the improvisation the musician inserts between the fixed parts of the maqam. Such an improvisation, a taqsim, is a melodic connection that is either in the maqam or precedes it as a separate maqam.

In addition, every maqam is carefully constructed to appeal to a certain emotion (intensified or evoked by the musician’s improvisation). Like, for instance, a C minor is considered as denoting sadness in the western canon the Hijaz maqam has been described as denoting a feeling of wretchedness and desolation.


At that moment of the attempt at explanation I tried to remember and reproduce Mounir Bashir’s iconic words:

“When I hold my oud, I do not have a clear idea of what I’m going to play. A few moments pass before the plectrum begins to strike the strings softly yet with majestic assurance. At this moment, I embark on a musical journey where the melody is never repeated. I delve inwards into the depths of my mind, travelling far into the past, into my personal heritage and history.”
[Mounir Bashir – albumcover Maqamat 1993]

Mounir Bashir, also referred to as the king of the oud, is a legendary maqamaat player on the oud. Not a coincidence, since maqamaat from Iraq are considered to be the purest and the most famous musicians are mostly from this region.


The oud is a 12-stringed instrument which resembles the lute in shape (although my companion prefers ‘the instrument that looks like a shiny beetle shield’)


Iraqi Magam

Dimming headlights where the sign I could cease my effort to explain the origins of this self-willed musical experience. Now it was time for the music to speak for itself. Ahmed Mukhtar, the first oud soloist, humbly introduced himself and gave a little word of explanation on the compositions he was going to play. After some stunning samahi maqamaat ( similar to the rondo) and some taqsims the solo turned into a trio with the famous Khaled Mohammed Ali taking up the violin for once and Hasan Faleh on the qanun, a zither with a narrow trapezoidal soundboard. Which resulted in a sublime musical landscape with waves of a Hijaz maqam, melodic lines clothed for Bedouins and some rast maqam. Plenty of AhaErlebnisse as proved by the many olé’s (in Arabic) and spontaneous rounds of applause that filled the concert room in the midst of the remarkable improvisations of Khaled and Hasan Faleh. At my side I saw how my companion was growing into the music -like the roots of a tree finding water. A sign that the music spoke for itself. A sign for myself that it was time for me to close my eyes as well and let myself wander in the sultry desert of sounds created. I suggest that you do the same now.


(A day after the concert my dearest companion called me because she could finally describe the feeling the concert gave her, she said. ‘Do you remember the scene in Kill Bill II where she finally kills Bill by tearing out his heart with this wicked kung fu gesture of her hand…well kinda like that but then joyful, liberating.’)


Photos: Redouan Tijani

Read also the interview from Bleri Lleshi with the artists: There is a story of love between the Iraqis and music

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This post is also available in: Dutch