Forgotten music, living music
From Wednesday 22 July 2020 to Monday 4 January 2021
An immersion to the heart of voices, instruments, music, and images in transition
Based on the exceptional richness of the collections at the Amar Foundation, the exhibition “Orient Resonance” is an opportunity to hear and learn about the history of endangered Arab musical traditions and how they are being preserved. From the record companies of yesteryear to contemporary videos, visitors are led in a rediscovery of a forgotten heritage.
The exhibition begins with the first “safeguarding” of Arab sound heritage, which took place in the early 20th century via the history of Western record companies. In 1903, they made the first recording of Arab music as they were extending their markets to the Arab world, before being rapidly followed by local companies in the region. A selection of sixty rare 78 discs covering a wide variety of musical genres are presented in this section. From 1930 onward, the form of Arab music began to change radically and these discs and their music fell into oblivion. Today, digitisation work undertaken by the Amar Foundation from 2009 allows us to rediscover these recordings.
The exhibition also presents, in the form of video installations, 12 endangered, oral musical traditions that have been preserved thanks to unprecedented research, documentation, and recording work carried out in the field between 2016 and 2019. From Iraq to North Africa via the Gulf, they bear witness to the diversity of sounds, songs, and rhythms in Arab music, whether secular or sacred, popular or scholarly. Today, they remain at risk due to wars and political upheavals, the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, globalisation, and changing mores.
In this way, the exhibition is an opportunity to reflect on the preservation of an endangered, centuries-old cultural heritage and of the possibilities offered by new technologies in its safeguarding. Can oral musical tradition be preserved from oblivion in this way?
“Orient Resonance” is laid out as a room for listening and watching. Immersed in the midst of voices and instruments, and music and moving images, visitors are invited to delve into a deep, sensual, musical elsewhere, by discovering a living experience of the musical traditions of the Arab world.
Kamal Kassar, head exhibition curator
Founder of the AMAR foundation for Arab music archiving and research
Fadi Yeni Turk, exhibition co-curator
Filmmaker and director of photography
With the support of the Arab Fund for arts and culture
Interview with Kamal Kassar and Fadi Yeni Turk, curators of the exhibition
Mucem (M.) How did this idea for this exhibition come about? Can you give a presentation of the AMAR Foundation? Kamal Kassar and Fadi Yeni Turk (K.K. and F.Y.T.)
The AMAR Foundation was set up in July 2009 with the acquisition of a large collection of Egyptian 78s, including the first musical recordings made in the Arab world in 1903. The foundation’s objective is to disseminate this forgotten heritage, which forms the basis of Arab classical music.
As well as the release of CD boxsets featuring the great singers of the Arab renaissance and concerts celebrating this music, exhibitions are another means to showcase this rich heritage. The first took place at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin in 2018. It evoked both the record labels that prevented this tradition from being forgotten forever, as well as our quest to document endangered, oral traditions. The exhibition at the Mucem will address these same themes, but on a larger scale.
M. The exhibition tells the stories of how Arab musical heritage was preserved, starting with the first recordings made at the beginning of the 20th century. Can you tell us about this and describe how it will be presented in the exhibition? K.K. and F.Y.T. The Western record companies that arrived in the Middle East from 1903 onwards recorded the musical production that was born of the cultural renaissance, which culminated around 1850 and continued until the early 1930s. Without these recordings, we would be incapable of understanding this heritage or of knowing its corpus. In the exhibition, visitors will have the chance to listen to 60 records that illustrate the musical practices of the Arab world (from the Gulf to the Maghreb), as well as the different record companies that made recordings in the region. M. Who are the singers on these 78s? And what was the importance of popular music in the Arab world at that time? K.K. and F.Y.T. They are 60 singers chosen for their representativeness of the countries of the Arab world: Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, and countries of the Gulf and Maghreb. The recordings cover a period from 1903 to the 1970s. Each country has its own story with its associated record and these stories are all told in the exhibition.
It should be noted that these records mainly evoke the history of urban music, although some recordings of folk music were also made. Folk traditions are very diverse and numerous. They carry within them a wide breadth of the history of the group, community, or region — a history that can sometimes go back several centuries. Many of these traditions are not recorded on records, but from 2017 the AMAR Foundation started to catalogue, film, and archive some of these folk traditions in order to safeguard them, so that they will be known to future generations.
M. Why was this music largely forgotten from the 1930s onwards? K.K. and F.Y.T. In 1932, the Arab Music Congress was held in Egypt, bringing together the world’s greatest music specialists. The recommendations of the Congress enshrined the specificity of Arab music, thanks to the interest shown by Europeans. Nevertheless, after this assembly, the Egyptian government bought 2,000 pianos from Europe and distributed them to all the country’s conservatories and music schools, which was contrary to the recommendations of the Congress. This was because from the highest levels of government to intellectual circles, the aim was to copy Europe. For the latter, the Congress was to consecrate Egypt as a modern and civilized nation by sweeping the great Khedivian tradition under the carpet. That is how this great tradition was forgotten. In the same perspective, Egyptian cinema began to produce musical films, including The White Rose (1933), which forever consecrated the choice of the Western approach: tuxedos, petticoats, dances sung to tango rhythms, paso doble, and others — all to the great joy of the public who were discovering a new musical form. M. In the second part of the exhibition, twelve endangered oral musical traditions are presented in the form of video installations. Can you remind us of the importance of oral tradition in Arab culture? K.K. and F.Y.T. Arab, African, and Amerindian musical traditions are all oral. Just like the urban music that began to take shape in the Middle East as early as the middle of the 19th century and which remained both completely undocumented and 100% oral. For example, until her death in 1975, the singer Oum Khalthoum forbade her musicians to use scores, out of loyalty to tradition; everything was memorised by heart.
In the exhibition, we present twelve traditions filmed over several dozen hours, in installations lasting no more than twenty minutes.
M. These video recordings are the result of research work carried out on site over several years. How did these field surveys take place? K.K. and F.Y.T. It is certain that most of these traditions are located in remote geographical areas that are often difficult to reach, which in some cases explains their continued existence. Also, visiting certain regions was both hazardous, especially in northern Iraq, and arduous given their remoteness and isolation, such as southern Algeria where we filmed the Chaamba. M. Can this exhibition also be read as a reflection on the role of new technologies in the preservation of heritage? K.K. and F.Y.T. This exhibition deals with the preservation of tradition. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, record companies used what was then a “new technology” to safeguard 19th century voices and music.
Thanks to the technologies of today, the AMAR Foundation has managed to restore and disseminate these recordings. Also, oral traditions are now preserved thanks to the dozens of hours of video recordings that our foundation has been able to make in the most remote areas of Arab countries, with very important interviews with followers of these traditions. This would have been difficult to achieve without the small cameras in use today.
Travel with music in the exhibition
Free entry to exhibitions from 29 June to 20 July 2020 (booking not required)
Une émission en direct animée par Farouk Mardam Bey (historien et éditeur) pour découvrir, à bonne distance, la nouvelle exposition « L'Orient sonore. Musiques oubliées, Musiques vivantes ». Avec Kamal Kassar, Fadid El Abdallah et Frédéric Lagrange. Suivi d'un concert avec Tarek Abdallah (oud) et Adel Shams El Din (percussions).