Marianna Jordan: Learning Arabic Through Music — From the Moroccan ‘Beatles’ to Post-Arab Spring Hip Hop

[ 0 ] February 8, 2013

by MARIANNA JORDAN for ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 8, 2013: 

On any given Tuesday or Thursday evening, if you happen to be strolling through the first floor of the West Duke building at Duke University, you might be able to make out faint voices following an unrecognizable scale.

If your ear is attuned to the unique sound, you will most likely hear the evocative notes of a cascading Oud — a traditional Middle Eastern stringed instrument. If you linger long enough, these voices will gradually become more confident, and soon the harmonies begin to form a coherent pattern. There’s one catch however: the language is not immediately recognizable.

But “Arabic Dialect through Song,” a new Arabic class in the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department, is hitting all the right notes.

Arabic professor Azeddine Chergui (holding Oud in center of above photo), a native of Morocco who is currently teaching this class, always had a strong interest in Arabic language instruction and preservation. He began to conceptualize the idea of an Arabic music class after the recent uprisings across the Arab world produced a surge of artistic expression.

“This class is linked to the Arab Spring, which removed so many barriers in the region…the uprisings brought the Arab world together because they were undergoing the same woes with the common denominator of authoritarianism,” Chergui said. “There was a lot of energy released during this time, including cultural production in songs—like those that we are listening to in class.”

Chergui said he’s always had a deep love for music and the rich music repertoire in the Arab world, yet actually only began to play the Oud in America. When he lived in Morocco, he played the guitar.

“You value your culture more when you are estranged from it,” Chergui laughed.

By examining dialects from a variety of countries across the Arab world — through Arabic music — the class offers a unique perspective on the diversity of language in this region. Music seems to be the best way to encapsulate the vast (and not so vast) differences between dialects from a whole range of countries: Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Tunisia…and the list goes on.

The class started off the semester learning basic Moroccan “darija” (the local dialect) in combination with selections of Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian songs.

In recent classes teaching assistant Laith Jajo has offered his musical expertise and specific knowledge in the dialects and culture of Syria and Iraq. Jajo, a musician and composer by training, is an Iraqi refugee who resettled in Durham, and is now working with Chergui to assist two Arabic professors from other universities — NYU Abu Dhabi’s Nasser Isleem, and College of Charleston’s Ghazi Abuhakema (SC) — in creating songs as a mechanism for mastering a new language. These professors are working together on their own Arabic textbook.

Ryan Gaylord, a Duke sophomore and second year Arabic student who’s taking the class, is also a music enthusiast.

“I was fascinated by the cosmopolitanism of the Arab Spring and the connection that music has with social movements through my public policy and Arabic studies at Duke,” Gaylord said. “I was really excited to hear there was a class about exactly this subject.”

In an interesting twist, Gaylord recorded his own cover version of Moroccan artist Dani Youssouf’s “Hamdoulillah,” which was based on Leonard Cohen’s recognizable “Hallelujah.” He recorded a couple different guitar parts and piano on his USB laptop microphone. Then, he added the rest of it with Midi [computer] instruments and wrote a seven-part vocal chord for the chorus. Gaylord recorded each of these himself and completed the rest of the mix using Logic Pro software.

Here is the song: Ryan Gaylord Perfoms ‘Hamdoulillah’

An old friend of Chergui’s from high school, Said Graouid — a literature professor at Mohammad V University in Rabat, Morocco who focuses on the public sphere and heads a working group on migration — recently attended the music class as part of a visit to Duke to lecture on the Arab Spring and explore academic collaborations.

The class performed two songs in the Moroccan dialect for him: Dani Youssouf’s “Hamdoulillah” and Nass El Ghiwan’s “Allah Ya Moulana.”

“In many ways, this class literally materializes the notions of crossing borders and trans-nationality,” Graouid explained. “It’s important because there is the impression out there that a Moroccan using [Moroccan dialect] would find it difficult to interact with a Syrian or Egyptian using the different dialects, but it’s beautiful to see that this myth or assumption can be dismantled through music.”

Graouid also stressed the fact that music has been an important “means of resistance” for decades across the region. Nasser Ghiwan’s “Allah ya Moulana” (“God is our Lord”) came out in the early 1970s at a time when there was extremely stiff repression of civil liberties in Morocco.  Graouid called Ghiwan’s group “the Beatles” of Morocco.

“We were interpreting their music from a political perspective and we were looking at the music through our own aspirations of freedom and democracy,” Graouid explained.

And while the politics may have changed, it looks as if music as a form of resistance may be a constant.

“With the Arab Spring, there’s been a very interesting emergence of hip-hop songs that have called for the fall of dictatorship, and the respect of human dignity,” Graouid said.

What better way to experience the Arabic language?

Marianna is a junior in the Trinity School of Arts and Sciences. She is double-majoring in International Comparative Studies—with a focus on the Middle East—and Arabic. She will also be receiving a certificate in Policy Journalism and Media Studies. Marianna participated in the DukeEngage Cairo program during the summer of 2012 and just returned from a semester studying abroad in Jerusalem, Israel. 

Professor Graiouid’s visit to Duke this semester was made possible by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched last year by the Duke Islamic Studies Center — in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies— aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and the Muslim world. See and for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. 


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Category: Americas, i-Comment, Middle East and North Africa, Muslim Life & Culture, Politics & Current Events, Student

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