Sunday,19 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)
Sunday,19 May, 2019
Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Arab music in 1968

David Tresilian attended the Paris exhibitions commemorating the May 1968 revolts, and went on to examine Europe’s latest attempts to acquaint the European public with the music of the Arab world

Arab music in 1968
Arab music in 1968

Fifty years ago this month, the world woke up to protests led by young people against the prevailing order. On university campuses from California to Egypt, young people demonstrated against societies they considered to be unjust, in many cases breaking with what had earlier appeared to be a growing sense of prosperity. 

However, while economic opportunities for young people may have been growing during the boom years that followed World War II, opportunities to make their voices heard may not. As a result, frustrations grew, protests spread, and revolts that often started as local disagreements snowballed into major confrontations involving not only students but also the wider population. 

Images of the protests are likely to be etched into the memories of those who lived through them. For those who did not, which now includes anyone under pensionable age, the events of 1968 occupy a kind of twilight zone of uncertain meaning. Too long ago to be directly relevant to contemporary society, but not long enough ago to have entirely receded into history, 1968 for some is of less importance than other dates that followed it, with the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991 and perhaps the 2008 world financial crisis coming most readily to mind.

However, for others 1968 still has a kind of totemic meaning, marking either the beginnings of a fairer and more liberal society, in a positive reading of events, or a kind of apocalyptic mistake from which Western society in particular has not recovered. Nowhere have such debates been livelier than in France, the only country that witnessed protests in 1968 that seemed to be on the verge of bringing down the government.

France has been marking 50 years since the 1968 events with exhibitions, programmes on radio and television, and lectures and conferences. These have racked up mountains of material, even if the meaning of this has been more elusive. Was 1968 a “good thing” or a “bad thing”, newspapers have been asking their readers. Did it change society for the better or the worse? While no one is likely to emerge from a tour of the 1968 commemorative events with answers to such questions, they nevertheless provide much food for thought.

The Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Fine Arts School, a main place of memory for the 1968 events, is hosting an exhibition called Images en lutte, images at war, until 20 May. The Ecole played a significant role in the 1968 student protests in France, as it was in the school’s premises on the Quai de Malaquais opposite the Louvre in central Paris that many of the subsequently famous protest posters were produced. 

Using a strategy familiar to other protesters before and since, the young people protesting against the regime led by then French president Charles de Gaulle aimed to take over the streets of the capital and other cities by staging public protests and plastering buildings with posters and graffiti. While they may not have had access to the official image sphere, and they certainly did not have access to the press or television, they could make their protests felt by occupying public space. 

In addition to the protests and the street barricades, there were also hundreds of posters stuck up on every available surface articulating a counter-reading of events to that given in government press conferences. The originals of many of these are in the Beaux-Arts exhibition, with many of them focusing particularly on the media. Others urge a political role for art, and art schools, reminiscent less of the comfortable world of private galleries and state museums, ironically the immediate environment of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and more of the kind of agit-prop familiar from earlier political revolutions. 

The exhibition reminds visitors of the international stakes of the protests, which while focusing on injustices in France itself, notably regarding the rights of immigrants, women, the unemployed, the low paid, students, and sexual minorities, also framed the French protests by reference to events elsewhere. The Civil Rights protests in the United States figure heavily, as does the international movement against the Vietnam War. There are images promoting Palestinian rights, as well as, in France, the rights of Arab workers.

Unlike in some other countries where the 1960s as a whole are more usually identified as a transformative decade, including across the Arab world, in France it is particularly 1968 that is identified with the clash between the younger and older generations and the modernisation of cultural and intellectual life. 

La pensée 68 (68 thinking) has thus been either celebrated or condemned, and some of its better-known products are on display in the exhibition, including works by philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, and critic Roland Barthes.

MEDIA CONTROL: One of the complaints of the young people demonstrating in 1968 was the control of the mainstream media by government or corporate interests, and this is a theme explored by two further exhibitions.

The first, at the headquarters of the French state broadcaster, the Maison de la Radio, in Paris, looks at the role played by its predecessor, the Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (ORTF), in the events of 1968. The second, at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), the French national library, looks at the way the commercial press and particularly the period’s news magazines portrayed the events. 

One of the features of the 1968 events that vastly distances them from today is the control exercised particularly by government over radio and television broadcasts. In 1968, the Internet, and particularly the social-networking sites that have taken the circulation of news and information in general out of government and possibly corporate hands, was not even a glimmer on the horizon, and even private television channels, let alone satellite television, did not exist.

French viewers watched either la première chaîne (first channel) or la deuxième chaîne (second channel) of the ORTF in 1968, though only 62 per cent of the population had television sets. A far larger proportion of the population listened to the radio than watched television, and much of the radio was also controlled by the ORTF.

Even today, a visit to the French state broadcaster can be a Kafka-esque experience, but it would have been much more so in 1968. A “comité d’écoute”, a listening committee, had to approve everything that went out on the radio, even, or perhaps especially, popular music, and representatives of the sinisterly named Service de liaison interministériel pour l’information (SLII) went through news reports that were to appear on television. These were routinely censored, or forbidden, and ORTF reporters had little room for manoeuvre as they were employed as civil servants. 

One of the 1968 student leaders is quoted in the Maison de la Radio exhibition as saying that the protests were about “who has the right to speak” and to be heard in society. He doubtless thought that the government controlled such things, but as a subtle exhibition at the BNF explains, control was just as likely to be exercised by corporate interests. This exhibition, entitled “Icons of May 1968”, looks at how mostly photographic “icons” are constructed, including some that have come to define the events of 1968.

One image taken by photographer Gilles Caron, whose work is also on display at an exhibition on 1968 at the Paris town hall, shows student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit grinning impishly at a member of the French riot police, apparently caught in a telling moment. However, as the exhibition reveals, this image, taken on 6 May 1968, was carefully choreographed (in the sense that Caron was looking for images like it), and it was then sold to the press as encapsulating the meaning of 1968.

It subsequently became iconic, representing, for the world’s photo-editors, the meaning of the events as having to do with a confrontation between youth and age, formality and informality, and flower-power insouciance and the armed and uniformed power of the state. As the exhibition comments, however, the image was chosen to invite such readings, since it drew attention away from the wave of strikes, less photogenic and less easily digested, that were taking place across the country at the time. 

The BNF exhibition provides much food for thought on how the meaning of events can be shaped both at the time and afterwards. A different emphasis is provided by a final exhibition (from the sample Al-Ahram Weekly visited) at the French National Archives in Paris. This show, “Les Archives du pouvoir”, also avoids reducing 1968 to any straightforward message, simply super-imposing a selection of internal government documents, memoranda, minutes of meetings, drafts of statements and speeches, against a timeline of events. 

Connoisseurs of French bureaucratic prose will find much to enjoy, the exhibition contrasting the acres of official prose produced in government offices with the violence of the streets outside. What it seems to show is that the French government was never really rattled by the events of 1968 even when de Gaulle temporarily fled the country, apparently to rally an intervention from abroad. Even in his absence the bureaucratic machine continued to function smoothly, as if all that mattered was to make sure there were perfect files.  


Images en lutte, Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris, closed on 20 May; Silence Radio: Mai 68 à l’ORTF, Maison de la Radio, Paris, is on until 29 June; Icônes de Mai 1968, Bibliothèque nationale de France, until 26 August; and Les Archives du pouvoir, Archives nationales, Paris, until 17 September


Visitors to Al-Musiqa, an exhibition on the “voices and music of the Arab world” that opened at the new Philharmonie de Paris concert venue in Paris in April, may be disconcerted to find themselves greeted by a film of camels in the first room.

What has this to do with Arab music, the promised subject of the exhibition, they might ask. They might also wonder what camels, associated most with certain desert, or at least non-urban, parts of the Arab world, might have to do with what has been primarily associated with its major urban centres, among them cities like Cairo and Baghdad.

Even learning that the film is actually a piece of video art (by artist Wael Shawky) may not be enough to still some nagging doubts. Artworks, perhaps particularly contemporary artworks, may have a place in illustrating the subject of an exhibition, particularly when that subject is something as evanescent and intangible, even invisible, as music. 

However, when they more or less take over the exhibition, as some might feel they do here — every room includes at least one or two — the question arises of how visitors who thought they were going to see an exhibition about music should react. Perhaps they did not come to see works of contemporary visual art.

The exhibition is divided into seven parts, broadly speaking seven environments in which Arab music has historically been produced. While this draws attention to the fact that music is social, even sociable, in its production and consumption — it needs players and an audience, like theatre, to achieve its effects — it is easier to recreate the environments of late 20th-century Arab popular music, as the exhibition seeks to do in its final rooms, than the caliphal court of mediaeval Baghdad.

Music in theory may be a private experience, but until the development of recording technologies at the beginning of the last century in practice it was almost necessarily a social one. People gathered to play or listen to music, which was and is produced for occasions as varied as weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies, and military and political events, and to accompany activities like eating, storytelling, partying, or meetings among friends. 

Music or musical techniques in the Arab world have been used on religious occasions (including chanting the text of the Quran), or in traditional forms of entertainment (such as performances of oral tales). There has always been a division between the theory and practice of music, and there have long been parallel traditions associated either with treatises by scholars writing on music or with more popular forms. 

The exhibition has a lot to say about the latter, perhaps especially the music of the past few decades. The final rooms, taking visitors through the originally North African rai music that was popular in France in the 1980s and beyond and the role of music in contemporary youth culture, are given far more space, and contain far more music, than earlier ones on the history and traditions of Arab music. 

There is little about the theory of Arab music. No visitor to this exhibition will learn much about the enormous amount of philosophical writing about music that has been produced in the Arab world, and no visitor will come away with anything more than a sketchy sense of how Arab music is put together, particularly in its employment of non-Western scales, rhythms and tones.

Perhaps the curators felt that this would have been inappropriate for an exhibition directed at a general audience, though some visitors might feel that this lack of faith is misplaced. No such reticence marked the fascinating, and almost fanatically cerebral, exhibition on the music of the late French composer Pierre Boulez, who lends his name to the Philharmonie’s main auditorium, which took place at the neighbouring Cité de la Musique in 2015.

Boulez, who died in 2016, was one of the major figures of post-War European music, and his habit of generating acres of music theory, illustrated with just a few minutes of the actual stuff, was a cliché of his career. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way round, sceptics asked.

Perhaps the present exhibition has gone to the opposite extreme. As it points out, music in the Arab world had had a variety of social uses, including in youth culture and political protest. However, the sociology of music is not the same things as music itself, and a survey exhibition could have placed less emphasis on contemporary pop and more on the history of music in the Arab world. 


STORIES OF MUSIC: A season of Arab music at the Philharmonie accompanies the exhibition, and deficiencies in the presentation are to an extent made up for in this programme of events.

It includes performances as different as “An Aleppo Music Salon in 1930”, a reconstruction of music played in Syria in the early decades of the last century, and L’Afrique arabisée, “Arabised Africa”, which includes gnawa music from Morocco and music by Mauritanian griots. The former is a kind of Berber music traditionally played at religious events, while the latter is associated with traditional storytellers throughout West Africa.

Visitors may also take material for further reflection from the exhibition itself. Room one, for example, disconcertingly dominated by camels, also looks at the origins of styles of Arab singing in oral performances of pre-Islamic poetry (there is a recording of a reading of the muallaqa of sixth-century Arab poet Imru Al-Qais). 

Room two looks at evidence for the mistrust of music in early Islam, noting that musical techniques, certainly of singing or chanting, have always been used for performances of the Quran as well as in the sung or chanted adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. “Islam does not prohibit music,” the exhibition says. “It seeks to limit its physical effects and to spiritualise its perception.” 

Room three, on “court music from Damascus to Cordoba”, is perhaps the least successful, in part because of the complexity of the material, the very long time frame from the seventh to 15th centuries, and the geographical scope of Damascus, Cordoba and Baghdad. As the exhibition notes, it was during this period that Arab philosophical writing on music appeared, developing out of earlier Greek and Hellenistic authors and perhaps also drawing on Persian influences.

While the exhibition does not go much further than give the names of the ninth-century writers Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, and Ishaq Al-Mawsili, philosophical polymaths who put Arab music on secure foundations, it may send visitors to the accompanying catalogue which contains some strong complementary essays. 

The exhibition is on stronger form in the rooms that follow, not least because for the modern and contemporary periods there is a much wider choice of illustrative material. Films are used to illustrate gnawa music from Morocco, associated with the devotional singing of Sufi religious orders. There is an evocative collection of vintage musical instruments (though little about how they are played), some of them with an evocative provenance.

There is a nefir, a natural trumpet (no valves), for example, acquired by the French musicologist Guillaume André Villoteau in Egypt in 1801. Villoteau was one of the researchers who accompanied the then French General Napoleon Bonaparte during his invasion of Egypt in 1798, later writing the sections on Egyptian music in the monumental Description de l’Egypte. There is also an early 19th-century Egyptian rababa, a type of bowed string instrument sometimes called a spike fiddle. 

However, the exhibition perhaps only really gets into its stride in the final sections on 20th and 21st-century Arab music. Here there are nods in the direction of standard ethnomusicology, including matters of musical training, the development and transmission of repertoire, often by electronic means, the economics of the musical profession, for singers and orchestral players alike, performance contexts, and audiences and reception. 

Egypt receives extensive treatment, befitting its position during the 20th century as the musical capital of the Arab world. There is information on the tradition of female divas, culminating in figures like Laila Murad and Um Kalthoum whose music-making, drawing on older traditions, relied upon technologies such as radio, gramophone records, and films to reach a wider audience. The treatment of important developments in the period, such as the Congress of Arab Music held in Cairo in 1932, is glancing at best, though there is an informative longer article about the Congress in the catalogue.

The exhibition ends with 20th and 21st-century North African music performed and circulated in France. Major figures here include singers like Warda Al-Djazairia, Slimane Azem and Dahmane Al-Harrachi among many others, all of Algerian descent and helping to keep North African popular music alive and developing in the cafes of the Barbès area of northern Paris, what the exhibition calls the “Médina de la Goutte d’Or”. in the 1950s during the Algerian War of Independence.

A final room looks at contemporary Franco-Arab fusion music, including pop figures Khaled and Rachid Taha, before referencing the contemporary music of social protest and the “Arab Idol” TV show. 

Al-Musiqa, voix et musiques du monde arabe, Philharmonie de Paris, is open until 19 August.

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