Rich, complex, and beautiful — could describe someone to fall in love with. But I’m talking about an Arabic song, sometimes rendered in English as Lamma Bada Yatathanna, an ancient muwashshah, a genre of secular music from Al Andalus, Moorish Spain, which means it’s from some time before 1492 – that’s half a millennium ago!
Have a taste before I say more about Lamma Bada:
That was by Radio Tarifa from their album Rumba Argelina.
Here’s a bit of a very different version. (There are hundreds of versions. This song is very popular.)
That was by the terrific Nubian Oud Player Hamza el Din from his album Eclipse.
Here’s one translation of the words:
When the gossamer nymph appears,
My beloved’s beauty drives me to distraction;
When I am enraptured by a glimpse,
My beloved’s beauty is a tender branch caught by the breeze;
Oh my destiny, my perplexity,
No one can comfort me in my misery,
In my lamenting and suffering for love,
But for the one in the beautiful mirage;
My beloved’s beauty drives me to distraction,
Source: Hamza EL Din’s album Eclipse.
This song caught my attention, not because of the exotic melody, not because of the lyrics (which I didn’t understand), but because of an extra beat.
In modern notation, Lamma Bada is rendered in 10/8 time. That is, there are ten beats to the bar. Listen to this slowed down version (I hope Radio Tarifa doesn’t mind) and see if you can count those beats. (It starts on 10 — the upbeat — and ends on 9.)
When I heard it for the first time, I wanted to cut it up finer and I counted, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3. (If you’re interested, you might try again counting like that.)
My ear, used to our two-, three-, and four-beat bars, heard an extra beat stuck in the middle there — that 4. When I hummed it I’d often mistakenly turn it into a piece with three three-beat bars. I’ve done a little surgery on the Radio Tarifa version (I really, really hope they don’t mind) to show you what I mean. I’ve butchered it pretty badly, but it comes close to the three-beat version I turned it into.
Of course the song doesn’t have an extra beat. That beat is there as part of samai rhythm, a very popular rhythmic structure for muwashshah, one with ten beats to the bar.
There’s more to samai than those ten beats. The rhythm calls for a specific beat pattern in the accompanying percussion. Thanks to Maqam World — a web site dedicated to helping musicians understand the modal system used in classical Arabic music — I can show you how complex those ten beats are. Here’s a graphic:
In case you’re not used to Western notation: the larger note-looking things actually are notes (in this case without pitch) and the smaller flag-like things are rests — they indicate places where music is NOT played. As for the Ds and Ts at the bottom, my friend Catherine, a ney player, explained them: D stands for dum and T for tekk, the sounds that the frame drums (daffs) and goblet drums(doumbeks) make. A dum is the lower sound toward the middle of the drum and the tekk is the higher pitched sound at the rim.
Here’s a great version of Lama Bada with percussion. I found the Dumms and Tekks a little difficult to pick out because the percussionist is embellishing with other hits. But once the oud starts playing it gets easier to hear DUM — –|tek –|DUM DUM|tek — – |
You’ve worked hard to follow my enthusiasm this far. Now your reward: a couple of embedded YouTube videos of Lamma Bad for you to enjoy.
The first is by Lena Chamamyan, a Syrian singer with a gorgeous voice. It starts out very clearly laying out that samai thaqil, then the music becomes lush, almost Western-sounding. Obviously this wonderful song has been interpreted in every way possible. (Compare this version with the Hamza el Din version above).
Here’s an orchestral version, one from Tel Aviv with the Arab Jewish Ensemble Shesh Besh:
I’m sure you can find more, likely as different from these as an oud is from a guitar. I hope you enjoy them.