Styles of voice, dialects of song

Voices are musical, though you may not notice if you understand the languages they’re speaking. I noticed it when I began to learn Spanish, and later Arabic. I couldn’t distinguish the boundaries between words, so instead I heard textures and pitch contours. A beautiful speaking voice, like a beautiful singing one, has its own unique quality, something you can’t quite put your finger on.

In high school, my violin teacher pushed me to hear the tiniest deviations in my intonation, and in college, I learned to transcribe—modes, chords, bass lines, progressions, atonal intervals. Linguists develop a similar skill. My pop song transcription class overlapped with linguistic transcription and left me fascinated by the difficulty of transcribing syllables and vowels as they aligned with melody and rhythm. Melodies play with familiar word boundaries, drawing the listener into a soundspace detached from everyday speech…just like languages we don’t yet understand.

The ear training I’ve described inspired me to study, more broadly, the intersections of music and language. I fell in love with Arabic language and Arabic music during a year of study in Egypt, and I learned them together. Spread across many countries, Arabic contains so many voices and so many kinds of music, and there is always more to learn.

An Abu Dhabi audience dances dabke to the music of Jordanian singer-songwriter, Omar Abdallat

This year I’ll explore the UAE through its musical voices. I’ll follow music that is performed in Arabic or described in terms of Arab identity, and attend festivals and events that feature both commercial and independent musicians. I’ll ask artists about their musical influences, their linguistic and stylistic boundaries, and their understandings of cultural authenticity. How do they see themselves as performers in a pan-Arab or global music industry? I’m interested in the way that artists style their performative personas and the meanings that stylistic choices hold for both musicians and audiences. I’ll be especially attuned to the linguistic element of musical performance— the intersections of Arabic poetry with song, and the links between musical-poetic styles and Arabic dialects/registers. The lyrics to Arabic songs often stand alone as poems, and fans sometimes know the names of poets as well as the singers who perform their words.

I’ll also gather interviews and musical narratives from non-musicians living in the UAE, seeking a more intimate view of music in contemporary culture. How wide of a spectrum of music do UAE residents listen to, and in which languages and dialects? How do they regard cross-linguistic musical collaborations and, conversely, folklore revitalization efforts that emphasize a more stable conception of Arab identity? Does living in the UAE leave a mark on their musical preferences?

Ambitious building projects are visible everywhere, impossible to miss. But close listening may reveal musical resonances of the UAE’s rapid development. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are thriving centers of media and music business, meeting places for the multinational artistic collaborations that drive the commercial Arabic music industry. New fusions in the UAE’s culturally rich music scenes are influential globally. Broadcasting companies set up offices or move their headquarters to Dubai, and singers from other parts of the Arab world add Gulf dialects to their performance repertoires.

A telecommunications service center in Abu Dhabi welcomes its multilingual customers — in English, Arabic, Urdu/Persian, Malayalam, Hindi, Tagalog, and Bengali.

The UAE is well-known for its expat population, which includes many Arabic speakers as well as non-Arab residents who often gain command of Arabic. Since the number of non-Emirati, Arabic-speaking residents approaches that of Emiratis, the UAE is unusually diverse in terms of its Arabic language use. It is a fascinating place to observe the interaction of Arabic dialects, as well as to study language contact more generally.

The Binnaman group performs a style of dance called al harbiyya for Abu Dhabi mall-goers on the second evening of Eid Al Adha. Watch them in this clip, where they accompany Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi’s performance of a patriotic poem by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and constitutional monarch of Dubai.

Government initiatives address foreign influence by way of festivals and events designed to educate UAE residents and visitors about Emirati heritage. During Eid Al Adha in early October, the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Centre organized traditional Emirati-themed activities and performances in malls throughout the seven Emirates. Later in October, Al Ain hosted the National Traditional Handicrafts Festival, which included performances of the traditional dances al harbiyya, al ayyala, and al yola; rebaba music; and al shilla, a type of melodic poetry recitation. Next week Abu Dhabi presents the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival, for which a flyer states that “heritage joins the past, the present, and the future.” I’ll leave you with a final question to ponder. Might the musical manifestations of the multicultural and multiglossic UAE contribute to heritage revitalization in creating a sense of collective identity?

Whether you live in the UAE, the U.S., or elsewhere, I’d love to hear what you think. Comment here or write to me at

32 thoughts on “Styles of voice, dialects of song

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