The role of music in cultural and personal development should never be determined by brands and the music industry. In this article, Plus Aziz looks into a cross-section of sources to evidence the benefits of music, making a case for promoting its seminal role in the development of Khaleeji coastal culture.

Growing up as a songwriter, I remember consistently being amazed by the range of reactions other Kuwaitis had to my music. This spanned from sheer fascination and enjoyment to lengthy debates about whether music is haram or not; I quickly realized that music would not only be my “therapy”, but that its therapeutic benefits and spiritual role in culture need to be defended, particularly if you choose to make non-commercial work and live on the margins of the Middle East’s music industry.

I also believe that the benefits of music are more readily understood in the Gulf today than they were in the past. The performances I participated in as a teenager and in my early 20s were tied up in all sorts of corporate and governmental approvals that have relaxed over time. The value of performance in public space has developed for the better and I think that this is quite obvious. Censors are less scrutinizing of lyrical content and businesses of all sizes are embracing live performances of original music.The most reflective aspect is the rise of so many platforms supporting alternative music.

Beyond Soundcloud, alternative music has a presence outside the industry on countless platforms like Indimaj, Mashallah News, Triple W, MidEast Tunes, Knooz Room, Medrar TV, Malja in Bahrain, and Engage in Kuwait.They work collectively to surface the work of “undiscovered” and “promising” artists; each represents an opportunity that simply did not exist five to ten years ago.

This is not limited to “hipsters” and in fact groundwork is being laid down to elevate the status of music in the Middle East. Governmental organizations are also, for example, increasingly embracing the power of music in therapy for kids, as more Emirati patrons such as Kanoo Group, Abraaj Capital, and ANC Investments invest their money in this unique discipline.

Music’s Benefits According to Contemporary Islamic Philosophy

Given the popularity of the belief that music is haram, let’s start analyzing the benefits of music by drawing on the religious dimension.The most convincing Islamically credible perspective is presented by Dr. Adnan Ibrahim, a philosophical Imam living in Vienna. In an episode of his TV show on Afaq, he addresses music and singing by pointing to their poetic, spiritual, and ornamental values. Arguing that music and singing are not innately haram, he highlights historical figures like Ibrahim Al-Zahri and Abdllah Bin Zubair whom were known for their musical talents and evidence its acceptance by the earliest Islamic communities.

A popular story recalls when confusedly asked if his oud collection is a collection of scales to weigh merchandise. Abdullah Ibn Zubair jokingly replied that they are the scales that balance a man’s mind. As is usually the case with theological matters, there are communities that doubt the validity of this story and others like it, but Dr. Adnan Ibrahim makes quite a compelling case over the course of 45 minutes landing in the territory where most moderate muslims land: as long as the work does not lead to haram activities, then it is fine. In any case, using Dr. Adnan’s insights as a star ting point, we can begin to map the benefits of music in this manner:

  • Benefits Akin to Poetry: Music draws on literary play including rhyme, metaphor, narration techniques to enhance our experience of time. In the Middle East, where our songwriters are typically not the same as our vocalists, popular classical music (think Um Kalthum, Fairouz) incorporates a heightened linguistic prowess, perhaps closer to the sense of enjoyment one gets from reading classical poetry.
  • The Spirituality Component: This area of music works to elevate the listener into a trance or transcendent space. Technically speaking, recorded nasheeds that are so popular are spiritual in a completely different way than, say, EDM; this is because nasheeds are grounded in text and language, rather than the art of engineering audio.This type of sensational enjoyment is grounded in the human body’s response to bass.
  • The Value of Ornamentation: This is straight-up background music; it dresses up a space. You might experience this type of pleasure during a yoga class or the highly instrumental virtuosity of orchestral Egyptian music in support of a film script, for example.

Music’s Benefits According to Academic Research

Digging into existing academic research on the origins of Khaleeji music (which is pretty thin) led to uncovering some rather provocative narratives rooted in colonization and historic economic data generated by the pearling industry (most of which is centralized in European institutions). I also came across less controversial, more scientific studies on how music impacts wellness and contemporary therapeutic practice.

My entry point into understanding the relationship of early Khaleeji music to culture more broadly is grounded in the interactions I’ve had with Ghazi Al- Mulaifi, an ethnomusicologist at New York University, who had joined Kuwait’s pearl diving community on a government- sponsored heritage expedition. I’ve also had the immense pleasure of communicating with Hasan Hujairi, a Bahraini sound artist currently working at the Seoul National University.

Al-Mulaifi’s work is geared towards pedagogy and education. He investigates how pearling song and music assists in transferring cultural knowledge in corporeal manner (from one body to another). In his essay All the Men Died At Sea he mentions that “the annual event itself has been taking place for the last 24 years for the purpose of passing on heritage from surviving pearlers to a younger generation of sailors. One of my goals was to investigate how heritage discourse is transferred from the government to its people, especially in a country that is as young as Kuwait.” In essence, he makes a strong case for how and why songs can be a tool to national well-being, providing what could be referred to as cultural glue and a sense of connection to government-approved narratives.

Hasan Hujairi added to my understanding of pearl diving music. Similar to Al-Mulaifi, he generally believes that narrating the full story of pearl diving music can reflect numerous insights on the development of Khaleeji coastal society as a whole. To make a long story short, Hujairi calls attention to the difference between functional work music (e.g. keeping workers in line, providing instructions to younger men) and entertainment (e.g. to pass time, storytelling). While work songs are hardly ‘healing’ or ‘therapeutic’, entertainment is itself wrapped up in benefits such as sailors bonding with their sons or bonding with foreign cultures.

More pertinent to the topic of health, pearl diving music functioned as a coping mechanism that consequently helped divers remain resilient, hopeful, and confident in the face of uncertainty and danger. One can imagine that men at sea experienced mounting pressures as the Gulf economic development increasingly depended on the pearling industry, which between the mid-1700s and the early 20th century had swelled to become the primary source of revenue for wealthy tribes and families. While this music is presented today as quintessentially belonging to a particular national heritage, the truth is that the pearl diving music is not monolithic but layered. Pearl divers adopted elements from non-Khaleeji regions we traded with including North Africa, the Levant, and Asia Minor. India is of particular importance not only because of their robust musical traditions but also because data shows that Mumbai was the largest pearl market by the 1800s. North Africa is equally critical because some academics evidence that some pearl divers were slaves and brought their musical heritages from their corresponding homelands.

All this suggests that pearl diving music is actually a product of pre-modern globalization and a way for us to collectively communicate with cultures we wanted to establish rapport with. So clearly, music also benefits us by providing the opportunity to connect with foreigners as well as being a tool to erode or temporarily suppress political dimensions of society, like classism or racism in this case.

On the more neurological side of the research spectrum, we have music therapy practitioners and academics studying the impact of music on the human brain. In terms of regional practitioners, music therapists tend to be expats introducing this unique therapeutic practice to the GCC. This would include names like Dubai-based Nadya Larsen and Qatar- based Dirk Cushenbery. Moussi Aksana, a therapist based in Bahrain, provides a practice that claims to help address a long list of problems facing kids. This spans recovery from stress management for adults to recovery from emotional trauma in children.

This was partially the subject of The Brain That Sings (2013), a documentary by Emirati filmmaker Amal Al-Agroobi (who has a background in neuroscience) addressing the topic of how families deal with autism. Tala Badri, the founder of the Centre for Musical Arts in Dubai who received funding from a handful of Emirati patrons, provided a great quote contextualizing Al-Agroobi’s film within the context of musical well- being, “in general, music helps develop the brain… Children with autism find it hard to organize themselves; music provides the focus they need. And from a social perspective, they start interacting with peers and others without feeling threatened.” Moussi Aksana’s website also points out the sheer diversity of places that music therapists practice: special needs and inclusive education schools; rehabilitation facilities; hospitals, clinics, psychiatric centers, and nursing homes.

On a sociological level, awareness of music’s historical role in cultural development makes ignoring its benefits more difficult. A diverse range of benefits is evidenced by numerous fountainheads of knowledge, including Islam, and research methodologies spanning qualitative and quantitative analysis.

On a personal level, I believe that our beloved music industry is reluctant to change unless digital tribes of music lovers compromise their authority. We need to continue working to bring independent, authentic music to the forefront of cultural expression again. Musical entrepreneurs need you to showcase your support by commenting, sharing, buying our music, funding our crowdfunding efforts, and attending our live performances. The Middle East’s independents cannot thrive regionally on the temporary support of branded platforms like Red Bull Music Academy nor Arab Idol. It truly comes down to the fans and those who love music; so show your support with the quality of your engagement and listen like you mean it!

This article was first published in The Well-Being Issue and can be purchased online here 

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