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Pop Culture in the Arabian Peninsula: Societal Expressions, Commercial Issues and State Cooptations

“Visible invisibility”: from traditional ṭaggāgāt to Samra female pop stars, representations and performativity of race and gender in the northern Arabian Peninsula

Une invisibilité visible : des ṭaggāgāt traditionnelles aux pop-stars sumr, représentations et performativité de la race et du genre dans le nord de la péninsule Arabique
Coline Houssais

Résumés

Cet article examine la façon dont la race et le genre sont représentés et interprétés par les artistes féminines Sumr (à peau brune) dans le nord de la péninsule Arabique, depuis les ṭaggāgāt (chanteuses de mariage) traditionnelles jusqu'aux stars contemporaines de la pop. Sa thèse principale est que la pratique musicale, au fil des siècles, a été assurée par les Sumr parce qu'elle n'étaient pas jugée « convenable » par l'orthodoxie culturelle de l'époque, et que, par conséquent, seuls les individus et les communautés situés en marge de la société, tels que les Sumr, pouvaient y être associés. Ce faisant, leur position au sein des sociétés du nord de l'Arabie est devenue celle d'une marginalité intégrée. Lorsque le répertoire interprété principalement par les Sumr est devenu un élément clé de la patrimonialisation de l’héritage culturel, dans le cadre de la définition des identités nationales menée par les États nouvellement indépendants, ces artistes sont devenus l'objet d'une « invisibilité visible ». Il s’agit là d’un phénomène qui perdure encore aujourd'hui, y compris dans d'autres sphères de l'industrie musicale.

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Texte intégral

Introduction: Sumr in the Arabian Peninsula - visible invisibility, unspoken otherness

My heart has grown attached to an Arab girl

(…)

Her eyes are Hijazi and her inside Mekki

Her limbs are Iraqi and her necklace Byzantine

Her frame is Tihami and her lips Absi

  • 1 « Taʿallaqa qalbī », attributed to the mythical anteislamic Najdi poet Imruʾ al-Qays b. Ḥujr al-Ki (...)

Her teeth are Khuzā’i and her kisses like jewels1

تَعَلَّقَ قَلبي طَفلَةً عَرَبِيَّةً

(…)

حِجَازيَّة العَينَين مَكيَّةُ الحَشَا

عِرَاقِيَّةُ الأَطرَافِ رُومِيَّةُ الكَفَل

تِهامِيَّةَ الأَبدانِ عَبسِيَّةُ اللَمَى

خُزَاعِيَّة الأَسنَانِ دُرِّيِّة القبَل

  • 2 There has been cases of Caucasian enslaved people from Eastern Europe or Caucasus, although numbers (...)
  • 3 Official records of British Agencies in the Gulf refer to 950 manumission applications from enslave (...)
  • 4 Reilly, 2015.
  • 5 « Memories of slavery in Saudi Arabia », communication by Faisal Abualhassan (John Hopkins Universi (...)
  • 6 De Regt, 2010, Ngeh and Pelican, 2018.

1Located at the crossroads of age-old and continuously evolving sea and land trade routes between Eastern Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Eastern Mediterranean and the greater Caucasus region, the Arabian Peninsula has been subsequently home to various exogenous communities, adding to an already rich human and cultural fabric where racial, religious, local and tribal affiliation and identity played a major role. One group however has remained in the shadows of both Arab, Western and other literature on the area due to their legal and socio-economical status: enslaved people and their descendants, as well as those who, although coming from a different socio-economic background, are identified as such by popular culture or society at large. Coming overwhelmingly from sub-Saharan Africa2, and a constant part of regional trade, they have been integrated into Arabian societies for millennia, slavery officially enduring well into the 20th century3. Despite growing interest in and awareness of the topic4, including from Gulf academic institutions5, current research on communities of sub-Saharan African origin has mainly focused on recent economic migration6.

  • 7 Hall, 2017. It must be noted that the former « the marginalized ones » is employed by the people co (...)
  • 8 Sebiane, 2016. Although this term (zinjī pl. zunūj) was historically used in this specific context, (...)
  • 9 Referring to the situation in the 1930s, and basing himself on records from the British Agencies in (...)
  • 10 Quoting J.G. Lorimer’s early 20th-century survey, Zdanowski (2015, 64-65) states that enslaved peop (...)
  • 11 Although the situation might obviously differ from one region or tribe to the other, it was common (...)
  • 12 Meaning « dark-skinned » or « dark-haired », widely used in music and poetry as a neutral or praisi (...)
  • 13 One century and a half after the Imam of Oman Saif bin Sultan’s victory over the Portuguese in Momb (...)
  • 14 Chaudhury, 1985, De Silva Jayasuriya, 2008, Hopper, 2015, Hopper, 2018.

2An explanation can be offered to understand the lack of literature, both academic and non-academic. Apart from specific cases such as the Muhammashīn/Akhdām in Yemen7 and the Zunūj8 in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, communities of sub-Saharan origin established as a result of slave trade do not exist as culturally identified and homogenous groups. Save for music and specific rites, the overall absence of transmission of the culture of origin (language, names, family and political structures, religion, etc.) as well as the integration of enslaved people into the tribes and families that owned them (leading to enslaved people being named after their owners) contributed to this lack of a common culture, and the adoption of the customs of the host communities. The multitude of situations enslaved people found themselves in depending on local human settings (nomad/badū or sedentary/ḥaḍāri, in-land or coastal regions, emancipated person/ma’tuq or enslaved person/mamlūk9, proportion of individuals from sub-Saharan African origin compared to the rest of the population10, women/men ratio within enslaved people, percentage of mixed Asmar-non Asmar marriages11, presence and interaction with other non-Arab communities such as ʿajamī and balūč) prevents from any systematizing attempt. It would also be very difficult to compare the history and experience of slavery in the Arabian Peninsula with that of the Americas’ and the Atlantic slave trade. Three unifying elements can nonetheless be underlined for these groups generally identified as Sumr12 (sing. masc. Asmar, sing. fem. Samra): first of all, « Asmarness » (that is to say identifying and being identified as belonging to the — heterogenous — Sumr group in the region) could not be solely assimilated with slavery, as in Oman a number of mixed Arab-Swahili families flourished as a result of the historical and political links between the Sultanate of Muscat and Zanzibar13. Moreover, some Sumr are descended from Muslim pilgrims who came to the Ḥijāz to perform the Ḥajj, but also seamen, traders and itinerant musicians who circulated during centuries between East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent and therefore do not individually relate to an intergenerational experience of enslavement on the grounds of their family background14. Secondly, race, social position and occupation are closely intersected, enslaved people and consequently their descendants having been assigned various tasks deemed demeaning, should it be for social or religious reasons (domestic service, music, and entertainment), or the exhausting and sometimes dangerous character of these tasks (crop growing, pearl fishing, chores pertaining to ships and maritime transportation). Thirdly, a strong endogamy has prevailed, despite the prevalence of inter-ethnic marriages mentioned above.

  • 15 Richter, Wordsworth and Walmsley, 2011, Reilly, 2015.
  • 16 Mulaifi, 2021, Al-Tee, 2005.
  • 17 Interviewees (Gulf nationals and residents) stress that in their experience Gulf nationals of sub-S (...)
  • 18 It can indeed be argued that Sumr face obstacles in terms of access to economic and political leade (...)
  • 19 Such as the ‘arḍah, a collective male dance. A video produced by the Misk Foundation is very repres (...)
  • 20 Usually Nubia, the Swahili coast and historical Abyssinia, although the region of origin does not p (...)

3It is thus through the prism of labor, and not race, that individuals and communities of sub-Saharan African origin are perceived, either through a social and economic perspective15 or a cultural, mainly musical one16. This, along with a general absence of self-identification to a particular community on the grounds of their origin17 and an overall uneasiness to discuss the subject — despite clear differences in socio-economic status and political weight compared to nationals of Arab origin18, leads to what could be defined as an invisible presence, or rather a visible invisibility: an unspoken otherness. The situation is all the more surprising that Gulf nationals of sub-Saharan African origin play an integral role in musical celebrations and ceremonies that have come to define national cultures and heritage over the past decades19. A consequence of this visible visibility is the absence of a generally acknowledged term to refer to these individuals and the communities they form, in Arabic or in other languages. So far in this paper, I have been using the term “of sub-Saharan African origin”, in a bid to stress that North Africa and part of East Africa host countries and people identifying as Arab for historical, ethnic, cultural, and political reasons, and that “of African origin/heritage” would therefore be misleading in this context. The term “Afro-Arab”, in addition to not distinguishing between individuals of mixed lineage and those of mixed heritage only, might suggest a certain degree of awareness and claim around an “African” identity, both internally and in regard to the rest of the society. As for the term “Black Arab” that is frequently used by Western media, echoing the identity concept of “Black American”, it simply has no existence in Gulf societies. Eventually, these individuals often refer to themselves as Khowāl (sing. Khāl), a term also used by local groups historically familiar with them. I will however use the generally accepted and widely used term Sumr (sing. masc. asmar, sing. fem. samra) for individuals and groups hailing initially from sub-Saharan African20 and brought to the Arabian Peninsula over the centuries as a result predominantly — although not only, as mentioned — of slave-trading. Individuals and cultures resulting from recent waves of voluntary economic migration are excluded, although some interactions between the two groups have developed over the years, including in music. The same goes for non-Gulf Arab nationals of sub-Saharan African origin, that are not concerned here. Although I regularly use the terms Arabian Peninsula and “Gulf” as an adjective, the majority of my examples are drawn from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and in a lesser extent Bahrain and Qatar. The higher degree of cultural circulation between the four countries and relative similar state of the cultural industry (as far as Kuwait and pre-1979 Saudi Arabia are concerned), compared to the rest of the peninsula (the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen), made it easier to develop sound arguments that could apply to a greater variety of cases.

  • 21 From Rovsing Olsen (2002), whose field recordings in Bahrain were edited in vinyl format by French (...)

4In addition to race, gender contributes to this invisible visibility, including in the field of music: while repertoires and musical practices deriving from occupations attributed principally to male Sumr (first and foremost pearl fishing in the northern coastal regions of the Arabian Gulf) have been the subject of numerous ethnomusicological and sociological recording initiatives21, those deriving from occupations attributed to women (starting with wedding and parties entertainment revolving around ṭaggāgāt, Samra female drummers and singers) have remained under the radar. Entertainment music might not be considered a worthy subject of interest by scholars, public and heritage institutions compared to spiritual or work music, as, contrary to the latter, it might be diffused — and therefore preserved — through commercial circuits at various levels. This can also be explained by the traditional gender segregation of weddings and other collective celebrations that has prevented male researchers and cultural engineers — who represent historically the majority of actors working on the subject — from accessing female audience-only performances.

  • 22 Mulaifi, 2021.

5In this paper, I will argue that given the negative consideration bestowed upon musical entertainment, this task has been undertaken by individuals sitting lower in the social hierarchy — i.e. enslaved people or their descendants originating from sub-Saharan Africa that form a non-negligible part of these entertainers, and are associated with them in popular culture —, with a gender repartition befitting local customs that have dominated over the centuries. The association of Gulf folk music with Sumr performers led the latter to embody the region’s traditional musical culture — and by extension national identities —, particularly in the second half of the 20th century (I). The patrimonialization of music and the emergence of an “authorized heritage discourse”22 by emerging nation-states blending traditional repertoires has contributed to a visibility and integration of Samar singers into the public sphere (II), which has provided them with a gateway into the contemporary pop music scene. However, despite the success of 1970s-1990s Saudi icon ’Itāb (1947-2007), heiresses of the ṭaggāgāt have failed so far to make their mark in a male Arab-dominated industry, while racism remains and censorship is looming: praised as living testimonies of local musical heritage, Asmar singers are pushed aside and confined once again to the margins of the new musical order.

The traditional intersection of race and musical performance in the Arabian Peninsula

  • 23 Coline Houssais, « “The enduring “integrated marginality” of Gypsies in Middle Eastern entertainmen (...)
  • 24 Mermier, 1997.

6As mentioned above, despite historical intense circulation of men and goods through, from and to the Arabian Peninsula, a number of factors — including political and geographical — have resulted over time in a heterogeneity of social and musical practices. Some common elements exist nonetheless, such as the association of Sumr and music for entertainment purposes. In the nomadic (badū) and sedentary (ḥaḍar) communities who had the financial means to own enslaved people, the latter have traditionally been tasked with performing music for their masters and their guests for centuries. Indeed, in opposition to more respectable poetry (sung or recited, a capella or accompanied with a string instrument such as ‘ūd or rabāba) the handling of musical instruments — particularly percussions like mirwās, ṭabl baḥri, ṭār, ṭus cymbals and jaḥal) was perceived as undignified manual labour, a negative stance sometimes furthered by religious condemnation of music (understood in its secular sense of mūsīqā or ghināʾ). The stigma associated with music meant it was not performed by higher-ranking individuals but rather assigned to lower-ranking ones. According to a hierarchy that existed at least well into the 20th century, these lower-ranking members of the communities were either enslaved people, who played music as part of their chores, or Doms and semi-sedentary Bedouins hailing from less prestigious clans, who undertook musical performances for the economic niche it represented. One may define these dynamics as integrated marginality23, where stigmatized groups become part of a given society by performing frowned-upon — culturally-speaking — yet common tasks (entertainment, prostitution, mending, in other contexts waste management, etc.), putting them at the margins, that is to say ensuring their contribution, despite their position, to the social fabric24.

  • 25 A « fann al baḥri subgenre in which women sing, clap their hands, play the ṭār drum and dance » is (...)
  • 26 Sebiane, 2014, Bilkhair, 2021.
  • 27 Boulos & Ayari, 2021.
  • 28 Literally « the art of the sea » or « maritime art », composed of seatrade-related work songs.
  • 29 Rolf Killius for instance argues that the lengthy rhythm cycles of the fann al baḥri similar to tho (...)

7A second element further links Sumr with traditional popular music of the Peninsula: their historical association, on the ground of their dangerous and difficult character, with occupations that generated a rich repertoire, such as first and foremost fishing and pearl-diving along the coasts of the Arabian/Persian Gulf. A gender specialization around these repertoires developed, as these occupations were reserved to men25. This maritime repertoire is all the more predominant that in some regions it represents a significant proportion of traditional music, along or blending with genres developed during weddings, tribal gatherings and spiritual occasions such as līwa26, tambūra27 and zār. As a consequence, music such as the generic genre known as fann al-baḥri28 has been composed, transmitted and performed primarily by Sumr, music surviving long after the collapse of pearl-diving as a professional practice in the late 1930s. Until this day, numerous heritage bands and groups from Kuwait and Bahrain (Firqat al-ʿĀṣifa, Firqat Amrāch…) performing sea-related repertoires continue to be composed — although not exclusively — of descendants of seafarers. Far thus from constituting a separate genre defined by the culture of origin of those who play it, music performed by Sumr in the Arabian Peninsula covers a diversity of experiences. In addition to a generic use of colloquial Arabic — similar to folk music at large, which might also use historical dialects —, Sub-Saharan African influences in the instruments, rhythms, singing techniques and modes greatly vary from one case to the other, blending in turn with other local or foreign influences29.

  • 30 It can be considered that Paul Rovsing Olsen’s recordings (op-cit.) fall within this category.
  • 31 Despite an absence of information concerning the identity of the chorus, the demographics of sailor (...)
  • 32 It was manufactured in Karachi (Pakistan) by Electrical Recordings, a common practice for Gulf labe (...)
  • 33 Sebiane, 2010.
  • 34 al-Mulaifi, 2021.
  • 35 Rolf Killius defines the dār (Qatar, Bahrain) and diwāniya (Kuwait) as « the performance place for (...)
  • 36 The late Bahraini actor Mahmūd ‘Awā (Fajr yawm ākhar, 1984), part of the cast of the popular Kuwait (...)

8To the exception of recordings for academic purposes30, and 78 rpm discs dating from the early 1950s recorded for Ebrahimphone (Bahrain) by traditional Bahraini nahhām Sanad Bin Ahmad and a chorus of sailors31 performing fann al-baḥri32, traditional repertoires associated with Sumr remain generally non-recorded for commercial audio diffusion. They are rather performed during live occasions, and have increasingly be staged for particular heritage celebrations and national television programmes, as professional practices linked to these repertoires decreased and official national narratives in which traditional music was tightly embedded developed33. Traditional music, and therefore the historical role of Sumr as performers has been integrated into the “authorized heritage discourse”34 put forward over the past decades by authorities in the peninsula (mostly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates). The repertoires have lost their connection with their original surroundings — whether work or rite-related —, both in terms of space and time: in the case of fann al-baḥri performances migrated from public dār and dīwāniyya35 to majlis found in private homes, and are not longer limited to specific occasions either on-board ships or at the beginning and end of the pearl-fishing season. They therefore fully blended into what is more often than not generically referred to as al-fann al-’aṣīl (the authentic art). This newly-labelled category regularly features in popular visual culture such as television series (and in a lesser extent theatre and cinema), where Sumr Gulf nationals, for the same reasons that explain their association with music, are relatively present36.

  • 37 Album ’Inkhad ‘a galbi (date unknown) for instance.
  • 38 Sa‘d Jumu’a, al-zār, Mū’assasat Hānī li-l-’intāj al-fanni wa-l tawzīm (1993).
  • 39 Houssais, 2020.
  • 40 The song « Kam kunti ’ana ahibak » by Sa’d Jumu‘a being one among many other examples.
  • 41 A striking example is late 1980s - early 1990s Farsi and Arabic-language Bahraini band Al Sultaniz (...)

9Beyond traditional repertoires, the predominance of Sumr performers has been sustained with the development of the modern music industry in the peninsula, with a number of established labels such as Kuwait City-based Al-Naẓāʾir, which catalogue features national 1990s superstars Miami Band (Firqat Mayāmī, active since 1991) — whose three out of the four original members were of sub-Saharan African heritage —, Khālid al-Mullā (born 1948)37, or famed Saudi Arabian singer Sa‘d Jumu‘a (active since the early 1980s) known regionally thanks to his appearances on Saudi television programs Taḥt al-’Aḍwā’ and Baqāyā al-’ams, and produced among others by Jeddah company Mū’assasat Hānī li-l-’intāj al-fanni wa-l-tawzīʿ38. However, to the exception of Miami Band, which became famous in the whole Arab world thanks to deals with regional labels Rotana/EMI (2001) and Platinum Records (2011), male Sumr singers have benefited from a more limited and local audience. Beyond live shows in the region, they were produced and distributed by local labels on audiotapes, a cheap and lasting recording and distribution support enabling the development of small independent — and sometimes ad hoc — production companies in the Arab world from the late 1970s that benefited more confidential musical genres or repertoires not deemed of major commercial or official interest39. The unifying effect of the commercial music industry, reinforced by the prescriptive powers of a local mixed audience, has progressively led Sumr artists to integrate a mainstream repertoire of light entertainment songs — with love being a recurring theme40 — similar to that of other Gulf singers, while adopting regional musical trends ranging from standard oriental classical music to more pop experiments, where local dialects and polyrhythms associated with the upper part of the peninsula nonetheless prevail. Without forgetting Sumr musicians — mainly drummers — performing non-Arab regional genres such as bandari41.

Filling the void: ṭaggāgāt or the grounds for a heightened visibility of Samra singers

10Although the association between musical entertainment and Sumr and their subsequent embodiment of traditional music in the peninsula applies indistinctly to male and female performers alike, the latter have come to occupy an even more visible position than the former due to the relative absence of non-Samra artists — especially solo ones. An evolution all the more notable that for centuries Samra performers were restricted to the position of ṭaggāgāt, traditional wedding drummers.

  • 42 In Kuwait for instance, ṭaggāgāt are tasked with welcoming the wedding party into the bride’s pa (...)
  • 43 Ṭāriq & Ḥasnāwī, 2003, Urkevitch 2015 (34), Hardy Campbell, 2021.
  • 44 « Therefore, by the second half of the twentieth century both baduˉ and .ha.dar relied more heavily (...)
  • 45 Urkevitch, 2015, 50.

11From Jamīla, who allegedly founded the music school of Medina in the early 8th century BC to Danānīr, Suʿād, or caliph Yazīd Ibn ‘Abd al-Malik’s favourites Ḥabbāba and Sallāma, female poets and entertainers are a predominant, hugely popular figure in jāhiliyah culture of the Arabian Peninsula that has sustained the advent of Islam (Pellat, 1963) and accompanied the development of an Arab urban culture during the Muslim empires. Usually enslaved people — although some tribeswomen did perform sung poetry —, were trained in poetry, rhetoric, singing and dance that would then be performed in front of their masters and their party, or in front of patrons when emancipation was granted to them (Poché, 2018). Sharīʿa forbidding — in theory — the enslavement of fellow Muslims, female entertainers at large came over the centuries to originate predominantly from the enslaved population living in the region, the majority of whom hailed from sub-Saharan Africa. As an echo of women’s position in Muslim Arabian societies belonging primarily to the private sphere, Samra drum players and group singers referred to as ṭaggāgāt (from the root ṭaqa, "to click" in classical Arabic), have performed mainly during family celebrations, starting with the female-only audiences of wedding parties42 — although some non-Samra women have also been known to perform43, especially in private venues, far from prying eyes. They thus developed a particular repertoire of ghazals, or love songs, suited for the occasion (to the opposition of male-only repertoires, such as fishermen and pearl-divers’). A position still partially held today, as Hayfāʾ al-Manṣūr’s 2020 film Al-murashshaḥa al-mithāliyya (The Perfect Candidate), shows. As enslaved people were sometimes freed, and slavery formally abolished in the 1960s, the ṭaggāgāt became professional singers and musicians — being invited to play at weddings in exchange for goods and/or money44 —, in addition to becoming more diverse in terms of backgrounds45.

  • 46 In territories traditionally belonging to slave-owning tribes and clans. In other communities where (...)
  • 47 Urkevitch, 2015, 56.
  • 48 Urkevitch, 2011.

12It must be noted here that wedding repertoire, although essentially performed by Sumr46, is as much a product of the performers than that of the essentially non-Sumr patrons and mainstream taste, artists, here and there, then and now, complying to what was asked of them in order to gain approval from those who hired them and ensure future commissions. This continues with mainstream Arab (mainly Egyptian) pop songs being integrated into repertoires as a result of clients’ requests47. The themes and references are therefore those of the dominating Arab culture, performers of sub-Saharan African origin acting as “culture transmitters” of a non-specifically Asmar repertoire from one generation to the other. The lyrics, in local colloquial Arabic, are passed on orally and enriched continuously by anonymous artists, weaving into traditional culture and making it extremely difficult — not to say impossible — to identify a particular author. The same goes for the melodies and rhythms, which are the products of multiple exogenous and endogenous influences, although, save for some exceptions, the latter might be indistinguishable to the general public’s ear. Over time, the combination of gender and race gave provided Samra women through ṭaggāgāt, with a niche position in Gulf societies. This was reinforced in the second half of the 20th century when societal changes led to the development of mixed-gender spaces and the birth of the modern music industry through the diffusion of music (both live and recorded) favored the entrance of women into the public sphere. As a result, the visibility of ṭaggāgāt increased as non-Samra female performers shunned these more public events due to criticism and self-censorship48.

  • 49 A ṭaggāgāt is the main character of Riyad Muḥammad al-Muzaynī’s eponymous novel Al-ṭaqqāqa B (...)
  • 50 Two excerpts from undated live performances recorded at a several years interval on Kuwaiti televis (...)
  • 51 This is the case of a video recording allegedly shot in 1966 in Kuwait of ṭaggāga ʿŌda al-Mhannā (...)
  • 52 In the interview conducted for Kuwaiti state television’s program « Layāli al-Kuwait » by journalis (...)
  • 53 One example being MBC’s 2020 drama series al-Dirfa, which features a wedding scene with ṭaggāgāt i (...)
  • 54 Numerous documentaries and interviews of ṭaggāgāt are regularly broadcast on state television cha (...)

13Although ṭaggāgāt remained, like numerous traditional artists, at the margins of the recorded music industry with almost exclusively live performances in private settings, their association with traditional popular culture49 contributed over the decades to their becoming a regular fixture of performed national heritage. Since the late 1950s, abundant television footage from public Kuwaiti channels have regularly featured ṭaggāgāt during musical programs, although the original setting (the cortege welcoming the wedding party into the bride’s parents’ house) and repertoire have been altered: performers can be seated in a jalsa setting and the ensemble is more often than not composed of a female lead singer (who will be identified by her — usually first — name) and female and/or male musicians performing backing vocals, clapping and drumming50. Other selected elements of traditional heritage such as fishing are integrated into the ṭaggāgāt’s performances, through fishing songs and the use of fishing memorabilia as elements of decor51. One could argue whether these female singers can therefore still be considered as stricto sensus ṭaggāgāt. It appears however that they continue to self-refer and be referred to as such52. The traditional aspect of their music and appearance is highlighted, with the ṭaggāgāt usually more conservatively dressed than the lead female singer or other female singers performing a different genre in the same programs. Despite the occasional presence of non-Samra backing performers, the vast majority — and the lead singers — remain of sub-Saharan African descent, as depictions in popular culture (theatre plays, TV series) shows53. At a time of parallel development of modern media and state-building in the Arabian Peninsula (most notably Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar), ṭaggāgāt are thus fully integrated into the making of a defined traditional heritage in states in search of a particular national identity and benefit from official exposure both on-stage and beyond54. It must be noted that, although ṭaggāgāt were instrumental in embodying national culture and heritage, the transnational dimension of their repertoire and audience within the coastal states and regions of the upper Gulf cannot be ignored.

  • 55 According to the documentary mentioned in the previous footnote. Other sources differ, and quote 18 (...)
  • 56 « Folklūria » is the term regularly used in Arabic in such circumstances, indistinctly from « shaʿb (...)
  • 57 Namely the type of orchestra associated with mainstream Egyptian music that became eponymous, throu (...)
  • 58 Including collaborations with Maṭar eif by Muḥammad al-Nashmī and Sekāna Murtah by ʿAbd al-Raḥ (...)
  • 59 Including hits « Farhat al-‘uda », « Habībī Rāh » and « Lī khalīl hasīn ».
  • 60 This larger folkloric repertoire being defined, in the aforementioned documentary about ʿŌda al-Mh (...)

14Among many, Kuwaiti Jawhara Bashīr Ma’yūf al-Mhannā, known as ʿŌda (“The Great”) al-Mhannā (190755-1984) embodies the increased visibility and diversification of the ṭaggāgāt during the second half of the 19th century in the coastal states of the upper Gulf region. The granddaughter of renowned ṭaggāga Khadija al-Mhannā, ʿŌda al-Mhannā sang and trained as a teenager in her maternal aunt Hadiyya al-Mhannā’s ṭaggāgāt ensemble before founding Firqat ʿŌda al-Mhannā, the first professional all-female folkloric56 music band to perform on television and during official events in the 1950s. In addition to a more traditional repertoire, she learned how to play the ʿūd and appeared with local classic Arab singers and music ensembles of the time57. Featuring in television films, stage plays58 and films depicting traditional customs in the late 1950s and 1960s, she performed the first commercial mixed-gender duos with classical Kuwaiti singer Chādi al-Khalīj in 196959. ʿŌda al-Mhannā thus came to perform a more various repertoire than the one traditionally associated with ṭaggāgāt and sang contemporary poets, becoming associated as a result with traditional musical repertoire at large60, with a rendition of a number of songs like “Garga‘an al-awlād”, “Garga‘an al-banāt” (both nursery songs), “Deg al-‘arīs” or the ever popular wedding classic “ʿAlēk saʿīd wi-mbārak”.

  • 61 Such is the title chosen (Lawhāt sha’bia) by Bahraini channel Bahrain TV Zaman to name a number of (...)
  • 62 « Al-fann al aṣil », as used in an amateur reportage and interview by Yasser Darwish of Shamma al- (...)
  • 63 « Al-turāth » and « al-mūsīqa al-taqlīdia al-nisā’ia » from what seems to be unidentified news foot (...)
  • 64 « Al-fann al-shaʿbiyy al-qadīm » or « al-funūn al-nisa’ia al-shaʿbiyya al-qadīma » (« Fann al-murād (...)
  • 65 Source: amateur reportage by Yasser Darwish, op-cit.
  • 66 Such as Al-Jazeera and Princess Al Mayassa Al Thani who posted an announcement on her Twitter accou (...)

15In the footsteps of ʿŌda al-Mhannā a number of bands developed, both in Kuwait and Bahrain, rather homogenous in terms of composition (mixed-gender or collaborating regularly with male music bands, and composed in majority of Sumr performers), instruments used (percussions such as daf, jaḥal, ṭus) and repertoire blending different influences (ṭaggāgāt, ghazal, fijerī, ṣawt, fann al-khammārī, fann al-tanbūra…). Until today, these ensembles, perform what has been referred to as “popular”61 scenes or art, “the original art”62, “the heritage” and “female traditional music”63 or “the ancient popular art”64, along ṭaggāgāt such as Najwa Umm Faysal, Hiām Umm Faysal, Jamīla Khalaf Zeidān, Bassora-born Rabāb (also known as Umm Khāled), or in Bahrain Shamma bint amūd al-‘Umayri, ‘Aysha Idrīs and Shamma al-Khuḍāriyya (daughter of famed singer Fāṭima al-Khadāria) nicknamed “bint al-Baḥrein”65. Relatively more conservative and possessing a less developed musical industry, Qatar is not void of renowned female voices, such as first and foremost Fātma Shadād (born in the 1960s from an artistic family), who regularly appeared on television — both to perform and be interviewed about her art — and whose death in November 2020 was announced both by official media and government accounts66. It must be underlined that while the audience spontaneously and easily refers to these performers as ṭaggāgāt, even today, the latter might not identify as such given the sometimes vulgar (socially speaking), outdated connotation the term carries. Some would prefer to be defined as the head of a folk music band, which grants more respectability through the patrimonialization it conveys.

  • 67 Samīra al-Dūb (Kuwait) being one of the few exceptions.
  • 68 This is the case for instance of her album Al-liwā, featuring the song « Habībī mā huwa al-‘awal » (...)
  • 69 « Yā waylī menoh » (« Faṭṭūma - Yā waylī menoh », YouTube account: AL NAZAER CLIPS, posted on Ju (...)
  • 70 « Wada’tak Allah », date unknown. A live rendition of the song can be found on the following link ( (...)
  • 71 Urkevitch, 2015, 56.

16As the result of the traditional association of Samra performers and folk music and of the lesser visibility — some would say continuous absence — of non-Samra singers67 in a context of patrimonialization of heritage at the domestic level and abroad, some of the former developed careers more similar to other female performers in the Middle East. Kuwaiti singer Faṭṭūma (active since the late 1980s), for instance, is one of the few performers who, clearly positioning herself as an artistic heiress of the ṭaggāgāt, broke from the latter’s economic model of live performances by recording a number of albums, with Al-Naẓāʾir first (1994-2002), followed by regional giants Rotana et Platinium Records. Releasing songs and video clips with clear visual and musical sub-Saharan African references both traditional68 and modern69, she also represented her country on a number of occasions abroad, in Egypt or at the Beijing Opera in 2016 for the 40th anniversary of Chinese-Kuwaiti diplomatic relations. As for fellow countrywoman ‘ysha al-Mārṭa (1931-1978), a regular fixture of the national radio station, she performed both a traditional repertoire and songs that bore no relation to it, should it be patriotic anthems or pieces blending orchestration inspired by classical Arab music, percussions, backing vocals and rhythms traditionally popular in the Gulf and keyboards reminiscent of Western pop music fashionable at the time70. In a distant echo with the ḥaffāl — a music and dance performance enacted by enslaved individuals representing the family or clans to whom they were enslaved during important social events among the upper-class, particularly in Bahrain71 —, artists belonging to a genre and a background associated historically with enslavement are valued within the limited boundaries of physical performance and entertainment whose practice remains frowned upon, however popular attending or organizing events where they perform is.

Samra pop singers: breaking free from the authorized discourse?

  • 72 « Law lā al-jumhūr, ma kount ‘Itāb » (« ‘Āl-makshūf ‘Itāb qabl wafātihā - Akhr liqā’ ma’a al-mutrib (...)

17Although Faṭṭūma and ‘ysha al-Mārṭa can be considered as pioneers by professionally existing outside traditional settings (organic or institutionalized) reserved to Samra singers — and female singers in general —, they remained not only in the realms of authorized performance, both in terms of content and appearance, but also did not achieve massive popularity outside of the peninsula. This makes ‘Itāb, the first female pop singer from the Gulf to be renowned in the Middle East, in a context of withdrawal of official support from Saudi authorities, a singular case. As she once expressed in an interview: “If it weren’t for the public I would not be ‘Itāb”72. Labelled an icon reminiscent of pre-1979 Saudi Arabia, her career and fame is as impactful as it falls short of breaking boundaries for artists, regardless of their gender or ethnic origin.

  • 73 Contradictory sources were found as to where ‘Itāb was born, some stating Jeddah while other affirm (...)
  • 74 including as a co-presenter and singer on satellite channel Orbit’s program Jalsat ṭarab with Kuwa (...)
  • 75 The telefilm however was not broadcast (Source: « Barnāmaj al-rāḥil: ta’raf ‘ala fīlm (‘Itāb rā’id (...)

18Born Tarūf ‘Abd al-Kheir Ādam Muḥammad al-Talāl Hawsāwi73, ‘Itāb (1947-2007) started singing at weddings and parties from an early age and ventured into the mainstream music industry upon her discovery by renowned Saudi composer alāl Maddāḥ (1940-2000) — who gave her her stage name — in the early 1960s. She recorded albums in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, but it was her regular appearances on Kuwaiti television (mainly in a more traditional jalsa setting, including a duo with Saudi poet, ‘ūd player and singer Ḥaydar Fikrī, also Sumr, and visually impaired) that made her a regional household name. For both personal (her husband, an Egyptian national who worked for the Saudi government, moved back to his home country) and political (increased State conservatism following the 1979 Grand Mosque seizure led to a crackdown on pop artists) ‘Itāb settled down in Egypt where she had already gained popularity, having been invited by ‘Abdelḥalim āfeẓ to sings in one of his concerts in the early 1970s. It is in Cairo, the capital of the newly emerging Arab pop, that she achieved stardom and regional visibility, with “Gāni al-asmar” (1985, composed by Fawzī Maḥsūn) becoming her most famous song in the whole region, along with hits such as “Basharūni (khabrūni) ‘anki ma yadrūni ‘anni” or “Bada’ yaḥebni yaḥebni tuwa tuwa” (1999). A one-time venue owner in Cairo’s cabaret district, she also made regular appearances on Egyptian television, through musical performances 74and interviews mainly but also starring in the telefilm ‘Itāb rā’idat faḍāʾ75 with actress Fāyza Kamāl. Although suffering from important material issues ‘Itāb remained a public figure, releasing a final album in 2003 a few years before her death. ‘Itāb’s success can be explained by a number of factors, either related to the structure of the musical industry in which she evolved or to the musical choices she made. First of all, before moving to Cairo, her career unfolded mainly in Kuwait City and Jeddah (and in a lesser extent Riyadh) which were, until the early 1980s, hubs of the Gulf modern music industry. A situation resulting from the presence of media such as radio and television and recording companies caused in turn — among other factors — by the high population density characteristic of urban centers and a relatively more liberal society, which favored the presence and visibility of artists.

  • 76 Song from unidentified television footage from the early 1990s (« ‘Itāb - ḥafla fī Masr », YouTube (...)
  • 77 Including Thorayā Qābel, areq ‘Abd al-akim, aleḥ Jalāl, Muḥammad Shafīq, ‘Abd al-Laṭīf al-B (...)
  • 78 Distributed in 1989 by Funūn al-Jazīra (Jeddah). ‘Itāb mentions her collaboration with alāl Maddā (...)
  • 79 Ittiḥād al-Fannānīn al-ʿArab (The Arab Artists Union), Niqābat al-mihan al- mūsiqiyya (Cairo M (...)
  • 80 During such televised jalsa in 1997 broadcast on Kuwaiti national channel under the title al-Fann a (...)
  • 81 Unidentified television footage of a concert in Lebanon in 1998 (« Al-fanāna ‘Itāb Jani al-asmar mi (...)
  • 82 Ubīrīt Ummat al-ʿArab.
  • 83 Unidentified video footage of a live concert in seemingly Egypt, unknown date ("‘Itāb - Jāni al-asm (...)

19Secondly, ‘Itāb’s popularity relies on her ability to have become a mainstream Arab pop artist with a strong Saudi identity. Her songs fully integrated the musical dynamics of her time, starting with standard Egyptian rhythms and melodies (albeit with pop arrangements contrasting with the choice of lyrics in classical Arabic for “Fukka l-quyūd”), blending them with more local rhythms (“Ghurabā’”), or venturing into trendier styles76. Her frequent collaborations with renowned Gulf composers and lyricists77 (starting with alāl Maddāḥ, with whom she recorded an entire duo album featuring the hit “Zall al-ṭarab”78) not only ensured her integration into the influential artistic circles of the times, but also contributed to the homogenous character of her music compared to that of her contemporaries. The same dynamic applies to ‘Itāb’s association with major recording and distribution companies (Al-Naẓāʾir in Kuwait, followed from 1987 to 2003 by Funūn al-Jazīra, Relax-In / UAP), enabling her to have access to better production, including for her infamous “‘Itāb Show”, a series of live video-clips released on video tapes, and in which she appeared in the flamboyant costumes that contributed to her fame. This integration into the contemporary music industry, along with her membership to a number of regional and Egyptian professional organizations and unions79, contributed to her visibility and recognition by media. Deeply marked by the musical surroundings of her beginnings, she retained her Saudi accent and dialect while singing, performed numerous songs based on polyrhythms associated with Gulf music. Well integrated into the mainstream Arabic music spheres, ‘Itāb regularly appeared in televised jalsāt shot and broadcast on Kuwaiti television along with traditional drum bands (such as Firqat May‘ūf al-sha‘bī) and fellow Sumr singers like Khālid al-Mullā, often appearing as the only solo female performer of the evening80. As such, and despite her inability to continue her career in her home country after 1979, ‘Itāb embodied the voice of Saudi Arabia in the Arab musical landscape of her time, performing in Egypt, Kuwait but also Lebanon81, and releasing in 1990 an album dedicated to the “Arab nation”82. While the clothes she wore on-stage reflected global fashion of the time rather than Saudi traditional female costumes, and while she always performed bareheaded, she nonetheless accompanied her appearances with body gestures reminiscing of traditional female dance in Saudi Arabia and the upper Gulf83. Depending on the context her companions would be dressed differently: in a concert or videoclip format her dancers did not wear what was perceived as traditional standard Saudi clothes, contrary to backing vocalists in a jalsa setting.

  • 84 In contrast to the current trend, ‘Itāb appeared for instance on regular occasions wearing braids, (...)

20It appears that ‘Itāb’s Asmar lineage and musical heritage was integrated, in the eyes of the Saudi and foreign public, into an all-encompassing Saudi identity, race being mentioned in passing through the occasional nickname attributed to her, “al-samra”. Reports about her, including after her death, do not specify her origins, which reaffirms the concept of invisible visibility developed earlier in this paper, while also calling for more thorough and specified research about perception and self-perception of Sumr in the Gulf. Although no evidence of self-identification by ‘Itāb as Samra was found, it must be noted that she made no attempt at modifying her appearance to hide her heritage and pass as non-Samra by straightening her hair, wearing wigs or whiten her skin, a common phenomenon among Sumr singers nowadays84. It would therefore be simplistic to assume that ‘Itāb radically changed the way Sumr performers in particular, and Samra women in general, are perceived.

  • 85 Hijāzi poetess, journalist, ‘ūd player and singer Tūḥa (born 1934 or 1943 in al-Aḥsa’ according t (...)
  • 86 ‘Ūd player and singer Ibtisām Luṭfi (born 1950 in Ta’if) is another example, albeit in a more clas (...)
  • 87 Dāliya Mubārak’s biggest hit, « Illī yamshī ‘ādī » released on May 20th 2021 on her official YouTub (...)
  • 88 The song, paying tribute to Saudi football club Al-Nasr and released in 2014 on national television (...)
  • 89 The Latin alphabet version of the name that she uses is Kadejah Moaath, as her YouTube account KADE (...)
  • 90 Produced by Rotana and posted on its channel in May 2021.
  • 91 A striking example being the videoclip of Tunisian singer Latifa’s « Nārek khattab » (2011).
  • 92 Although her more recent performances are closer to standard Arab pop, she relied heavily on local (...)

21Moreover, ‘Itāb is neither the first85, nor the only86 renowned Saudi female singer of the second half of the 20th century. We can thus argue that ’Itāb, however iconic she has been due partly to the pre-1979 era she continued to embody after her eviction from Saudi Arabia, and to the absence of other internationally-known Saudi female singers, had a limited impact on the gender and race power dynamics of the contemporary musical industry. Pop music in the Gulf remains dominated by men, both in terms of popularity (in Saudi Arabia, Ṣāliḥ Māniʿ or ’Ayeḍ’s songs gather dozens of millions of views on social media, figures only matched extremely recently by Dāliya Mubārak87) and integration into national musical Pantheons (with alāl Maddāḥ, Muḥammad ’Abdū and Abū Bākr Sālem in Saudi Arabia and usseyn al-Jasmī in the UAE). Many prominent women artists in Gulf pop music over the past twenty years have either been foreigners (with, following in the footsteps of ‘Aziza Jalāl, Moroccan singers such as Mona al-Marshā or Asma’ Lmnawar), or were of mixed heritage: Kuwaiti-Saudi for singer Shams, of “Nasrūnī lā takelemnī”88 fame (who was born in Kuwait from a Kuwaiti mother and a Saudi father) or Asmar heritage for Bahraini Hind al-Bahrenia and Saudi Khadīja Muʿādh89, Dalāl al-Ṣaghīra, Dāliyāa Mubārak and Mūḍī al-Shamrāni (born in Jeddah, active on YouTube since 2016). Although very far away from traditional ṭaggāga repertoire, Wa’d, born in 1976 from Saudi radio and television personality — himself of Asmar heritage — Bakr Yūnis, features, in a fierce contrast with the aesthetics of her late 2000s hit “Hada illi bagi”, ṭaggāgāt in a rural setting in the clip of her latest song “Adla’ ‘aleyk”90. As for Sumr male singers, they have been totally absent from the mainstream pop scene, apart from supporting dancing, drum playing and back vocals role in video clips91 and live performances in traditional jalsa settings. ‘Itāb nonetheless contributed to the popularity and visibility of Gulf music in the Arab musical landscape, as well as paved the way to other female singers from the Gulf mixing mainstream Arab pop with local influences such as Emirati Aḥlam (born in Abu Dhabi in 1968)92.

  • 93 Saudi taggāgāt Umm ’Ayed (who has regularly appeared on Gulf television channels over the year and (...)
  • 94 « Sulṭāna al-Khamīs ma’a al-fanāna Dalāl al-Ṣaghīra », YouTube channel: Sā’at shabāb, posted on O (...)
  • 95 « Ya reyt kān el intiqād ’alā sawtī aw la aghāni. Bil ’aks kān tanammur, ’ala idānī, ’ala lōnī » (« (...)

22Despite a continued media interest for taggāgāt as features of daily culture in the Gulf93, Asmar heritage remains an "elephant in the room", an unspoken acknowledgement by society at large characterized both by the heterogenous experiences of the Sumr through time that makes it difficult to pinpoint defining features of a unified culture, and the idea among progressive circles that, these individuals being fully considered as locals, one cannot single them out, despite a clear othering on behalf of some non-Sumr Gulf nationals. In October 2020, Samra Saudi singer Dalāl al-Ṣaghīra, interviewed by Sulṭāna al-Khamīs for Rotana Khalijia’s talk show Sā’at Chabāb94, confessed indeed having been subjected to racist abuse when she developed a social media presence as a performer95. Mekka-based rapper Aṣāyel al-Bīshī (also known as her stage name Asayel Slay) also suffered online abused on the grounds of her Asmar heritage — in addition to being threatened with legal prosecution by the Saudi authorities on the grounds of insulting Saudi women — when she published the video clip of her song “Bint Mekka” (The Girl from Mecca). It must be said however that censorship targeted Asayel Slay as a rapper and author of lyrics deemed unsuitable: her skin color, although a subject of online trolling, was not the reason of the crackdown, and numerous artists and pro-human rights activists, regardless of race, have been the target of official repression. However, engaging for Sumr performers with non-mainstream or partially mainstreamized forms of music such as trap, rap and hip-hop leads to a double marginalization both on the basis of ethnicity — or perceived as such — and music genre: if the artists mentioned in this paper were able to express themselves and build a successful career, they were able to do so by remaining within authorized boundaries and limiting themselves to certain themes and contents.

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Notes

1 « Taʿallaqa qalbī », attributed to the mythical anteislamic Najdi poet Imruʾ al-Qays b. Ḥujr al-Kindī and recorded by Saudi singer Talāl Maddāḥ, 1940-2000 AD.

2 There has been cases of Caucasian enslaved people from Eastern Europe or Caucasus, although numbers very extremely few in comparison.

3 Official records of British Agencies in the Gulf refer to 950 manumission applications from enslaved people from 1921 to 1946 (Zdanowski, 2015, 62). In Saudi Arabia, slavery was formally abolished in 1962, but human rights organisations and media regularly alert on the situation of foreign domestic workers from Africa, the Indian sub-continent and the Philippines in the region akin to modern-day slavery, including trading platforms (Owen Pinnell & Jess Kelly, « Slave markets found on Instagram and other apps », BBC News Arabic, October 31st 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50228549)

4 Reilly, 2015.

5 « Memories of slavery in Saudi Arabia », communication by Faisal Abualhassan (John Hopkins University / King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies) in conversation with M’hamed Oualdi (Sciences Po), Centre français de recherche de la péninsule arabique (CEFREPA), November 10th 2021 (online event).

6 De Regt, 2010, Ngeh and Pelican, 2018.

7 Hall, 2017. It must be noted that the former « the marginalized ones » is employed by the people concerned, while the latter « the servants » is a derogatory term used by outsiders to the community.

8 Sebiane, 2016. Although this term (zinjī pl. zunūj) was historically used in this specific context, it must be noted that in the wider Gulf region it is now perceived as deeply unsuitable and derogatory.

9 Referring to the situation in the 1930s, and basing himself on records from the British Agencies in the Gulf, Zdanowski (2015, 74) mentions free-born Sumr sold as slaves by relatives for financial reasons.

10 Quoting J.G. Lorimer’s early 20th-century survey, Zdanowski (2015, 64-65) states that enslaved people and their descendants accounted for 25% of the population of the Trucial Coast (modern-day United Arab Emirates), Qatar and Bahrain, although lower figures from other sources (66) are presented.

11 Although the situation might obviously differ from one region or tribe to the other, it was common for Arab men to contract secondary marriages with enslaved people, thus fostering children bearing their father’s name and belonging to the family chain, albeit in a usually less favorable position than children born from women perceived as ethnically Arab, especially if they came from a recognised tribe. Enslaved people would also be kept as concubines, resulting in mixed-heritage children.

12 Meaning « dark-skinned » or « dark-haired », widely used in music and poetry as a neutral or praising term.

13 One century and a half after the Imam of Oman Saif bin Sultan’s victory over the Portuguese in Mombasa in 1698, Said bin Sultan moved his court from Muscat to Zanzibar, before the sultanate was divided into the sultanate of Muscat and Oman and the sultanate of Zanzibar in the 1850s. In the Arabian Peninsula as a whole, a small number of tradesmen and Muslim pilgrims from Eastern Africa may have settled down over time, but would have been too few to challenge the regional narrative and perception of individuals of sub-Saharan African origin as other than enslaved people or their descendants. See Sudanese author ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Baraka Sākin’s novel Samāhānī (2017) for a literary take on the dynamics and conflicts between a « white » Arab identity and a « black » sub-Saharan African identity.

14 Chaudhury, 1985, De Silva Jayasuriya, 2008, Hopper, 2015, Hopper, 2018.

15 Richter, Wordsworth and Walmsley, 2011, Reilly, 2015.

16 Mulaifi, 2021, Al-Tee, 2005.

17 Interviewees (Gulf nationals and residents) stress that in their experience Gulf nationals of sub-Saharan African origin identify in terms of their country (Saudi, Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Qatari…), and sometimes of their city or region (particularly in the case of Saudi Arabia), but never in terms of race or origin (phone and face-to-face interviews conducted over the summer of 2021).

18 It can indeed be argued that Sumr face obstacles in terms of access to economic and political leadership that is partially dictated by kinship and proximity with the ruling clans.

19 Such as the ‘arḍah, a collective male dance. A video produced by the Misk Foundation is very representative of the elements of traditional Saudi folklore that authorities wish to highlight as part of their national identity (« Salāyel Urkestra al-‘Arda al-sa’udia », YouTube channel: Misk Foundation, posted on September 22nd 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hr9Y_XYeb2w (Accessed: 11 January 2024)). Bearing aesthetically an uncanny ressemblance to Woodkid’s « Iron » video clip, the original featured Western classical music, although a remix with Albanian DJ Gimi-O’s « Habibi » Tiktok hit (« DJ Gimi-O × Habibi [Slowed] || Sword Dance Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia », YouTube channel: Husna, posted on November 17th 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rl4fHm6zg7s (Accessed: 11 January 2024)) proved much more popular.

20 Usually Nubia, the Swahili coast and historical Abyssinia, although the region of origin does not play a role in the arguments developed in this paper (musicologists though will be able to draw connections between certain rhythms, instruments and melodies found in the Peninsula and those found in these various regions).

21 From Rovsing Olsen (2002), whose field recordings in Bahrain were edited in vinyl format by French label Ocora under the title Pêcheurs De Perles Et Musiciens Du Golfe Persique (1968) to Habib Hassan Touma’s liner notes for Bahrain – Fidjeri: Songs of the Pearl Divers (Auvidis, 1992) or the more recent Nahma: A Gulf Polyphony/ Nahma: ta’dad al-ghina’ al-khaliji published by FLEE (2021).

22 Mulaifi, 2021.

23 Coline Houssais, « “The enduring “integrated marginality” of Gypsies in Middle Eastern entertainment circles, from Djezireh Bedouin camps to Dubai cabarets », Culture Made in Arabia, International Conference, CEFREPA/NYU Abu Dhabi/Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, April 5th-8th 2021.

24 Mermier, 1997.

25 A « fann al baḥri subgenre in which women sing, clap their hands, play the ṭār drum and dance » is said to have existed, although « hardly researched and nearly extinct today » (Killius, 2017).

26 Sebiane, 2014, Bilkhair, 2021.

27 Boulos & Ayari, 2021.

28 Literally « the art of the sea » or « maritime art », composed of seatrade-related work songs.

29 Rolf Killius for instance argues that the lengthy rhythm cycles of the fann al baḥri similar to those found in religious music in Kerala, a region in India that has been in regular contact over the centuries with the peninsula (Killius, 2017). See also The Garland Encyclopaedia of world music, New York, Garland Publishers (2002, 16à.

30 It can be considered that Paul Rovsing Olsen’s recordings (op-cit.) fall within this category.

31 Despite an absence of information concerning the identity of the chorus, the demographics of sailors in Bahrain at the time make it impossible for Sumr not to be represented.

32 It was manufactured in Karachi (Pakistan) by Electrical Recordings, a common practice for Gulf labels as the regional disc industry bore more links with British India than Europe, the second nearest disc manufacturing centre.

33 Sebiane, 2010.

34 al-Mulaifi, 2021.

35 Rolf Killius defines the dār (Qatar, Bahrain) and diwāniya (Kuwait) as « the performance place for work related and non-work related songs » which was « often only a small hut at the beach, where sailors met to chat, drink tea and coffee, and foremost to make music and sing » (Killius, 2017).

36 The late Bahraini actor Mahmūd ‘Awā (Fajr yawm ākhar, 1984), part of the cast of the popular Kuwaiti series al-Falta (2011-2012) broadcast on MBC 1, appears for instance in a scene featuring fann al-baḥri that was entitled « Fann al-’aṣīl » (official title of the excerpt posted by MBC group on their YouTube channel on August 7th 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nu0QUr0TG1E).

37 Album ’Inkhad ‘a galbi (date unknown) for instance.

38 Sa‘d Jumu’a, al-zār, Mū’assasat Hānī li-l-’intāj al-fanni wa-l tawzīm (1993).

39 Houssais, 2020.

40 The song « Kam kunti ’ana ahibak » by Sa’d Jumu‘a being one among many other examples.

41 A striking example is late 1980s - early 1990s Farsi and Arabic-language Bahraini band Al Sultaniz (Firqat al-Sulṭanīz), whose albums were produced by Al-Naẓāʾir.

42 In Kuwait for instance, ṭaggāgāt are tasked with welcoming the wedding party into the bride’s parents’ house, as Chelhod explains "Un deuxième orchestre composé uniquement de négresses tambourineuses, les « taggagât », attend le cortège dans la maison de la mariée » (« A second orchestra composed solely of drum-playing black women, the « taggagât », waits for the wedding party in the bride’s house ») (Chelhod, 1956, 258).

43 Ṭāriq & Ḥasnāwī, 2003, Urkevitch 2015 (34), Hardy Campbell, 2021.

44 « Therefore, by the second half of the twentieth century both baduˉ and .ha.dar relied more heavily on hired female drummer-singers, ṭaggāgāt, who before the 1960s and abolition of slavery were for the most part black slaves » (Urkevitch, 2015, 30).

45 Urkevitch, 2015, 50.

46 In territories traditionally belonging to slave-owning tribes and clans. In other communities where the practice was not less common — including for economic reasons —, same-sex female entertainment was undertaken by Bedouin woman (Urkevich, 2011 & 2015).

47 Urkevitch, 2015, 56.

48 Urkevitch, 2011.

49 A ṭaggāgāt is the main character of Riyad Muḥammad al-Muzaynī’s eponymous novel Al-ṭaqqāqa Bakhīta (2011).

50 Two excerpts from undated live performances recorded at a several years interval on Kuwaiti television by ṭaggāga Nūra show these different mixed and same-sex settings: the first is recorded in the same traditional diwān venue as a concert by Saudi pop singer ‘Etāb, date unknown (« Nura qāyd al-ghizlān », YouTube account Ali Jumah, posted on October 22nd 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2vq5I0Jo4g (Accessed: 1 December 2023), while the second, probably a television studio, features a large reduced model of a fishing boat reminiscent of the national heritage such performances are meant to convey (« Muṭriba shaʿbiyya kuwaitia raḥt yūm al-ṭabīb », YouTube account Ali Jumah, posted on October 22nd 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfejXSqhEPc (Accessed: 11 January 2024).

51 This is the case of a video recording allegedly shot in 1966 in Kuwait of ṭaggāga ʿŌda al-Mhannā performing one of her most famous songs « Tūb tūb yā baḥr » where the singer addresses the sea and asks it for the safe return of sailors, naming the men one by one, while making gestures reminiscent of fishermen’s activities. Two ṭaggāgāt (Nūrā and Nūra) appear in a studio setting underneath a large reduced model of a fishing boat in what seems to be television footage from the 1980s (« Nūrā asmar ḥelū qābilatihi », YouTube account saaa64, posted on February 22nd 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hfcB1nvKoU (Accessed: 11 January 2024)).

52 In the interview conducted for Kuwaiti state television’s program « Layāli al-Kuwait » by journalist Saū’d Al-Muzaī’l of Hiām Um Faysal (« Saū’d Al-Muzaī’l ma’a al-fanāna Hiām Um Faysal fī layālī al-kuwait », YouTube account soudalmuzaiel, posted on March 2nd 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrYExXsOHaM&t (Accessed: 11 January 2024)), the former uses indistinctly the term « fanāna al-shaʿbiyya » and « taggāga ».

53 One example being MBC’s 2020 drama series al-Dirfa, which features a wedding scene with ṭaggāgāt in a traditional setting (« Mā ajmalaha wa ajmal ḥudūraha al mabhaj… al-taggāga al-lati tabhaj al ḥudūr… w lakin mawqif ukhtaha gheir », YouTube account MBC Drama, posted on August 16th 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=707SrZHtbaw (Accessed: 11 January 2024)).

54 Numerous documentaries and interviews of ṭaggāgāt are regularly broadcast on state television channels (in Kuwait for instance, an extensive programme about Um Ziyād was produced by state channel Al-Qurain (« Sahra ma’a al-fanāna Um Ziyād wa firqatiha al-jawz’ al-thāni taqdīm sahām mubārak », YouTube channel Al-Kuwait zamān, posted on March 29th 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot7esSIMzKE (Accessed: 1 December 2023)), as was ʿŌda al-Mhannā (« Liqā’ qadim ma’a ʿŌda al-Mhannā fi manziliha bi-barnamāj lilmashāhid ma’a al-taḥia taqdim ‘Abd Allah al-Mahaylān »), YouTube account jalili99 KUWAIT, posted on March 9th 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=yl58qQb-VOA (Accessed: 11 January 2024))

55 According to the documentary mentioned in the previous footnote. Other sources differ, and quote 1899 as her year of birth.

56 « Folklūria » is the term regularly used in Arabic in such circumstances, indistinctly from « shaʿbiyya » (popular).

57 Namely the type of orchestra associated with mainstream Egyptian music that became eponymous, through its more famous figures (Ūm Kulthūm, Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Wahḥāb, ‘Abd al-alīm āfeẓ to quote but a few) after the 1932 Cairo Congress for Arab Music, with classical Arab music — in opposition to the takht.

58 Including collaborations with Maṭar eif by Muḥammad al-Nashmī and Sekāna Murtah by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Ḍuwayḥī.

59 Including hits « Farhat al-‘uda », « Habībī Rāh » and « Lī khalīl hasīn ».

60 This larger folkloric repertoire being defined, in the aforementioned documentary about ʿŌda al-Mhannā, as « jami’at alwān al-aghāni al-shaʿbiyya », or the « the variety of shades taken by popular songs ».

61 Such is the title chosen (Lawhāt sha’bia) by Bahraini channel Bahrain TV Zaman to name a number of videos of the ṭaggāga Chamma Al-khadāria — among other artists — posted on their YouTube account of the same name. Other examples from the same channel include « Fann al-murādā - min al-funūn al-cha’bia al-qadīma ». Another example are the interviews conducted for Kuwaiti state television’s programme « Layālī al-Kuwait » by journalist Sa’ūd Al-Muzaī’l of Najwā ("Sa’ūd Al-Muzaī’l ma’a Najwā Um Faysal fi barnāmaj Layālī al-Kuwait », Youtube account soudalmuzaiel, October 22nd 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=yref0sT6wMI (Accessed: 11 January 2024))) and Hiām Um Faysal ("Sa’ūd Al-Muzaī’l ma’a al-fanāna Hiām Um Faysal fī barnāmaj Layālī al-Kuwait", Youtube account soudalmuzaiel, posted on March 2nd 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrYExXsOHaM&t (Accessed: 11 January 2024))), as well as Jamīla Khalaf Zeidān ("Sa’ūd Al-Muzaī’l, dahan ‘ūd liqā’ ma’a Jamila Khalaf Zeidān, Layālī al-Kuwait 2017", YouTube account soudalmuzaiel, posted on October 10th 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8Ga6rJjIFU (Accessed: 11 January 2024))).

62 « Al-fann al aṣil », as used in an amateur reportage and interview by Yasser Darwish of Shamma al-Khuḍāriyya (« Liqā’ Bu Khalaf ma’a al fanāna al-sha’bia Shamma al-Khuḍāriyya »), www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuVXLkp0zDE (Accessed: 11 January 2024), under the terms « Hazihi hiya fanāna al-aslia al-baḥrainia », but also in another excerpt from a musical evening entitled « 1997 AD Jūda ‘ālia tiah afkāri ghazāl dā’ Umm Faysal share al-fann al-asīl wa al-zamān al-jamīl » (YouTube account jalili99 KUWAIT, posted on May 21st 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QYl3BtsRM4&t=55s (Accessed: 11 January 2024))

63 « Al-turāth » and « al-mūsīqa al-taqlīdia al-nisā’ia » from what seems to be unidentified news footage (« Fīlm qasīr ‘an ḥayāt al-fanāna al-qataria Fāṭima Shadād raḥmaha Allah », YouTube account Al-mukhrij Muḥammad Salāma, posted on January 10th 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=00E6lW8PkNg (Accessed: 11 January 2024))

64 « Al-fann al-shaʿbiyy al-qadīm » or « al-funūn al-nisa’ia al-shaʿbiyya al-qadīma » (« Fann al-murādā min al-funūn al-nisā’ia al-sha’bia al-qadīma », YouTube account Bahrain TV Zaman, posted on February 7th 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj_B9SHgFWM (Accessed: 11 January 2024))

65 Source: amateur reportage by Yasser Darwish, op-cit.

66 Such as Al-Jazeera and Princess Al Mayassa Al Thani who posted an announcement on her Twitter account (https://www.aljazeera.net/news/arts/2020/11/23/الحفاظ-على-التراث-كان-هدفها-وفاة on November 23rd 2020)

67 Samīra al-Dūb (Kuwait) being one of the few exceptions.

68 This is the case for instance of her album Al-liwā, featuring the song « Habībī mā huwa al-‘awal » (« Faṭṭūma - Habībī mā huwa al-‘awal », YouTube account: AL NAZAER CLIPS, posted on May 23th 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWzdYfGYa-8 (Accessed: 11 January 2024)).

69 « Yā waylī menoh » (« Faṭṭūma - Yā waylī menoh », YouTube account: AL NAZAER CLIPS, posted on July 22nd 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=oeUzXhXQANo (Accessed: 11 January 2024)).

70 « Wada’tak Allah », date unknown. A live rendition of the song can be found on the following link (« ‘ysha al-Mārṭa - Ughnia wada’tak Allah », YouTube account: hummer15al, posted on December 18th 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFQ24P6Digw (Accessed: 11 January 2024)).

71 Urkevitch, 2015, 56.

72 « Law lā al-jumhūr, ma kount ‘Itāb » (« ‘Āl-makshūf ‘Itāb qabl wafātihā - Akhr liqā’ ma’a al-mutriba ‘Itāb », date and source unknown, YouTube account Dureyd ‘Abd al-Wahhāb qanāt 1, posted on July 8th 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZbaJxe4WdA (Accessed: 11 January 2024)).

73 Contradictory sources were found as to where ‘Itāb was born, some stating Jeddah while other affirming Riyadh.

74 including as a co-presenter and singer on satellite channel Orbit’s program Jalsat ṭarab with Kuwaiti poet and media personality Badr Būrasli.

75 The telefilm however was not broadcast (Source: « Barnāmaj al-rāḥil: ta’raf ‘ala fīlm (‘Itāb rā’ida fadā’) al-film al-waḥid lilfanāna al-rāḥila ‘Itāb », footage from TV channel Rotana Al-Khalijia, date unknown, YouTube account: Khalījia, posted on May 19th 2019, last accessed on October 10th 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaKm6pDj32k (Accessed: 11 January 2024))

76 Song from unidentified television footage from the early 1990s (« ‘Itāb - ḥafla fī Masr », YouTube account: Marwa & zikrayāt min ‘omr fāt, posted on March 3rd 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uy7VWg8GfFo (Accessed: 11 January 2024)).

77 Including Thorayā Qābel, areq ‘Abd al-akim, aleḥ Jalāl, Muḥammad Shafīq, ‘Abd al-Laṭīf al-Bannā, useīn al-Muḥḍar, Yūsef al-Muhanā, Yūsef Nāṣer and Fāiq ‘Abd al-Jalīl.

78 Distributed in 1989 by Funūn al-Jazīra (Jeddah). ‘Itāb mentions her collaboration with alāl Maddāḥ in an unidentified video interview (« Min al-qadīm : al-fanāna al-sa’ūdia al-rāḥila ‘Itāb tataḥadath ‘an sawt al-ard al rāḥil alāl Maddāḥ », YouTube account: The Faith of Places, posted on January 2nd 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R2bj8MHULg (Accessed: 11 January 2024)).

79 Ittiḥād al-Fannānīn al-ʿArab (The Arab Artists Union), Niqābat al-mihan al- mūsiqiyya (Cairo Musical Professions Syndicate), Majmū’at fanānīn al-Gīza (Giza Artist Association).

80 During such televised jalsa in 1997 broadcast on Kuwaiti national channel under the title al-Fann al-’Aṣīl,‘Itāb recalls her strong attachement to Kuwait, having performed her first concert in the country (« 1997 AD Jūda ‘ālia tiah afkāri ghazāl dā’ Um Faysal share al-fann al-asīl wa al-zamān al-jamīl », YouTube account: jalili99 KUWAIT, posted on June 22nd 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqzVFt4_HDU (Accessed: 11 January 2024)).

81 Unidentified television footage of a concert in Lebanon in 1998 (« Al-fanāna ‘Itāb Jani al-asmar min sahrāt Obirīt al-mumayyaza Lubnān 1997 AD », YouTube account: Machmoum FM, posted on April 10th 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6afj3P0e9I (Accessed: 1 December 2023))

82 Ubīrīt Ummat al-ʿArab.

83 Unidentified video footage of a live concert in seemingly Egypt, unknown date ("‘Itāb - Jāni al-asmar - hafla Masr », YouTube channel: Ahmad al-Chadāyda, posted on February 28th 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaXzT87LU5U (Accessed: 1 December 2023))

84 In contrast to the current trend, ‘Itāb appeared for instance on regular occasions wearing braids, or an « Afro » hairstyle, such as during a rendition of « Jāni al-Asmar » (« Jāni al-Asmar ‘Itāb ‘azaf nāy Reda Badīr », YouTube account: Reda Bedair, posted on September 29th 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcL3k14Pw5I (Accessed: 1 December 2023)).

85 Hijāzi poetess, journalist, ‘ūd player and singer Tūḥa (born 1934 or 1943 in al-Aḥsa’ according to sources), who collaborated both with Ibtisām Luṭfi and ‘Itāb, as well as with Talal Maddaḥ.

86 ‘Ūd player and singer Ibtisām Luṭfi (born 1950 in Ta’if) is another example, albeit in a more classical genre inspired by mid-century Egyptian singers such as Umm Kalthūm, whose composer Riāḍ al-Sunbaṭi collaborated with her.

87 Dāliya Mubārak’s biggest hit, « Illī yamshī ‘ādī » released on May 20th 2021 on her official YouTube channel, has been viewed more than 52 millions times at the time of writing (YouTube account: Dalia, www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxEIFC-zbXA (Accessed: 1 December 2023)). It bears however no musical or linguistic influence from the Gulf, and rather ressembles standard Arab pop.

88 The song, paying tribute to Saudi football club Al-Nasr and released in 2014 on national television, was one of the first supporter songs performed by a female artist in the region. Shams’s biggest hit remains « Iṭaq iṣba‘ » with 42 million views (for the version posted on February 9th 2018).

89 The Latin alphabet version of the name that she uses is Kadejah Moaath, as her YouTube account KADEJAHMOOATH (created in 2020) shows.

90 Produced by Rotana and posted on its channel in May 2021.

91 A striking example being the videoclip of Tunisian singer Latifa’s « Nārek khattab » (2011).

92 Although her more recent performances are closer to standard Arab pop, she relied heavily on local visual and musical references, as the clip of her hit « Gūl ’anī mā tagūl » (1997) shows.

93 Saudi taggāgāt Umm ’Ayed (who has regularly appeared on Gulf television channels over the year and has become a television personality) and Marām al-Yāmi were interviewed at length on Rotana Khalijia’s female talk show Sayidati (« Umm ’Ayed wa Marām al-Yāmi .. Faqra khāsa jiddan min sayyidati »), YouTube channel: Barnāmaj Sayyidati - Rotana Khalijia, posted on May 14th 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Id-ujUZSVVw (Accessed: 11 January 2024).

94 « Sulṭāna al-Khamīs ma’a al-fanāna Dalāl al-Ṣaghīra », YouTube channel: Sā’at shabāb, posted on October 20th 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1I54mQMVko&t=275s (Accessed: 11 January 2024).

95 « Ya reyt kān el intiqād ’alā sawtī aw la aghāni. Bil ’aks kān tanammur, ’ala idānī, ’ala lōnī » (« If only criticism was about my voice or my songs. But on the contrary I have been harassed because [of the color] of my hands, because of the color [of my skin] »), see previous footnote for reference.

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Coline Houssais, « “Visible invisibility”: from traditional ṭaggāgāt to Samra female pop stars, representations and performativity of race and gender in the northern Arabian Peninsula », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 18 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/11407 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.11407

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