Friday, March 17

Makam Minutiae

I know that everybody hates these arcane discussions of Eastern music theory. I don’t know why I post them really. I think it’s because it helps me sort through my own difficulties with the theory behind the music I play. I’m not a trained musician. I’ve never studied Western music theory. I don’t read music. I’m a folk musician in the truest sense. I learn everything by ear.

However, theory is important even for folk musicians. In order to improvise—to play a taxim, in other words—one need have internalized the makams. This is especially true if one’s goal is to produce a taxim spontaneously, and there’s really no reason to play the sandouri if one can’t play a good taxim.

I was going to save this for a future Rembetiko of the Month, but with all this talk about taxim, I thought it would be helpful to include a sound clip, in case it’s not clear what I’m referring to. The song is Μεμέτης (Memetis) and was recorded by Dimitris Kallinikos (Arapakis) in Athens in 1931. It begins with a dazzling taxim by Yiannis Leivaditis on tsembalo (çimbalom), which is the larger version of the sandouri that was often featured in Rembetika. The makam, by the way, is Piraeotikos, which is like makam Hijaz, except that it has a raised fourth and a raised seventh. That raised fourth gives it a really bluesy sound.

Click here to listen.

Anyway, the point of this post was to talk about an argument I had with Outiboy the other night. It wasn’t really an argument; just a really intense discussion. Outiboy and I don’t fight all that much. We used to argue about what color to paint such and such a room or what to serve at dinner parties. Stupid, I know. I guess it’s not possible for a Greek and an Italian to have a normal conversation without raising their voices.

These days, what we argue about most frequently is makam (maqam in Arabic). The issue is this: Unlike the twelve-note Western tempered scale, makam is a system of music theory that includes microtones in the form of quarter and eighth tones in addition to the tones and semitones that make up the Western scale. Imagine, in other words, keys in between the black and white keys on a piano. They take some getting used to, but once your ear adjusts, a whole new world opens up.

The makam system consists of classical Arabic, Persian, and Turkish elements, some of which were borrowed from Byzantine music and possibly even ancient Greek music theory. It’s not the origins of makam that Outiboy and I argue about. The problem is that as Greek music became more and more westernized and began to accommodate certain instruments like the sandouri and accordion, which are not capable of producing microtones, the makams themselves were altered. For example, early versions of the bouzouki had movable frets that allowed Rembetiko musicians to produce microtones, but as the bouzouki evolved and Rembetiko became more Western-sounding, the frets became fixed, which meant that microtones were no longer possible.

In most cases, Greeks don’t play the true versions of the makams. We are playing slightly bastardized versions that leave out the microtones. What’s more, the Greeks screwed around with the names of the makams for reasons that are not always obvious. This makes for very animated discussions between Outiboy and me, especially when I argue that the Greek system of makam represents a perfectly valid and legitimate evolution of the makam system. Playing on the sandouri, I’m not really interested in the true makams (since I can’t play microtones), while Outiboy, because he plays the oud, is very interested in the true makams and has invested much time in understanding them.

I learned basic makam theory from my teachers in Greece. In most cases, I try to stick to the versions they taught me along with the names by which they referred to those versions. This often conflicts with what Outiboy has learned by studying classical makam theory.

Hence our argument the other night. He was teaching me a piece in Nihavent makam (nahawand in Arabic). I learned Nihavent this way:

Outiboy learned it this way:

The difference, if you’re not a musician (and you’ve even made it this far), is the seventh and whether or not it is raised. Outiboy says it is raised; I say it isn’t, because that’s how I learned it, though I have seen Greeks define Nihavent the way Outiboy learned it. There really is no consensus on this stuff. In reality, there are two versions of Nihavent: what Outiboy learned is called Nihavent-Hijaz, while what I learned is called Nihavent-Kurdi.

So I guess in a way we’re both correct.


Blogger Perspective said...

you don't know why you bother? because you're a communicator, through words or sounds.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Sandouri Dean Bey said...

you're sweet, schwog.

5:12 PM  
Blogger sandouri said...

so what if my name is sandouri does it have a meaning to it or something?? ive always wanted to no but i never got to ask my grandpa becuz he passed away

2:25 AM  
Blogger Sandouri Dean Bey said...

a sandouri is a greek hammered dulcimer. are you greek?

8:48 AM  
Blogger sandouri said...

No im not Greek im Assyrian, but what does "greek hammered dulcimer" mean??

6:34 PM  
Blogger Sandouri Dean Bey said...

google it dude! :)

picture a trapezoidal wooden box with metal strings strung across the top surface of the box, kind of like a harp only you don't play it upright, but horizontally, and you don't pluck the strings, you strike them with little sticks (the "hammers").

the assyrians could very well have been the first to use what was the forebear of the greek sandouri. the psalterion, which was known in ancient greece, was actually a mesopotamian instrument played in babylon and most likely assyria as well. i'm not sure what they called it, but they must have liked the greek name for it, because they adopted it, only they couldn't say "psalterion," so they pronounced it "pisanterin." that's where the word "santur/sandouri" comes from.

it was the persians who modified the pisanterin to make it trapezoidal and add the hammers, which they called a "santur."

7:26 PM  
Blogger sandouri said...

looool wow...i don't really understand all kind of a slow person..but thanks for the help at least i know its an theres no meaning to it??

9:23 PM  

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