Playlist #33: Piano Pleasures

Click here for the full playlist on YouTube and Spotify.

Emerging from the Western classical repertoire, the piano made its first appearance in Arabic music in the early 20th century. The earliest works associated with this instrument are said to be by Sayed Darwish who used the piano in arrangements for his legendary orchestra and operettas. Today, the Arabic-speaking world is home to world-class pianists from Tarek Yamani to Faraj Suleiman and Malek Jandali. The following text follows the story of how the piano made its way to the centre stage of today, through pianists and composers from the Arabic-speaking world. 

Before delving into the pianists of the past century, it is worth mentioning that due to the use of quarter tones in Arabic maqams, there were early attempts at inventing the Arabic piano which would allow for an easier performance of Arabic maqams that are outside of the piano’s 12 tone equal tempered scale. 

Lebanese pianist and composer Wadih Sabra (1876-1952) is credited with inventing the first Arabic piano while working with a French manufacturer in 1922. He later took that piano with him to the first Cairo Arabic Music Congress in 1932 where he presented his invention to the dismay of the audience, including Umm Kulthum. The playlist commences with Wadih Sabra’s piece “Valse Orientale” (1911).

The playlist progresses to the work of engineer and pianist Abdallah Chahine (1894-1975) who modified his Western piano to play quarter tones through the foot pedal. “Oriental Bouquet” is taken from his 1965 album where he starts each piece with improvisations and progresses into a local folk tune. 

A prolific composer, producer and pianist, Alexander R. Maloof was also one of the early pioneers of piano. Born in Lebanon in the late 19th century, he immigrated to the United States and settled in New York to compose and publish sheet music of which we have included “Egyptian Glide”.

Worth noting is the missionary and colonial backdrop to the emergence of many of the early pianists, or even organists, as is the case with the Palestinian composer Salvador Arnita (1914-1988). He started off as an organist at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and progressed to Professor of Music at the American University of Beirut. His “Prelude for Piano” is included towards the end of the playlist and performed by budding Bethlehemite pianist Marc Qawas. 

Solhi Al-Wadi (1934-2007) was an Iraqi-Jordandian musician, composer, educator and conductor whose groundbreaking work founded the Arabic Institute, the Higher Conservatoire of Music, and the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra in 1992, as well as confounding the Damascus Opera House in 1990. He studied at the London Royal Academy where he composed several pieces for the piano from which we include “Chamber Music – موسيقى الحجرة”. 

The 1960s and 1970s brought with them the steady rise of the Japanese keyboard and synthesiser which blended smoothly with Arabic music due to their eastern origins, but that same era ushered in the works of the Lebanese Rahbani brothers and Fayrouz who famously worked with Elias Rahbani and later her son Ziad Rahbani. Ziad went on to become one of the region’s most famous pianists, musicians, composers and playwrights. The playlist showcases Elias’ “Danse No. 1 Opus 1.” and Ziad’s “Da Capo – وقمح”. 

Acclaimed Jordanian pianist Zina Asfour studied musicology at Sorbonne University and piano at the Ecole Normale Alfred Cortot, Paris and Trinity College of Music, London.  Asfour’s work in this playlist includes the performance of a piece by the Syrian composer Dia Succari (1938-201) whose compositions reached worldwide fame through tackling his native maqam heritage via French musical aesthetics, prioritising resonance and harmony. 

Likewise German-born Syrian composer and pianist Malek Jandali is said to have greatly contributed to the 21st century’s symphonic literature. Other than achieving world acclaim through numerous awards his first album Echoes from Ugarit was based on an interpretation of a hymn to Nikkal; a song from cuneiform clay tablets that was discovered in Ugarit. His piece “The Moonlight” is a  work for piano based on one of the oldest songs in Islamic culture dating back more than 1400 years. 

When spotlighting modern day composers and pianists we cannot omit some of the greatest contemporary pianists like Lebanese Tarek Yamani, Rami Khalife and Faraj Suleiman. Tarek Yamani’s extensive research and subsequent  works have reinvented classical Arabic music within the framework of Black American Music, though he is constantly bending genres through his innovative compositions and performances. From his wide array of compositions we have chosen “On Green Dolphin Street”. 

Stellar pianist and composer Rami Khalife’s musical upbringing par excellence is evident in his re-envisioning of classic pieces and compositions,  but also his powerful expression through bold and eclectic music presented clearly in the “The Dangling Rope” 

Palestinian pianist and composer Faraj Suleiman has stormed the world in the past few years with his tango infused compositions, jazzy influence and most recently touches of cabaret. 

The Berlin-based Jordanian pianist, film composer and sound designer Zazuka showcases an impressionistic yet harmonic language that could almost remind audiences of the works of Kate Bush. We feature her piece “Recollected – Scattered”. Her compatriot Suad Bushnaq has recently gained recognition through her elaborate works and a nomination for a ‘Hollywood Music in Media Awards’ in the World Music category while also being awarded a Silver Medal for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Original Score’ at the Global Music Awards. You can enjoy her composition “Aubada” performed by the upcoming Palestinian pianist Raneem Nabulsi. 

The grandeur of the piano and its prestigious appearance in concert halls is turned on its head by Syrian-Palestinian pianist Aeham Ahmad, whose unforgettable and iconic performance on the piano amidst the rubble and distruction of Al-Yarmouk refugee camp caught the world’s eye in 2014. The Palestinian pianist, who was settled in Syria’s largest refugee camps risked his life to play the piano on the streets of the camp despite the Islamist’s ban on music. We recall “Naseyt Ismi – نسيت إسمي” one of his performances in this playlist.

Putting together a piano playlist of Arabic-speaking pianists and piano composers has been a challenge, yet it has highlighted the unique and deeply rooted talent present in the region and is a unique documentation of an instrument that has arrived in the region’s musical repertoire only in the past 100 years.

Arguably for the first time, the names and works of these composers and pianists meet in one space, to tell the unique story of how a foreign instrument found its home amidst world-class musicians from the Arabic-speaking world. From the early beginnings of the recording industry to our digital interconnected age, there is a pianist to spread joy and harmony through their music. 

Big thanks go to Tarek Yamani for highlighting the amazing contemporary female pianists in this playlist.


What are MARSM Playlists?

Marsm’s bi-weekly playlists take on the musical history, trends and upcoming productions from the music scene in the Arabic-speaking countries. Each playlist focuses on a new theme, showcasing both underground and established artists – from the more dance-able to the most experimental – and everything in between.