The Sawt of Bahreïn

Ensemble Muhammad bin Fâris

The sawt (literally “voice” in Arabic), the most highly esteemed vocal art in countries round the Gulf, has its sources in the vast repertory of classical and dialectal poetry and the poetic and musical cultures that have left their mark in the area. Itis performed during musical evenings known as samra, friendly gatherings for enjoyment and the pleasure of meeting up with others.

In the wake of the great upheaval of tradition that took place in the thirties, Muhammad bin Faris (d. 1947), a remarkable writer and composer of the sawt, played a large and vigorous role in the renewal of the genre, founding Bahrain’s first school of sawt. This record pays tribute to the immense talent of this distinguished personality.


1Yushawwiqunî barqun/A Flash awakens my desire – 8’34  –
2Dam’î jarâ bi-l-khudûd/Tears have flowed down my cheeks – 8’44 
3Qâla ibn al-Ashrâf/The Ashrafs’ son said – 8’48 
4Nâsî wa lâ yadrî/Neglectful withour knowing it – 6’39
5Wâbirûhî min al-ghîd/Upon my soul – 9’03
6Mâ li-ghusn al-dhahab/What’s the matter with the slender branch – 11’37

Interpreters and instruments

Zayed Atiq (singing and lute)
Anwar Alquattan (singing and lute)
Khaled Alshaer (singing and lute)
Husain Aseeri (kanoun)
Abdullah Khiri (violin)
Saad Aljaffal (percussion and choir)
Anwar Ahmed (percussion and choir)
Yaqoob Bujaffal (percussion and choir)
Yusuf Alshomali (percussion and choir)
Aref Bucheeri (percussion and choir)


Bahrain, whose name means “between two seas” in Arabic, one saltwater, the other freshwater, is washed by the same waters of the Gulf that form a vast network of wells and springs on the islands and in the depths of the Gulf itself. Such conditions were obviously favourable to early settlement in the area, and indeed, according to archaeological evidence, the most ancient city on the island of Bahrain must have been built between the third and second millennium B.C. Two different types of society developed on this desert-like island, one a seafaring people, pearl divers and maritime traders, and the other farmers. The discovery of petrol in 1932 completely upset the traditional social system, thrusting every sphere of the country’s economic and political life into a new era, as well as its social and cultural customs. Bahrain has several musical genres amongst its traditions; some are linked to work, such as the songs of the pearl divers and the songs to accompany work in the fields, or again, women’s songs to accompany their household tasks. Others such as the al-‘arda, a dance with singing, recount certain social or national events, whilst the favourite genres in the urban centres are the vocal art of the sawt, a male art, and the songs and dances (al-muradat) women perform in their leisure time. Then there’s also traditional ethnic music either of African origin, such as the tanbura, or from Persia, e.g. the hubban, and finally the modern song.

The position of music in society

According to the historian Muhammad Jamal, the island did not have any real professional singers until the 20th century, for the profession was despised and even considered to lead those who practised it into debauchery and away from religion.

Singing as an entertainment was reserved for the restricted circle of true music-lovers, who practised it in private, out of sight of the censors, and amongst seamen, for when the fishing seasons were over, the sailors would gather in the dur (sing. dar, a house), a kind of club for their leisure activities and music.

Those with the privilege and right to sing in a professional capacity were women of African origin or women musicians known as tabbalat (tambourine players) of humble background. They would provide lively entertainment at wedding feasts and public ceremonies.

Apart from these professional women, the only other situation where the profession of singer was accepted and even sought after was on the merchant ships. A singer who could accompany himself on the lute would be engaged to entertain the crew during the voyage, which might last anything up to a year. On the pearl diving boats, the soloist (nahham) was engaged to support and encourage the sailors with his songs as they went about their tasks.

According to the poet Mubarak al-Ammari, professional singing as such, in the modern sense of the term, started in the late 1920’s, or more precisely, in 1929, when a record company signed the first contract with the singer Muhammad Zwayyid (d. 1982), who’d been a nahham before devoting himself exclusively to the urban art of sawt.

The origins of the sawt

The term al-sawt (pl. aswat), pronounced ‘sow’, means ‘voice’ literally, but in the Gulf states it’s come to denote the vocal art so typical of this region. Two lines of research provide some clues about its origins. On the one hand, a possible link with classical Arab music (theory and practice) of the 9th to 13th centuries is proposed whereas another theory suggests it made its first appearance some time during the 18th century, and is a kind of synthesis of local and regional elements.

Old sources gave all the details of each sawt – the title of the poem and its metre, the poet, the composer, the singer’s name, the rhythm and the mode. All these features except for mode have continued to be used for identification purposes. However, recent analyses undertaken by certain musicologists from the Gulf using the theory and terminology of the maqamat (classical modes) take the mode as an identifying feature into account again.

Like its modern counterpart, the sawt of olden times is a poem sung by a solo singer who accompanies himself on the lute (‘ud). Today’s version is accompanied by a playful dance too, called the zafn. This word, used by Al-Farabi (872-950) in his great treatise on music Kitab al-musiqi al-kabir, is quite distinct from  the usual word for dance, raqs. Al-zafn is a way of moving in rhythm, accompanied by comical expressions involving “movements of the eyebrows, shoulders, head and limbs”, a description that generally speaking fits the zafn in its current form, and which was taken up again to the letter by Ibn Zayla (d. 1044) in his 11th century treaty Al-Kafi fi al-Musiqa. Such evidence serves to confirm the age of one of the aspects of the sawt.

In spite of the importance of these similarities of use when trying to establish the clear link between the sawt of the Middle Ages and its modern day counterpart, there is absolutely no written evidence from the 13th to the 18th century enabling us to establish a definite relationship between the two genres.

Modern research

Mubarak al-Ammari thinks the sawt already existed in Bahrain when the country was conquered in 1783 by Sheikh Ahmad bin Muhammad bin Khalifa al-Fatih (The Conqueror), founder of the Al-Khalifa dynasty. The genre was revived and renewed in the early years of the 20th century by the singer Muhammad bin Faris (1895-1947).

The tradition of the sawt in Bahrain and Kuwait is rooted in a fusion of different poetic and musical traditions found in the Gulf area, i.e. the area between Africa and Asia, where the vast cultural and ethnic patchwork of society, backed by maritime trade, has been a major contributory factor not only to the creation of the various musical strands there, but also to the way they’ve interwoven with each other. These influences have been local in the case of the Gulf and Arabia, and come particularly from the Yemen and the Hijaz, whereas in the case of the Near East they’re regional, and come from further afield: Iran, India and Africa.

The first half of the 20th century saw much fertile interchange of all kinds between countries in the Gulf. Fruitful encounters between singers and musicians such as Saqr bin Faris, Muhammad bin Faris and Dahi bin Walid from Bahrain and Abd el-Latif al-Kuweiti, Mahmoud al-Kuweiti, Abdallah Fadala, Dawud and Salih al-Kuweiti from Kuwait, had a decisive influence on the way this art developed. The influence of this Kuwait/ Bahrain school spread in turn around the rest of the Gulf as far as the Indian Ocean, where several singers made a name for themselves: Isma’il al-Qatari in Qatar, Rached Salim al-Suri in Oman, the sherif Hachem and Muhammad al-Sindi in Arabia and Ahmad al-Zinjibari from Zanzibar.

As a vocal genre, the sawt explores the immense repertory of classical and dialectal Arab poetry. For the latter, the sawt takes its inspiration from from the nubti genre (Gulf poetry) and the homayni (Yemeni poetry), both held in high esteem by sawt singers. This poetic range offers a variety of metre and form that has inspired composers to create new forms. The sawt has adopted the Syrio-Egyptian lute as  accompaniment for the melody, whilst the mirwas, a small double-headed drum imported from Bombay, provides the rhythm. Certain recordings from the thirties have a violin as well as the lute, but this was not systematic.

Current practice

The sawt is considered to be the supreme vocal art in the countries around the Gulf, where it’s synonymous with tarab (musical emotion). It is played during music “sessions” known as samra (pl. samrat), friendly evening gatherings for entertainment and pleasure. The samra has its own rules for the performance of the different types of sawt. The singer opens a session with a sawt of the type called istima (listening), an autonomous introduction designed to induce the right mood and focus the audience’s attention. Its rhythm is free (mursal) and the singer accompanies himself on the lute. A break is observed between the istima and the other types of sawt, sung at different moments of the samra, for the istima’s melody is incompatible with that of the succeeding sawt

Later the singer performs several sawt of the arabi and shami type, mostly construed around love poems. He will bring the samra to a close with a sawt khatm (finale) usually sung to a humorous or moral poem.

The formal structure of the aswat arabi and shami.

The sawt is a vocal and instrumental suite led by a singer/ lutenist, who begins with a free rhythm introduction, of varying length, known as a taqsim. He follows this with a song (tahrira) in free rhythm also chanted to a few lines of a poem in classical Arabic, or a dialectal poem from the Gulf (nubti), or a zuheiri composed of seven rhyming lines a/a/a/b/b/b/a, in Iraqi Bedouin dialect and always with lute accompaniment.

After these two free introductory phases, the singer moves into the main body of the sawt proper, a poem sung solo or in responsorio (soloist and chorus). The latter is called sawt radda and is accompanied by the lute, the mirwas (drums), and handclapping. In conclusion, the soloist and the other members of the group sing the tawshiha, a short group song of two lines on the same rhythm as the sawt but modulated differently. Finally, the percussion maintains its rhythm as backing for the often dazzling instrumental improvisations wihose syncopated dance rhythms round off the suite. The suite’s form is not entirely fixed; according to the circumstances and artists involved, the introductory phases can be omitted so there’s simply the poem of the sawt and the tawshiha.

However, from the point of view of metre, melody and rhythm, the sawt’s structure is unalterable. The only acceptable changes are slight internal variations linked to the artist’s performance, but they must not have any effect on the main form.

At different moments during the sawt, two musicians will perform the dance known as zafn.

Rhythmic accompaniment and the performance of the sawt

The sawt is part of the Arab modal system, and has its own specific way of treating maqam (modes), i.e. a cluster of melodic procedures are developed around the rhythmic structure and the lines of verse to give it its own distinct character, apart from other genres of the Arab world.

Rhythm is extremely important in the sawt tradition and serves to distinguish one song from another within the genre. There are two main forms, the sawt arabi is performed on a six beat cycle (tracks 1, 5 and 6) and the sawt shami on a four beat cycle (tracks 2 and 3).

The rhythmic relies on the mirwas, a small, double-headed, cylindrical drum, so each rhythmic cycle is played by the drummers and the handclappers (kaffafa), the latter being split up into two or three sub-groups so as to perform several variations simultaneously, under the watchful eye of a leader who makes sure that each part is properly constructed, sets off at the right moment, and that the obligatory periods of silence and final rhythms are all respected properly. Handclapping (kaff or tasfiq) only comes in during the instrumental passages of the sawt. Its function is therefore to complete the polyrhythmic cycle, add to its ornamentation and richness of sound, increase the general dynamics of the performance and provide the backing for the zafn.

The zafn is a playful dance that adds to the general merriment and enjoyment of those taking part in the samra. It has its specific set of steps and codified movements and is performed by two zafinin (sing. zafin), one who leads and the other who responds.

The al-iddah (literally ‘the instruments’) musicians have their own way of performing the sawt. These are groups of professional musicians from the popular milieu, who play at weddings and other parties. They have assimilated the sawt into their repertoire along with other popular forms such as the samiri and the khammari that are sung by the whole group with an accompaniment on different types of drum. The musicians can be either men or women.

Muhammad bin Faris and his legacy

The destiny of the sawt in Bahrain is inextricably linked to the name of Muhammad bin Faris (1895-1947), a great artist whose talent and personality have left their mark on this art. Both his grandfathers were Bahrain sheikhs in the second half of the 19th century. He learnt to play the lute and sing with his older brother Abd el-Latif, who abandoned music and poetry later on to devote himself to religion.

Bin Faris went on to study music and poetry in more depth, working on the art of the sawt with the Hijaz singer Abd al-Rahmin al-Asiri (d. 1940) whom he saw both in Bahrain and Bombay.

Muhammad bin Faris bought a rich new element to the art of the sawt in the form of his original compositions, part of which he recorded himself, whilst the other larger part was put on record by his followers and successors. He also made new arrangements for several melodies from the corpus of the sawt tradition, so that all in all, this singer-composer left an impressively prolific body of work that covers several hundred songs.

Muhammad bin Faris’ legacy to Bahrain was its first real school of sawt, the second of its kind in the Gulf region (the first, founded by Abdallah al-Faraj, was in Kuwait). Adepts of this style promulgated and popularised it, each artist bringing his own personal touch. Faris’ first pupil became a great singer himself, and even rivalled his master – this was Dahi bin Walid (1896-1941), who recorded several of his master’s compositions. Muhammad Zwayyid (1900-1982) was the last singer to have known Muhammad bin Faris personally. Thanks to the medias, he was able to take the sawt to an audience outside the Gulf, where it had been confined ever since Muhammad bin Faris’ time. Zwayyid also passed on the secrets of his art to a new generation, thus ensuring the survival of the tradition.

According to Mubarak al-Ammari, M. bin Faris was anxious that proper respect for the music and the artists be shown duringthe samra, so he established a set of rules whereby members of the audience were forbidden to speak amongst themselves, or enter or leave the room during a performance, which had to have a detailed and precise programme to be adhered to at all costs during the samra, without taking any notice of impromptu requests from the audience. For performance of a sawt covers several forms, and there could be no question of repeating anything once the finale or sawt khatm was over.

As for accompaniment, M. bin Faris refused the rhythmical ornament provided by handclapping, even though this is considered a typical feature of the sawt nowadays. He allowed two mirwas at the most, one to play the base rhythm necessary for the melody and the other to provide rhythmical variations during the instrumental cues, but none would be used during the sung passages so that everyone’s attention would be focused on the song.

Although the lute is the principal melodic instrument for the sawt, M. bin Faris chose to be accompanied by the violinist Salih al-Kuwaiti for the series of recordings he made for His Master’s Voice in 1938 (the instrument was already known in the Gulf at the time). and the qanun (board zither) player Yusuf Za’rur as-Saghir. This was the first time a sawt singer introduced a qanun into his ensemble.

Habib Yammine
Translated by Délia Morris

The recordings

1 – Yushawwiqunî barqun/A flash awakens my desire – 8’34
A brief introduction in free time is immediately followed by a sawt ‘arabi on a six beat rhythm. A series of measured instrumental improvisations on the violin, qanun and lute end the piece.

“A brilliant flash near the camp awakens my desire
To see the hills and dwellings emerge softly
Where the breeze wafts its refreshing scent
I remembered what all these places held for me
For I am still in love when I remember Saada
And my heart yearns with longing.”

2 – Dam’î jarâ bi-l-khudûd/Tears have flowed down my cheeks – 8’44
A brief introduction in free time on the lute, a sawt shami, tawshiha (modulated song) and a final series of taqsim (improvisations) played in turn on the violin, the qanun and the lute. The whole piece is in 4 beat rhythm.

Tears have flowed down my cheeks and my eyes have abandoned slumber
On account of this weight on my heart
The people so far away from me are asleep now
Whilst I cry out loud: “Have pity, o thou I call my friends
I’m lamenting my separation from my beloved, and his refusal
My love, pure and unsullied, is for him and him alone, for no other,
You’ve broken your word, broken your promises
Love is but ill fortune.”

3 – Qâla ibn al-Ashrâf/The Ashrafs’ son said – 8’48
Sawt shami, tawshiha and a final series of  taqsim played in turn on the violin, the qanun and thelute. The whole piece is in 4 beat rhythm.

“The Ashrafs’ son said: Suddenly the party became pleasant
When your beautiful face appeared
Praise God on high, the Creator of beautiful faces
Creator of your unrivalled beauty
The resplendent moon and its shining light must come from you
Oh my gazelle, how can anyone turn away from your beauty
I swear my mind is troubled because of you
Your saliva is sweeter than the pure water (of paradise).”

4 – Nâsî wa lâ yadrî/Neglectful without knowing it – 6’39
Taqsim (improvisations) in free rhythm on the lute, and basta, a song with refrain on a four-beat dance rhythm.

“I am aflame with the fire’s heat and sitting on the embers
He’s neglectful and doesn’t know I’m sitting on the embers
I asked his parents for news of him, and here’s what they told me:
Your beloved has already left but we don’t know where he’s gone!
He’s changed since last year
And there’s a new love, not his love for you, beginning to spread its warmth in his heart”

5 – Wâbirûhî min al-ghîd/Upon my soul – 9’03
Taqsim in free rhythm on the lute, sawt ‘arabi with radda (answer) sung by the chorus, tawshiha (modulated song) and a final series of improvisations played in turn on the violin, the qanun and the lute. The chorus is in a six-beat rhythm.

“Upon my soul, there amongst the beauties (I catch sight of) a waist slender as the crescent moon,
Her beauty has swept away my soul and my reason
She’s beautiful, a beauty amongst beauties, unrivalled, supreme
And I’ve no rival either amongst those in love
Refrain: Tell me, oh Abu Simsima, about those who live in the Yemen.
When I spoke to her about a possible union, she said What’s that?
And what do you want of it? Tell me the truth.
I said: A kiss, be generous, give me one, and under cover of the veil of night
Grant me a tryst, come honour my home with your presence.
Refrain: Tell me, oh Abu Simsima, about those who live in the Yemen.”

6 – Mâ li-ghusn al-dhahab/What’s the matter with the slender branch – 11’37
Two taqsim in free rhythm on the lute and the violin, sawt ‘arabi with answer, tawshiha sung collectively, and a final series of improvisations played in turn on the violin, the qanun and the lute. The chorus is in a six-beat rhythm.

“What’s the matter with her? I mean she who’s slim as a branch of willow, with gold jewellery and henna-stained fingers,
With teeth that sparkle like stars and a face like the veiled full moon
She of the slender waist, the one who sometimes dropped by
Without hailing us; she’s gone now, gone off far afield and disappeared.”

  • Reference : 321.040
  • Ean : 794 881 742 424
  • Main artist : Ensemble Muhammad bin Fâris (مجموعة محمد ابن فارس)
  • Year of recording : 2004
  • Year of publishing : 2004
  • Music style: Sawt
  • Country : Bahrain
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arab
  • Composers : Muhammad bin Fâris / Dâhi bin Walîd / Abdallah bû shaykhah
  • Lyricists : Abdallah Muhammad Bahasan / Mubârak ibn Hamad al-‘Aqîli / Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-‘Aydarûs / Anonyme / Ahmad Husayn al-Qârah / Ahmad Abd al-Rahman al-Ânisi
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

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