The Sawt in Kowait

Ensemble Al-Umayri

Caught between the desert and the sea, past and present, Kuwait has forged the urban musical genre known as sawt out of the different cultural and ethnic mixtures there. Its influence has spread as far as the rest of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
The term al-sawt (pronounced ‘so’) means literally ”the voice”, and designates a vocal art typical of the Gulf area, and synonymous with tarab (musical emotion). Music of this kind is mainly played during lively musical evenings.
As a vocal genre, the sawt explores the vast repertory of classical and dialectal Arab poetry. For the instrumentation the solo singer whilst rhythmic accompaniment is provided by a small, two-headed drum, the mirwas.
The modernisation of the Kuwaiti sawt is forever linked to the name of Abdallah al-Faraj, a poet, composer and singer, and the source of several titles on this album.


1 – Sawt  Shâmî «Wallah»/By God – 7’52
2 – Sawt °Arabî « qif bit-tawâf »/Standing for tawaf – 7’03
3 – Sawt °Arabî « as-sihru fî sûdi l-°uyûn »/The magic in the pupils of his eyes – 9’26
4 – Sawt Shâmî « arrak shujûnî wa-l-tihâbî »/It has stirred my troubled heart – 5’20
5 – Sawt °Arabî « qarîb al-faraj »/Consolation in nigh – 7’20
6 – Sawt Shâmî « Bâta sâjî al-tarf »/He of the langourous gaze – 6’19
7 – Sawt Shâmî « ‘ighnim zamânak »/Make the most of your life – 3’47

Interprètes et instruments

Saleh Hamdane Al-Harbi (direction)
Abdulaziz Muhammad Al-Umayri
Khalifa Muhammad Al-Umayri
Najem Salem Al-Umayri
Salem Khalifa Al-Umayri
Salem Najem Al-Umayri
Thunayan Najem Al-Umayri
Zubair Khalifa Al-Umayri
Sulaiman Muhammad Al-Amari
Muhammad Al-Eidan
Nooh Al-Jarki
Duij Khalifa Al-Muraishid
Abdullah Khalifa Al-Muraishid
Abdullah Mubarak Al-Omayr
Salem Saad Farhan
Abdulaziz Jowhar Marjan


In the early 18th century a clan known as al-Atub from the ‘Anza tribe, left Najd in central Arabia and settled in Kuwait, still known at the time as Kut Bani Khaled, and inhabited by Bedouins and fishermen. Two principal families, the Al al-Sabahs and the Al Khalifas, dominated this clan, but once in Kuwait it was the Al-Sabah family that finally managed to take the lead and found its own dynasty in 1756, with Sheikh Sabah bin Jabir at its head. The current reigning family is directly descended from him. 

Kuwait is a crossroads at the centre of fertile exchanges on a human and commercial level. Throughout its history, cultures and peoples have mixed and interchanged, with resulting blends that have all left their mark on current Kuwaiti society, its modern-day culture and more specifically, its music. The State of Kuwait has some 1,400,000 inhabitants who arrived from the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, East Africa and the other Gulf states, in various waves of immigration during the previous centuries. Since petrol was discovered here in 1934, there’s been a new type of immigrant from the other Arab states and Asian countries.

Musical genres

The various types of music in Kuwait are linked to the different ways of life there, derived from geographical and topographical differences between the desert, the sea and the urban centres. They’re also linked to traditional activities such as pearl fishing, maritime and caravan trade, and the various socio-cultural and linguistic groups: Bedouin Arab, African and Persian; and finally there is the bond of Islam.

Caught between the desert and the sea, its past and extreme modernity, Kuwait has nevertheless created a new urban lifestyle for itself. Development has been rapid ever since the discovery of petrol and the rise of new industries requiring a modern infrastructure. In the midst of this urban context, certain musical genres inherited from the Bedouins, as well as the sailors’ songs, have lost their original context in the course of the last fifty years, and are now part of the national folklore, with a certain intrinsic cultural and artistic value. Other musical genres face the same fate and are being adapted to the needs and aspirations of the urban lifestyle. The sawt featured in this album is a typical urban genre par excellence.

Apart from the sawt, there are several other clearly identifiable musical genres in Kuwait, i.e.

  • songs linked to sailors and their tasks, their leisure time, their entertainment. These go under the generic title of nahma;
  • Bedouin songs known as samiri, mjilsi and al-‘arda (a dance with singing). The latter was a sort of warrior dance and has become an urban ceremony, danced at the various national or religious festivals, and weddings;
  • religious songs forming part of certain Muslim ceremonies and rituals, e.g. Ramadan, Mawlid (the anniversary of the Prophet’s birth) and Al-isra’ wal-mi’raj (the Prophet’s night journey and Ascension);
  • children’s songs;
  • the tanbura, a therapeutic ritual and part of the zar, introduced by immigrants from East Africa;
  • modern songs, the most prevalent genre dominating the whole scene from a media point of view.

The origins of the sawt

The term al-sawt (pl. aswat), pronounced ‘so’, literally means ‘voice’, but in Kuwait and the other Gulf states it denotes the vocal art so typical of this Arab part of the world. The term was used by Arab chroniclers and theoreticians during the Middle Ages to designate sung poems; thus it appears in Al Isfahani’s 10th century Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs), as well as in Al-Urmawi’s 13th century musical treatise Kitab al-Adwar (The Book of Cycles); these are only two examples out of many.

Two lines of research provide some valuable clues about the origins of the sawt. 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 identifying 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, with the exception of the mode, which has only recently been reinstated in analyses by musicologists from the Gulf using the theory and terminology of the maqamat (classical modes).

Like its modern counterpart, the sawt of olden times was 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 Arabic 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 treatise 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 in establishing 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 distinguish any definite relationship between the two genres.

Modern research highlights the elements introduced into the sawt from the 19th century onwards. According to Yusuf Farhan Dawkhi [1] and Ahmad Ali [2], there is evidence to show the sawt must have existed in Kuwait in the 18th century; it was here that it was revived and the genre renewed in the late 19th century, thanks to Abdallah al-Faraj (1836-1903), considered to be the father of the Kuwaiti version.

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.

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 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.

For its instrumentation, the sawt has adopted the Syrio-Egyptian lute to accompany 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.

A synthesis of the old theories and terminology and modern practice from the 19th and 20th centuries is now providing a third line of research, constantly witnessing new developments.

The sawt

The sawt is considered to be the supreme vocal art in Kuwait and Bahrain and the other countries around the Gulf, where it’s synonymous with tarab (musical emotion). It is played during music “sessions” known as samra, friendly evening gatherings for entertainment and gossip. They are a sort of private musical and literary “salon”, where music-lovers and friends meet up, though they can also be public, as is the case for weddings. In Kuwait the samra is an important social event, prepared well in advance and assembling some hundred people. Because of the large numbers involved, the samra are held in camps outside the city, during the spring holiday period that people usually spend in the desert. Princes, notables and important tradespeople are the ones who order events of this kind. 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 sawt 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 answering each other). 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 whose syncopated dance rhythms round off the suite. The form of the suite 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.

In the sawt radda, the radda (response) is an important element in the formal structure. It varies according to the poems and can be conceived around a single word or part of a line of verse (tr. 4), the recapitulation of what the soloist sings (tr. 7), or around expressions not in the text and without any special significance, such as the word “ah” (tr. 3), or the succession of syllables “Ya ladana ya ladana ya ladan ya ladan dana ya ladana ya ladana”, the equivalent of a sung line of verse (tr. 6).

The rhythmical accompaniment

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 in a six-beat cycle (tracks 1, 5 and 6) and the sawt shami in 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 properly respected.

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.

Here is a shortened description after the words of Yusuf Farhan Dawkhi: “They stand up facing the singer and the percussion players (murawisin) and begin by gently tapping the rhythm with their right foot, for three cycles; at the same time they shake their shoulders and head, and flutter their eyebrows. Then the zafinin step backwards, before moving forwards again towards the singer and the percussionists. This is repeated three times, then they move round the space enclosed by the musicians and the audience, from left to right, right to the end, before returning once again to the singer. They kneel down in front of him, touch the floor with their right hand and rise with a little jump. As the zafinin turn round, they accompany the movements of their shoulders, head and eyebrows by clicking their fingers and tongue. The zafn is demanding for the dancers; it requires real originality, gaiety and a certain exuberance from them, for they’re there to entertain and amuse the audience.”

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.

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 in antiphonal manner, i.e where two choral groups sing alternately, one replying to the other with an accompaniment on different types of drum, e.g. framed drums such as the daff and the tar, and cylindrical, double-headed drums known as tabl. The musicians can be either men or women.

The art of the sawt and Abdallah al-Faraj (1836-1901)

The refinement and renewal of the Kowaiti sawt are eternally linked to the name of Abdallah al-Faraj, poet, composer and singer. He was born in Kuwait and died there too, but spent most of his life in Bombay in India, where he received his musical education. He frequented the artistic and literary circles of the Yemeni community, extremely active there. Finally his fate led him to bankruptcy and he returned to his native land.

Al-Faraj devised a new style, using not only the heritage of the traditional sawt, but also the skills and knowledge he’d acquired in India, and also putting to good use (if we’re to believe Yusuf Farhan Dawkhi) old theoretical writings from the Arab world. This would perhaps partly explain the arguments supporting the claim that the sawt can be traced back to medieval music as well as to 19th century oriental music. Adopting the lute as his accompanying instrument for the sawt, Al-Faraj gave each string of the instrument an individual name, taking his inspiration from old terminology. Thus: “The strings go from high to low, starting with Sharar (spark) corresponding to the element of fire; the second string, Mathani, corresponds to air; the third, Mathalith, corresponds to water; Bam, the bass, corresponds to earth, and the fifth string, Al-rakhi, is the loose, slack one.”

The first lutes used in the Kuwaiti sawt were small wooden ones with a soundbox covered with an animal skin acting as the top; it’s said that Al-Faraj brought the original model back from India. After this the lutes were made in Kuwait until they were replaced by the ‘ud shami (Syrian or Middle Eastern lute).

Al-Faraj established the basis of the sawt firstly by emphasising the role of poetry, the very essence of the singing; next, by introducing certain new elements into the accompaniment which today form an integral part of the sawt, e.g. the mirwas and hand-clapping, as well as the zafn dance. These basic elements have been taken up first by his contemporaries, then by his 20th century successors. 

In the 20th century, the sawt in Kuwait has undergone several stages in its development, according to the influence of individual musicians. The first vein of influence came from Al-Faraj and his contemporaries, such as Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub, Khaled al-Bakr, Husein al-Zayer and Naser ibn Ya’qub. This generation passed on the art to the next one spanning the period between the late 19th and early 20th century.

This second generation included the singer Abd el-Latif al-Kuweiti (1903-1975), who made the first recordings of the sawt on 78’s for the Lebanese Baydophone label in Baghdad in 1927, then for Odeon in Cairo in 1929. He was accompanied at the time by the great violinist Sami al-Shawa, one of the key figures of the musical renaissance in the Middle East, and Mahmud al-Kuweiti on the lute. But the recordings left by Yousouf al-Bakr, one of Al-Faraj’s successors who died in 1955, are particularly significant for their testimony to his part in the renewal of Kuwaiti singing. More than sixty sawt by al-Bakr were recorded in 1953 by the Kuwaiti historian Ahmad al-Bishr al-Rumi, during the daily music sessions he held in his diwan.

The first half of the 20th century was a fertile period for musical exchanges between the Gulf states. Meetings between singers and musicians such as Saqr bin Faris, Muhammad bin Faris and Dahi bin Walid from Bahrain, and Abd el-Latif al-Kuweïti, Mahmoud al-Kuweïti, Abdallah Fadala, Dawud and Salih al-Kuweïti from Kuwait, had a decisive influence on the development of the sawt. The influence of the Bahrain and Kuwaiti schools spread throughout the Gulf as far as the Indian Ocean. Several singers made a distinguished name for themselves in this art: 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. This last setted in Kuwait, where he founded a school in his own home in 1945. His original compositions, (tr. 3) respecting the classical form established by Al-Faraj constitute a valuable addition to the tradition of sawt

The programme you will hear was recorded in the auditorium of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris on 12 June 2001, on the occasion of a concert given by the Al-‘Umayri Ensemble during the Institute’s second music festival. Three singers undertook different parts of the programme, accompanied by a group of percussionists and kaffafa (handclappers) who also sang the chorus.

The recordings

1 – Wallah/By God – 7’52
Tahrira, an improvised song in free rhythm, on a poem by Abu Dhiyyeh, sawt shami, in four-beat time, tawshiha (a modulated group song). The suite ends with an improvisation on the ‘ud in the same rhythm as the sawt.

“The handsome young man who’s gone away and left me has abandoned me to my wasted state, he’s wounded me”.

Sawt shami
« By God, by God, by God, I didn’t know
What love would do to me.
I’ve already composed a thousand lines through desire for you
Lines that Al-Asma’i couldn’t compose
In my passion for you, I’ve refused to listen to any reproach levelled at me
Without you I’d never have become crazed with love, I’d never have wept
Floods of tears would never have streamed down my cheeks
I’m lamenting you to Him whose name I now invoke
The Supreme, the greatest one can possibly invoke.”

“Oh Umma ‘Amr May God reward you with His grace.
Give me back my heart, wherever it may be.
Do not take it as a plaything
How can a human being play thus with his own kind?”

2 – Qif bit-tawâf/Standing for tawaf – 7’03
A short, free-rhythm taqsim on the lute, sawt ‘arabi in six-beat time sung to a mystic poem, and a final measured taqsim on the lute, in the same time as the sawt.
The tawaf is a ritual circumambulation around the Ka’bah.

“Stand up in tawaf and you’ll see the sacred gazelle
The hajj accomplished, she’s on her way back to the Zamzam (sacred well)
If she were to reveal her face, it would be like the full moon to your eyes
Resplendent, magnificent, more so than the moon itself
During the tawaf I saw her (was it a man or a woman?) with her (his) veil
Kiss the Sacred Abode (the Ka’bah) and the Yemeni corner.
Then I asked her “By God the Supreme being, tell me
Your name.” And she said: “From the line of Adam.” 

3 – As-sihru fî sûdi l-‘uyûn/The magic in the pupils of his eyes – 9’26
A short, free-rhythm taqsim on the lute, followed by a tahrira, an improvised song also in free rhythm on a poem by Abu Dhiyyeh. Sawt ‘arabi with radda (answer) and a final taqsim on the lute, all in a six-beat rhythm.

Tahrira: “My heart grows weak and my bones are weary through love for the handsome youth
He’s filled my mind ever since I first set eyes on him
Old wood worn down by age is not for me
What I like is the young branch still tender with youth.

Sawt: “Magic, that’s what I found in the dark pupils of his eyes
And their gaze, as from Babylon, had me sip the philtre
Of their languorous longing, burning there to aim all the surer
And touch the heart concealed within the breast.
His drink is the pure water of the streams of paradise
His food the myrtle of the green groves of heaven
The spell of his eyelids has captured me, entwined me
And I him in the net of my eloquent words.”

4 – Harrak shujûnî wa-l-tihâbî/It has stirred my troubled heart – 5’2
Sawt shami with radda (answer), tawshiha and a final taqsim on the lute; four-beat rhythm.

Sawt: “The soft air of the breeze, the east wind,
Has stirred my troubled heart and revived my ardour.
From the time when you were my friends,
The time of our youth.
Who was it taught you the games young people play?
Arise now, branch of ban, so we can play.”

5 – Qarîb al-faraj/Consolation is nigh –7’20
Taqsim on the lute followed by a mwili, a song in free rhythm improvised around a dialectal poem, sawt ‘arabi performed to a Sufi poem of invocation, tawshiha and a final improvisation, six-beat time.

Sawt: “Consolation is nigh, O Thou who banisheth fear and ill fortune
I implore Thee on the name of Taha (the Prophet), al-Zumar (“The crowds”, 39th sura of the Koran),
The Abode (Mecca), the Black Stone and Al-Hatim, to smooth the obstacles ahead of me.”

6 – Bâta sâjî al-tarf/He of the langourous gaze – 6’19
Sawt shami with radda (reply), tawshiha and a final taqsim on the lute; four-beat rhythm.

Sawt: “He of the languorous gaze spent the night in constant desire
Whilst darkness spread its wings across the sky. 

Reply: Ya ladana ya ladana ya ladan ya ladan dana ya ladana ya ladana
“Wonder not about the state of lovers
My dear friend, for there’s no real explanation for it.”

Reply: Ya ladana ya ladana ya ladan ya ladan dana ya ladana ya ladana
 “Life would have no flavour if it were not spent with a beautiful person.”

Reply: Ya ladana ya ladana ya ladan ya ladan dana ya ladana ya ladana
“Oh how I care for my poor heart, yet my strength is diminishing,
Every time I tend a wound, a new one appears.”

Reply: Ya ladana ya ladana ya ladan ya ladan dana ya ladana ya ladana
 “Oh my dear guests, oh, those days of our spent youth,
Can we ever turn back, can life ever go on longer for us?”

Tawshîha : “ On her hand she’s got the very thing mine could never get  (from her), a tattoo round her wrist, ‘tis thus my patience has been completely exhausted.”

7 – ‘Ighnim zamânak/Make the most of your life – 3’47
Sawt shami in four-beat time, an epicurean poem linked to a final song of rejoicing, with radda (reply).

Sawt: “Make the most of your life and your grace, my beloved, make the most of them
Whilst you’re still young and carefree.
I fear that once you reach sixteen, you’ll regret
Your youth and forget it, together with your former loves and myself.
Who has given you this sweet honey? Let’s taste it together,
Whoever gave you this nectar gave you something else as well!
Here I am, uncovering your perfumed bosom and its ardour,
And here I die, between both breasts.

Habib Yammine, ethnomusicologist 
Translated by Habib Yammine

[1] Al-aghânî al-kuwaytiyya (Kuwaiti Songs), Yusuf Farhân Dawkhi, Markaz al-turâth al-sha°bî l-duwal al-khalîj al-°arabî, Doha – Qatar, 1984.

[2] Al-mûsîqâ w-al-ghinâ’ fî al-kuwayt (Music and songs in Kuwait), Ahmad Alî, Koweït, 1980.

  • Reference : 321.041
  • Ean : 794 881 742 523
  • Main artist : Ensemble Al-Umayri (مجموعة العميري)
  • Year of recording : 2004
  • Year of publishing : 2004
  • Music style : Sawt
  • Country : Koweït
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Language : Arabe
  • Composers : Abdallah al-Faraj / Ahmad al-Zinjibari / Anonymous
  • Lyricists : Abû Dhiyyeh / Abdallah al-Faraj / Ahmad Shawqi / Anonymous
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

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