In the early 1970s new vocabulary entered common usage in describing song genres of the Arab world, particularly the East Mediterranean Levant region. This was a result of the wide exposure to a popular amateur talent show called Studio al-Fann (The Art Studio) on a Lebanese television station. The director of the pioneering and long-running show, credited for the successful careers of numerous singing stars, assembled several acclaimed artists and music scholars to evaluate and rank singing competitors. This judging committee found it necessary to revisit traditional vocal genres and develop a system more consistent with contemporary usage – instrumental genres were not explored due to the rarity of contestants in this area. This was a keen organized effort not seen since the enduringly influential 1932 Cairo Congress of Arab music and its outcome has seeped into usage as the new categorization for the modern Arab song by music critics, reporters, talk show hosts, music industry executives, as well as some academics.
The wide appeal of the newly established genres reflected the trend that young singers had virtually abandoned the older genres qaṣīda, ṭaqṭūqa, dawr, qadd, muwashshaḥ and mawwāl in favor of the ughniyya (plural aghānī), the generic short song. The ughniyya emerged as contemporary singers abandoned the traditional waṣla medley format and improvisatory forms and contemporary composers broke out of the modal framework of maqām (melodic mode) with its conventions of progression, modulation and intonation. The term ughniyya can be used alone to designate any song but is often joined by a modifier as necessary such as ughniyya fūlklūriyya (folk song), ughniyya klāsīkiyya (slow song), etc. or multiple modifiers such as ughniyya turāthiyya ʿarabiyya to mean from another Arab country (reflecting the Lebanese-centric system), ughniyya klāsīkiyya khalījiyya (from the Gulf region), ughniyya fūlklūriyya maghrebiyya (Moroccan folk song), etc.
The system includes the following genres: ṭarabī ( ṭarab-based), turāthī (heritage-based), fulklori (folk), klāsīkī (slow), rūmānsī (romantic), shaʿbī (popular), shabābī (youth generation), and other variations. The imperfect system has overlaps among genres and vague definitions in some cases, but overall, each has distinguishing features discussed in more detail below.
It should be noted that some genres of music have not been subsumed under the term ughniyya. For example, in Aleppo, Syria, an influential and traditional hub of Arab music, the new genres took hold but the strongly entrenched and highly popular local genres muwashshaḥat and qudūd (also known as qudūd ḥalabiyya after Aleppo) were not consolidated under turāthī, although they form the essence of the region’s musical heritage, and thus they are not called ughniyya. In Cairo, Egypt, the historically most significant hub of Arab arts and music industry, the new genres made their way into common usage as well but other local developments also played a role. The popular folk Egyptian ṣaʿ idi and fallāḥī rural song styles were not replaced by or consolidated under the fūlklūrī label due to their uniquely distinguishing features.
Furthermore, established singers were largely unaffected by the new parameters, and the most famous ones, such as the prolific Lebanese singer Fayrūz or Egyptian ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Ḥāfiz, continued to release aghānī that sometimes fit the system and sometimes did not, making them more pioneers than followers. New singers breaking into the field, however, spend a lot of time on talk shows (which are numerous on private satellite stations) explaining how, for example, a production company insisted that a new CD needed to have one klāsīkī and one shabābī track, with the remaining songs being aghānī shabābiyya.
The turāthī genre is based on turāth, meaning ‘heritage,’ and implies a connection to the history of the region or local roots. It also connotes a sense of cultural purity in that turāthī music is understood as not influenced by Western artistic trends. More than any other Arab music genre, turāthī carries a subtext of cultural pride as well as a sense of protectionism of the musical inheritance (mawrūth mūsīqī) in the face of fashionable modern music (mūsīqā ḥadītha). In some contexts, turāthī implies religious songs, as in older chants with spiritual heritage. Improper but common usage attributes turāthī (and sometimes fūlklūrī) to older works whose composer is simply unknown. Common genres from the mawrūth mūsīqī that have the turāthī attribution include badawī (Bedouin), rīfī (from the Rif region), dalʿūna, abū zilluf, ʿatāba and mījānā (vocal genres of the Levant region), muwashshaḥāt and qudūd (popularized in Aleppo, Syria), and Egyptian ṣaʿīdī and fallaḥī. Further complicating the matter is that many of these genres also overlap with fūlklūrī, which is generally considered a subset of turāthī. These turāth Arab genres utilize traditional urban Arab ensemble instruments including the ʿūd (fretless lute), qānūn (plucked zither), nāy (flute), violin and riqq (tambourine); it is rare and in many cases impractical (due to the microtones of the music) to perform them on folk instruments or Western instruments except fretless string instruments. Improvisations ( taqsīm or irtijāl for instrumental and mawwāl for vocal) are considered a turāthī musical practice .
Archetypical turāthī singers include Ṣabāḥ Fakhri of Syria and Wadīʿ al-Ṣāfī and Ṣabāḥ of Lebanon. Aleppian tenor Fakhri’s specialty is the muwashshaḥāt and qudūd, which range from centuries-old works (traced to Arab Andalucía) to contemporary ones that he either composed or commissioned in the same style. His large repertoire of several decades has been published in a collectable CD box set called Nagham al-Ams (Yesterday’s Tune). He performs in the waṣla or medley format where songs in the same maqām (melodic mode) are grouped together and introduced by a samāʿī or dūlāb instrumental. Fakhri imitators are said to belong to the ‘Ṣabāḥ Fakhri School of Turāth’ and his work is taught as turāthī music in conservatories of the region. Lebanese tenor Wadīʿ al-Ṣāfī performs many genres but his name is associated with ʿ atāba and mījānā more than any other. He is considered a national treasure, credited with preserving and popularizing these turāthī genres often with lyrics of patriotic nature in addition to love and family. His voice is designated jabalī (from jabal or mountain after Mount Lebanon) and his large collection of work constitutes valuable educational material for aspiring artists and is also taught in conservatories. Ṣabāḥ, famous for her long one-breath phrasing while singing mawāwil (vocal improvisations), often appeared with al-Ṣāfī as well as Fayrūz in musicals by the Raḥbānī Brothers and popularized the dalʿ ūna and abū zilluf genres.
Fūlklūrī is based on ‘folklore’ and refers to folk music from urban, village or desert Bedouin (badawī) roots. It overlaps with turāthī but is characterized by being shorter and simpler in composition and orchestration. Fūlklūrī is unyielding to modernization and utilizes folk instruments such as mizmār, mijwīz, shabbabā, kawala, buzuq, simsimiyya, mazhar or ṭābl, which are not typically part of an Arab orchestra or smaller takht ensemble; turāthī works, in contrast, are performed by orchestras and ensembles using urban instruments and are subjected to limited modernization, such as the introduction of the electric keyboard. Like turāthī, fūlklūrī is also sometimes incorrectly used as a catchall for older songs with unknown lyricists or composers. Contemporary lyricists and composers create new work in turāthī style since their defining elements are known, but rarely create works in the fūlklūrī genre and instead choose the newer shaʿ bī genre, which can function as its modern equivalent. Fūlklūrī works go beyond aghāni and include, for example, lullabies, funeral chants, the chant of the musaḥḥarāti (the person calling people to wake up to eat prior to sunrise during the fasting month of Ramadan), or other inherited domestic and communal musical practices.
An archetypical fūlklūrī performer is Lebanese singer Samīra Tawfīq, who gained fame singing the badawī fūlklūrī (primarily Jordanian) style that peaked in popularity in the 1970s. Her group was distinguished by the presence of the mizmār and ṭābl folk instruments. Her style crossed genres into the related shaʿ bī genre and had numerous hits from works commissioned for her. Another example of a fūlklūrī performer is Jordanian singer Abdu Musa who accompanied himself on the rabāba, a one-stringed bowed folk instrument. Musa sang badawī-style mawāwil accompanied by the rabāba in addition to popularizing folk songs on the topics of village scenes (flirty young ladies carrying water from the well back to the village). In his only released album, Musa teamed up with singer Hiyām Younes in the duet song ‘Safer Ya Habībi Wi-Irja’ʿ (Come Back from Your Journey) that won them critical acclaim. Egyptian fūlklūrī performers are numerous; one notable artist was Mitqal Ganawi who recorded and popularized ṣaʿīdī songs throughout the Arab World. The significance of fūlklūrī is in preserving folk arts and also in being a point of departure for the start of the shaʿbi genre.
The name klāsīkī is cognate to the term ‘classical,’ but its application is typically limited to songs that have a slow rhythm and relatively sophisticated orchestration. When a song is said to be in the klāsīkī style, the implication is that it requires good singing skills and has deep or romantic lyrics – typically the opposite of shaʿbī or shabābī genres. Multi-genre singer/composer Farīd al-Aṭrash, for example, classified a subset of his songs as klāsīkī because they were slower and required more feeling (iḥsās) in their performance as compared to his other songs that were upbeat; iḥsās, one could argue, might have been a more appropriate name for the genre.
Unlike the Western use of ‘classical’ music, klāsīkī does not mean art music taught at conservatoires; the works of late Egyptian artists Sayyid Darwīsh, Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, Umm Kulthūm, Farīd al-Aṭrash, Riyāḍ al-Sunbāṭī, the late Lebanese composers the Raḥbānī Brothers, and others who left long-lasting repertoires may be seen as exponents of classic Arab music (in the Western sense), but not as the modern ughniyya klāsīkiyya. Klāsīkī is used only as a vocal genre and not for instrumental Arab compositions. Modern klāsīkī songs do not have turāthī or fūlklūrī Arab instrumentation but are instead distinguished by their typically Western orchestration. Most contemporary singers add a number of klāsīkī songs to their repertoire along with matching music videos in order to be recognized by critics as ‘complete singers’ who can appeal to broad musical tastes. Singers such as Najwa Karam and Elissa (Lebanon), Shireen and Angham (Egypt), and Asala (Syria) have succeeded in this genre with beautiful songs that demonstrate high vocal capabilities.
The significance of the klasīki genre is in maintaining a higher standard of singing quality in an era of proliferation of singers and producers and the pressure to seek faster rhythms for dance at the expense of lyrics, composition or orchestration.
Rūmānsī (‘romantic’ song) is reserved for songs that are klāsīkī but explicitly address the subject matter of love. The Arabic word ʿāṭifī (lit. emotional) is used to describe the singer (i.e., muṭrib ʿāṭifī or emotional singer). Like klāsīkī songs, rūmānsī songs tend to require higher than average vocal capability, presumably because the singer cannot hide behind a fast or loud beat and has to express the feelings of love with sincerity called iḥsās (feeling). In a more generic form, the term rūmānsī is used to modify another genre such as qaṣīda, a long song based on classical Arabic poetry, by calling it qaṣīda rūmānsiyya. The instrumentation for klasīki and rūmansi aghāni tends to be Western, acoustic or synthesized, rather than traditional Arab instruments. An exception to this is the Gulf music khalījī klāsīkī or rūmānsī genre that continues to feature the ʿ ūd more than its modern Levantine or Egyptian counterparts. In typical interviews, contemporary singers rarely describe their work as turāthī or fūlklūrī but often stress and take credit for klāsīkī and rūmānsī tracks when discussing an upcoming album release, for example.
The significance of the rūmānsī is in maintaining a higher standard of lyrics, especially love songs, as well as singing quality in an era of a proliferation of singers and producers and the pressure to seek faster rhythms for dance at the expense of lyrics, composition or orchestration.
Shaʿ bī is from shaʿ b, meaning ‘people,’ and connotes ‘popular’ or relates to people’s everyday lives. Shaʿ bī aghānī are light and short, the opposite of klāsīkī or rūmānsī. Shaʿ bī started as a reference to the singer (muṭrib shaʿ bī) to place a positive light on singers not capable of the challenging art genres such as the long qasāʾid or sophisticated muwashshaḥāt, for example, but successful in ‘pop’ music. This has evolved to where singers capable of art music would add shaʿ bī songs to their repertoire to widen audience appeal. The archetypical shaʿ bī singer was the Egyptian singer/composer Sayyid Darwīsh (1892–1923), who dedicated his short but prolific career singing for the working person, describing the agony of the laborer or the joy of the farmer, and also wrote satirical songs making fun of the accent of Europeans living in Alexandria (khawagāt), thus giving the shaʿ b subjects they can relate to. Sometimes considered the father of the modern Arab song, in Egypt or the Levant, the extremely popular and highly talented Sayyid Darwīsh also wrote and composed more sophisticated genres including entire musicals. Modern-day shaʿ bī singers have little in common with Sayyid Darwīsh and since his era they have varied wildly in quality and message. In the second half of the twentieth century national radio stations featured as shaʿ bī the frivolous yet wildly popular ‘Mā Ashrabshī Al-Shāy Ashrab Kazūza Anā’ (I Will Not Drink Tea, I Will Drink Soda) for Layla Nazmi, or ‘Il-Tisht Qallī’ (The Bathtub Invited Me) for ʿAida al-Shaʿir, to the more evocative ʿAdawiyya, Muḥammad Rushdi and Muḥammad Il-ʿIzabi. The most popular contemporary Arab distinctly shaʿ bī singer is Hakim, from Egypt, who enjoys international popularity and often tours in Europe and the United States of America. Highly popular Levant shaʿ bī singers include the late Syrian singer Fahd Ballan whose shaʿ bī style is said to be hamāsi, or enthusiastic. Others include Muhammad Jamal and his wife Taroub. Singer/composer Milhim Barakat excelled in multiple genres including shaʿ bī. Fayrūz and other pillars in Arab music have straddled multiple genres and made significant contributions to shaʿ bī, notably by evoking dabke line dance music.
The significance of the shaʿ bī genre is that it has become by far the most dominant modern genre. The vast majority of new works are produced to fit in this genre in order to be marketable in album sales as well as television coverage of music videos.
Shabābī derives from shabāb, meaning youth, and connotes vocal genres popular among young people. Although shabābī can be considered a subset of shaʿ bī in that it is short and light, when a song is labeled ughniyya shabābiyya the implication is usually, in addition to ruling it out as one of the turāthī, fūlklūrī, klāsīkī or rūmānsī genres, that it takes risks with the choice of language. Examples of typical modern and highly popular Levant shabābī songs are ‘Illī Bitqassir Tannūra’ (She Who Shortens Her Skirt) for Lebanese singer Fares Karam, or ‘Bous al-Wawa’ (Kiss the Boo-boo) for Lebanese singer Haifa Wahbe, and many others. They are often dismissed by critics or stir up cries for censorship by conservative parent groups because of the insinuations in the lyrics. Shabābī songs are also seen as lacking in musical sophistication. The simple melodies and rhymes are intended to lead to dancing more than a state of ṭarab. Rap music that has been adapted from the West has become increasing popular and is considered strictly shabābī by the music establishment. Their lyrics, however, can be more sophisticated since they have also become a venue for the politically oppressed to express themselves, especially among Palestinians and more recently, during various Arab revolutions.
The significance of the shabābī genre, whose works vary in substance and quality, is in being the one genre with complete freedom of expression for the young generations not tied to complicated musical rules.
Asmar Sami. 1998. ‘Remembering Farid al-Atrash: A Contender in the Age of Giants.’
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