Arabic maqam meets Indian raga music : A baithak


SPIC MACAY Baithak (discussion)

An online Baithak was organised by SPICMACAY Europe on 24 March 2024 on the topic “Arabic Maqam meets Indian Raga music”. The event was attended by several volunteers and members of the SPICMACAY Europe community. The guest was Rimonda Naanaa, a Qanoon/Kanun musician from Germany. Kanun is an Arabic stringed musical instrument. The objective of the baithak was to understand the Arabic music scales, notes and melodies in comparison to Hindustani/Carnatic music. The baithak was moderated by Prashanthi and the Veena was played by Varsha.

We were curious to see Rimonda play the basic notes on the kanun which was followed on the veena by Varsha. The seven notes in Arabic music are rast, duka, sika, jaharka, nawa, hussaini, auj, qurdan. These are similar to sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni in Indian system or do, re, mi, fa, so la, ti in Western classical music. Rimonda mentioned that notes sounds are taken from Arabic letters. A maqam is a system of melody similar to ragas in Hindustani/Carnatic music.


Rimonda played Maqam Ajam on the Kanun. The participants tried to relate it to the closest Carnatic raga. With some trials and guesses, it was found that Maqam ajam is actually similar to the Carnatic raga Shankarabharanam.

The maqam notes were played on the kanun in slow tempo while the participants tried to interpret them. It was noted that Rimonda was changing at the 4th note while playing the maqam. Rimonda said, this is also Maqam Ajam because it starts with A. It would be called Ajam even if there was shift in 4th note because it starts with A. It was noted in retrospect that earlier, Rimonda was given something like raag Behaag where both the ma are present. Rimonda was able to catch it quickly on the kanun maqam. With the comparative discussions between the maqam and the raga, it was noted that in the system of the maqam it was easily allowed to shift notes.  

The next Maqam to be tried on the Kanun was Maqam Hijaz. Rimonda explained that in Maqam Hijaz, note C is natural, while last notes G to D, are minor. The Maqam Hijaz was tried on the veena by Varsha. Varsha tried an experiment to translate natural G from Maqam to Raga on the Veena. After a little trial, Varsha finally caught up the complete raga. But it was noted that it was of a higher pitch than the Maqam on the kanun and there was a shift in the note.

Next “Sadqa by Duo el Shams” was viewed by the participants on YouTube where Rimonda played the Maqam. The participants tried to decode what raga it was in Carnatic music. Some participants said that it was a close cousin of Mayamalavagowla raga of Carnatic music called Vakulabharanam or close to Raga Bhairav of Hindustani music. While the scale of maqam, compositions and melodies have quite a significant variation from Carnatic ragas, certain similarities could be noted in these classical music styles. This involved changes in notes, presence of quarter notes and different rules for combining notes.

The next discussion was about how to pick solo notes. Rimonda introduced the concept of taqsim as a way of improvising a maqam. She said that there are multiple ways of introducing a taqsim in Arabic music. A maqam is introduced and small improvisations are made to it, sometimes the audience understands this improvisation but sometimes it needs to be introduced by the musician verbally.


There are hybrid “scales” in the Arabic system. First the maqam is introduced and it has two parts, hijaz and bayat. Hijaz is the base of the maqam – for example, the fist four notes sa re ga ma are hijaz. But then to explain the change in bayat, the latter half of the maqam, she said that the maqam will have quarter notes of dha in the last part. She played this combination of Hijaz and Bayat. The participants noted that while the first part of the maqam could be related to Raga Mayamalagowla, the second part could not be explained as per Carnatic syntax. Prashanthi noted that the quarter note is unusual in Carnatic ragas. Varsha tried to emulate the latter half improvisation of maqam on the veena with increased oscillation on the upper notes. It was noted that it was not a direct translation of the maqam improvisation as bayat, but something in between the Carnatic raga syntax and the Arabic syntax. One participant noted that this Bayat improvisation of Arabic music could perhaps be explained with reference to vivaadi ragam of Carnatic music with ma, pa, ni, dha1, dha2. But what Rimonda played on the kanun was something in between dha1 and dha2, which cannot be played on the veena.


As a discussion on this aspect of understanding the quarter note improvisation in Arabic maqam, one of the participants explained that in the Indian raga system, the 7th note sometimes could be read as the 6.8th note, but not exactly as a ¼th note as in maqam. For example, it could be related to gamakalayam with the na and the extended na, while oscillating between frequencies. Anirudh said as a clarification that gamaka in a Indian raga is essentially between two notes, with no syntactical placeholder for itself. While on the other hand, the quarter note of maqam is an additional note, complete in itself. This aspect of recognizing fractional notes, is not allowed in Indian raga system. Anirudh further added that, the quarter note of maqam is an independent note in between two notes, but we cannot call it a gamaka, because gamaka does not allow the representation of an in-between note.

As a further experiment, Varsha tried to play pa, dha, ni , trying to oscillate over ni, but not jump before and after ni. A participant noted that from sa to ni, all the oscillations are covered but probably it was todi and not a vivaadi. We then concluded the discussion by explaining that in regular ragam sampurnam, an Indian raga musician plays sapta swaram, while in vivaadi, intermediate notes are played. But in Arabic maqam system, there is a separate name for this intermediate note.


The next part of the discussion explored the physical components of the kanun with relation to the maqam note system. To a curious interrogation by one of the participants, if the kanun had one string for each note, Rimonda explained that there are three strings for each note. Varsha inquired if there are three options of playing a single note in a maqam just as in a keyboard there are two options for every note. Rimonda elaborated that, these three strings are not an option, but when you play a maqam, you have to play the note variation combinations using all three strings. To this, Varsha noted that, in a veena, there could be two variations of a single note because it is a fretted instrument unlike the kanun which is a fretless instrument and then in order to have the third variation, she has to pull the string of the veena. Anirudh noted that this was not the limitation in a Carnatic violin as it is also a fretless instrument, and thus, there are more intermediate notes in a violin. To have the third variation, an Indian raga musician has to pull the string backward like analog ones.


The discussion moved to  another video of Rimonda playing a minor scale maqam. Rimonda explained that she was playing La Kurd and Kurd Maqam. She explained that, la is A of the maqam and la is the first note maqam. In case you start the maqam on dugah, then it is called kur dugah or another variation is hijaz dugah. One of the participants inquired what is the meaning of la in the music notation, because la in Arabic also means no as in negation. Rimonda explained that if a maqam is kurd from la, then it does not has to start with la but essentially end with la and when you do in improvisation, you come back to la.

Prashanthi inquired that in case there were actual missing notes in the maqam system, to which Rimonda responded that essentially she does not recognize it as a missing note. Prashanthi tried to relate it to Raghuvamshasudha of Carnatic raga music where the 5th and the 7th note are skipped and this creates a new raga in the Indian system. Or alternatively, different compositions of fundamental notes also create a raga. It was further highlighted that while creating this raga by missing notes, it is allowed to skip notes only while coming down but not while going up.


Towards the last part of the Baithak, another video of a maqam recital by Rimonda was played. This part of the discussion involved questions like whether it was allowed to switch from one maqam to another in a single recitation. Rimonda responded that it was not so common, but it is possible to do so. One of the participants noted that it seemed in the video that in the maqam system, it is possible to go from natabharavi raga to some completely different composition and then again return to natabharavi and that the switching of the ragas in between comprised of something unknown to the Carnatic raga system.


After the close inspection of the notes, composition and syntax of both the maqam and the raga system, the ultimate part of the baithak explored questions like the temporal dimensions of the maqam, in case there are specific maqams for specific times of the day as present in Indian (Hindustani) raga system. Rimonda explained that maqams are related to the five prayer times of Islam in Arabic countries and there are particular maqams for particular prayer times. For example sham, saba maqam for particular prayer times.

The Baithak ended on an enthusiastic note about exploring compositions from two very different schools of music, the Arabic maqam and the Indian raga. It was concluded that while the two forms are very different in grammar, composition and methods of playing the notes, there are certain similarities to Indian ragas. This helped the participants understand the prospects of improvisation of Indian classical music by juxtaposing it closely with Arabic music. It was lauded that the kanun was a very versatile instrument with a lot of energy and has so much to offer than other veteran musical instruments

Dipon Bose
SPICMACAY volunteer
Politecnico di Milano, Italy


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