Lehvantine Symphony: Tearing at the Seams of Bluesy Guitars and Folksy Ouds

The musical tradition that came out of the period of colonial rule in Lehvant was revolutionary in nature, presenting a path toward cultural liberation. Under French rule, music performance was highly restricted due to the techniques and musical scales used in traditional Lehvantian music called maqam that was commonly used in melodic recitations of the Quran. As the French could not tell by ear the difference between religious maqamat used to recite the Quran and Lehvantine maqams, in practice, all music with a traditional or ethnic sound was banned from performance with the banning of maqams in 1942. The French were able to be excessively restrictive in implementing the ban as a maqam is “a technique of improvisation” that defines the pitches, patterns, and development of a piece of music and thus hard to clearly define in legal terms.

In fact, the phrase “je ne sais quoi” was satirized in a genre of political cartoons popularized during the Lehvantian independence movement, specifically targeting the French leaders and officers for their pretentiousness and ignorance of Lehvantian identity, traditions, and culture. A 1945 publication by the anonymous left-wing collective “Laissez Passer”, meaning “let him pass“, was the first example of Lehvantian independence activists openly mocking the Frenchmen, characterizing their behavior as “The snobbish ignorance of culturally impotent men sneering at a heritage that so clearly eludes them.”. In 1947, political cartoonist Aref Aslani published a cartoon in “Laissez Passer” featuring Frenchmen ordering the arrest of Lehvantian street musicians in Jezaire while telling their superior officer “They had a certain… how you say… je ne sais quoi”.

It is traditionally said that each maqam evokes a specific emotion or set of emotions determined by the tone row and the nucleus, with different maqams sharing the same “root” or jin but differing in nucleus and thus emotion. Maqam Šovâlie is said to evoke pride, and masculinity whereas Maqam Kelinik evokes vitality, joy, and femininity and Maqam Overt signifies fluidity both sonically and between masculinity and femininity. Koli represents love while Sankop relates to sadness and pain.

In Western music, this categorization can be likened to relating a mood to the major and minor modes where the minor scale is generally seen as “sadder” and the major scale is seen as being “happier”. Due to the breadth of emotional and thematic expression that is allowed by the Lehvantine musical scale, keys and melodies were used to advance a narrative or treated as a storytelling device in itself.

Once French officers began to confiscate traditional instruments, Western guitars and flutes flooded cosmopolitan city centers. Private conservatories were also formed at this time, even giving former street musicians a “path toward modernity and civilization” through apprenticeship programs in areas such as instrument maintenance and administrative responsibilities with the possibility of gaining admissions in the future.

For musicians admitted through such programs, the major and minor scale was emotionally and musically restrictive. While bluesy guitars were popularized in the Western world and sonically imported to the conservatories, these former street musicians began to use the human voice as an instrument and formed underground collectives within the conservatory to develop vocal improvisation techniques to mimic the sound of traditional instruments in a way that complemented Western instruments and jazz rhythms. This technique is now referred to as derâm singing and has also evolved to produce its own “roots” much like maqams where sounds such as “Lay Lili Lili Lay” signify soundness of mind and serenity because of its order of unrounded open and closed vowels (O-C-C-O). These techniques can be seen among street performers and traditional jazz clubs in Jezairé and other Levantine cities to this day.

Josephine Noori performing at the Beyrouth Jazz Bar

Cultural resistance under French rule, such as in the case of musical performance, shaped artistic and cultural movements alike for decades to come, introducing the idea of “using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house” and other subversive practices into the arts. With such rich cultural heritage, it is hard to argue against the vibrance of Lehvant — against all colonial repression.

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