A Brief History
From the beginning of civilization, the Levant, the coastal region of the eastern Mediterranean from Syria in the north to Egypt in the south, was the crossroads of various peoples and cultures. From this important trade region, fundamental social and economic changes began spreading across the Middle East and the Mediterranean, leaving behind a rich heritage of unique material remains.
In the foreword to The Levant: History and Archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean, Heinz Gaube writes, “After World War I, ‘Levantines’ saw themselves increasingly as belonging to individual states. Today, that these states … their peoples … are inhabitants of a culturally unified region, linked moreover by a common language, history, and close family ties, is easily forgotten.”
The wide range of books by and about Levantines take readers from the ancient world to today. Below are some of our favorites that capture the history, architecture, archaeology, culture, art, music and more, all inspired by the Levant.
Music of the Levant
“The Levant has been a fertile ground for cultural blending and exchange that started in the 7th century where art in the region was met with that of Syrians of Mesopotamia, Byzantium and Persia. Later there was great exchange, of course, with the 400-year ruling of the Ottoman Empire over the Levant, and North Africa and other regions.
Still there was a fantastic exchange of music, exchange of music theory, exchange in music forms.
Then in the 19th and 20th century, we had another cultural renaissance that began in Egypt and moved to the Levant, including Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq, which sparked a musical renaissance.
Today, traditional music of the Levant plays a major role in defining culture and heritage. While close cultural and music pollination has created a perfect alchemy for music to transcend the boundaries of genre and geography.”
Simon Shaheen, March 1, 2018
A.J. Racy & James Peterson, “When the Rivers Met”
When the Rivers Met represents a new collaboration between two extraordinary artists who come from different musical traditions. When the Rivers Met is a powerfully evocative and masterfully created musical suite in which Racy and Peterson weave a breathtaking tapestry of orchestral sounds punctuated by Racy’s performances on the nay, kawala, buzuq, oud, plucked/bowed-tanbur and other Middle Eastern instruments.
Fairuz is synonymous with tradition. It conjures up more than half a century of genre-defining Arabic music, giving rise to countless musical disciples, imitators and fans. Bebalee sees the Lebanese diva as strong as ever, offering up captivating interpretations of classics. “Yemken” is her take on John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “Ana Weyyak” her version of the bolero staple “Bésame Mucho” — a clear testament to the fact that the epic musical tale of Fairuz still has unwritten chapters.
Farid el-Atrache, “The Best”
Egyptian-Syrian Farid el-Atrache is still considered one of the most important figures of 20th century Arab music, wearing many hats: composer, singer, actor, and a virtuoso oud player.
Fazil Say, “Mesopotamia Symphony”
Turkish pianist and composer Fazıl Say’s original symphony paints a picture of the present Middle East as well as the history and culture of ancient Mesopotamia.
Hewar, “9 Days of Solitude”
Hewar (which translates to ‘dialogue’ in Arabic) is adventurous Arabic music that is inspired by Arabic music traditions but by no means limited by them. The ensemble – made up of clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, vocalist Dima Orsho, oudist Issam Rafea, violinist Jasser Haj-Youssef, and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach – brings together a fresh and diverse musical palate and draws from an array of musical traditions—namely Arabic, jazz, and classical music among others.
Ibrahim Maalouf, “Kalthoum”
On Kalthoum, French-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf presents an enthralling tribute to one of Egypt’s most legendary classical singers, Oum Kalthoum. Also known as the Star of the East, Oum Kalthoum (1904-1975) was endowed with a powerful and emotionally penetrating voice.
Kareem Roustom & El-Zafeer Ensemble, “Almitra’s Question”
On Almitra’s Question, Roustom and the El-Zafeer Ensemble make music that blends American jazz with Arabic sounds. The rhythm patterns and the distinctive percussion (riqq and daff) lend an exotic and crisply declamatory backdrop to Roustom’s lush accoustic guitar playing and violinist Hanna Khoury’s sweetly sinuous lines.
Karim Nagi, “Everybody Yalla”
Nagi employs traditional Arab instruments, songs and themes, while evolving them into current, or even futuristic, performances. He has an authentic acoustic dexterity, as well as an excitable electronic skill and awareness. Everybody Yalla is a succinct summary of his varied styles and songs.
Marcel Khalife, “Promises of the Storm”
On Promises of the Storm, Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife – sometimes called the Bob Dylan of the Middle East – creates musical settings for poems by the world-renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and one poem (“Jaffra”) by another Palestinian poet, Izzidine Munassrah.
Naseer Shamma, “Departing Moon”
Iraqi-born Naseer Shamma is both an oud virtuoso and a UNESCO ambassador for peace. With his instrument slung over his shoulder, the Iraqi musican has transformed his art into a vibrant manifesto.
Omar Souleyman, “Wenu Wenu”
Produced by Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, ‘Wenu Wenu’ combines aspects of Middle Eastern dabke dance music and traditional songs with Souleyman’s own contemporary style.
Rabih Abou-Khalil, “Blue Camel”
Lebanese oudist and jazz musician Rabih Abou Khalil presents an electric fusion of Arabic tones and modern jazz, that features classic compositions with as guitar and alto sax, as well as world instruments such as the oud and South Indian drums.
Simon Shaheen, “Turath”
This really outstanding classical recording by Shaheen, an excellent oud-player and violinist, who is joined by fine nay quanun and percussion in a recital of classic and contemporary works in the linked Arabic and Ottoman-Turkish tradition.
Turbo Tabla, “The Belly and the Beat”
Turbo Tabla’s songs utilize the rich and evocative beauty of traditional Arab music, performed with authentic instruments. Then, each song is re-contextualized into the Techno, House, Hip Hop and Asian Massive genres. The songs utilize heavy and tight dance grooves, bass lines and soundscapes. The result is a “Turbo Tradition” where the classic sounds of the East are bolstered for the dance floor.
Umm Kulthum, “Diva of Arabic Music, Vol. 3”
EMI Arabia’s Diva series is a comprehensive examination of the material the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum recorded for EMI. Kulthum was one of the great voices of the 20th century, and this series presents ample evidence of her singing power.
Yasmine Hamdan, “Ya Nass”
Lebanese electropop musician Yasmine Hamdan’s album features a mixture of original compositions and reworkings of older Arabicsongs, including songs by the Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab and the singer Leila Mourad.