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My Approach to the Music of Americanistan by Frederique Al Bayyati
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Frederique Al-Bayyati
Musician Frederique Al-Bayyati with oud
aka Frederick Wilson

My Approach to the Music of Americanistan

And How You Can Play It Too!

By Frederique Al-Bayyati

(Frederick Wilson)

Welcome to my little corner of Americanistan. I hope to provide you with some background on the music you hear me play, and some tips on how to play the traditional music of Americanistan on your own instrument. By all means, do try this at home!!!

Of course, Americanistan is a pretty tongue-in-cheek name. The band is made up of Americans, expressing in music what we know best: our own lives in Oregon, USA, not some far-off place that we’ve perhaps only infrequently visited.

I for one don’t have any ancestral roots in eastern lands, although I’ve spent as much time as possible travelling and playing music there. But I love the sounds of traditional cultures from all over the world, and have studied world music for decades. The main influences in my playing are eastern, Celtic, Gypsy, Central Asian, Balkan, Renaissance, classical, and a touch of jazz and blues.I believe that the most authentic and beneficial thing I can do for audiences and dancers is to play from the heart. My goal is to offer you original, daring, and transcending music that is captivating to listen to and respectful of the traditions on which it draws. If you are a dancer, my further goal is to tailor my music to your dance goals and dreams.

Oud and Cumbus: You’ll often see me pick up an oud or cumbus during one of our concerts. (These instruments are played in much the same way.) I was going to write a long essay on oud technique, maqam theory (eastern scales and how they are used), and so forth, but the web has a lot of sites now that cover these topics quite thoroughly, at least at an introductory level. So, do some searches on maqam theory and oud, and you will learn a lot about it. If you find some confusing things, or have more questions that you can’t find the answers to, please ask. I’ll be glad to answer, or try to find someone who can.

Here’s a little background on how I approach the oud. I play a modern, nontraditional oud which was designed by Mounir Bashir, the great Iraqi oudist. My oud has 6 double courses, and is tuned C F A DG C (low to high). My style of playing is "modern," as well. Many eastern players and theorists have been developing, since the 1930s, a way of understanding maqam based on tetrachords (groups of 4 or so notes, also called ajna). This is the "modern" approach that I use. Specifically I have moved away from strong reliance on seyir (melodic fragments and maqam-specific tunes and rules for movement), rules for starting notes, rules for modulation, specific feelings assigned to each maqam, long lists of qaflat (stereotyped cadences for each maqam), and numerous other rules on how to play and modulate among the maqams. These things just aren’t my style, although they are fine for other oudists. I feel much more comfortable with the "modern" approach to maqam which I will outline in the next paragraph.

The approach I use (the "modern" approach to maqam theory) is to rely predominantly on how the maqams are built from the ajna (tetrachords - groups of 4 or so notes). In the "modern" approach, I can modulate rather freely among various ajna to create interesting taqsims (improvisational solos) and tunes. I use the ajna to inform me how to move in the taqsim, where to move, when to play accidentals, which notes are dominant in each maqam, how to bring phrases to an end and create satisfying cadences, and when to lighten or darken individual tones by a comma (smidgen) or two. I’ve found that the theory of ajna gives me sufficient insight into maqam for my musical needs, as well as an authentic sound that is respectful of the cultures from which it is drawn. The "modern" approach also allows for a lot of artistic freedom. All this comes without the huge memory burden and feeling of restriction that the older approach would create in me. I have found that the "modern" approach and its ease of application to the oud work together to set me free, musically, to discover new voices for each maqam, and new ways to juxtapose sounds that work better for American dancers and audiences. With the technical aspects of the music handled in this efficient and clear way, I am freed to play more evocatively, more emotively, more from the heart.

My favorite oudists: Mounir Bachir; Abdel Gadir Salim (great vocalist and songwriter too)

Now try it yourself!

Let’s use the "modern" approach to build an improvisational solo that you can play right now!

If you have access to any instrument at all, find the notes D Eb, F#, G. This is the Hijaz tetrachord (or jin, plural ajna). The most important note in a tetrachord is the first one, in this case, D. You can pile another Hijaz on top of this one: transposed, it would be A Bb C# D. So now you have a (Hijaz, Hijaz) scale, the really beautiful sounding Hijaz Ghariib Maqam. So, let’s play a really short, essentially skeletal, taqsim in Hijaz Ghariib Maqam. If you were really performing, you would fill this framework out with quite a bit of repetition and elaboration.

Play D Eb D C# D D D D D Eb F# G (you’re playing a lot of Ds to emphasize the tonic, and hitting the rest of the notes in the Hijaz tetrachord). Now, play G F# G A G G G (emphasizing the second-most-important note in the tetrachord - the last one - by circling around it). While we’re there, let’s play the higher Hijaz tetrachord: A A A Bb C# d C# Bb Bb A A. Now descend G F# Eb D D D D. Now play D C# D (the tonic and its leading tone). We’ve covered the whole maqam now. So, let’s do something new. Why not modulate to a new tetrachord in the higher part of the maqam: Kurdi (A Bb C D), (This puts you in Hijaz Ajami Maqam, which has the structure (Hijaz, Kurdi) Do this by playing: D A, A A A Bb A G A Bb C Bb A, then come on down in Hijaz: A G F# Eb D D D D D C# D

Now we’ll jump up to Ab. You are signalling the end of your lovely taqsim by playing this Ab. The reason for this is that, in general, the upper neighbor note to the highest note in the first tetrachord signals an ending cadence. Here, the highest note in the first tetrachord (D Eb F# G) is G, and its upper neighbor is Ab. So, play: D Ab, G G, F# Eb D C# D and let it fade out. Here’s the whole taqsim, without the commentary. Leave a silence after each line, and take your time. Lengthen some notes, and shorten others, as you feel is right for you.

D Eb D C# D D D D D Eb F# G

G F# G A G G G

A A A Bb C# d C# Bb Bb A A

G F# Eb D D D

D C# D


A A A Bb A G A Bb C Bb A

A G F# Eb D D D D

D C# D

D Ab


F# Eb D C# D

Play this over a few times, then modify it as you will. In your modifications, use plenty of stepwise motion, but also some jumps, and use repetition. (If you’ve ever taken a music composition course, you can use most of the same techniques you’d use to write a good western melody). Doesn’t your beautiful sound just transport you to far-off, exotic Americanistan?

If you have access to an instrument with quarter tones, or something without frets, or you can lip a wind instrument up or down, you can add another feature to your taqsim. Let’s try "bending" some notes to nonwestern pitches. Think of a Hijaz tetrachord as 1 2b 3# 4 5, where 1 can be any of several possible starting notes. Now, if you can narrow the interval between the 2b and 3# a little by deliberately playing the 2b a little sharp and the 3# a little flat, you will get a great eastern sound. (Later, you can try widening the interval by playing the 2b flatter and the 3# sharper. I’ve heard reliable players do this too.) So try playing some or all of the Ebs a little sharp and the F#s a little flat. You can apply this to the upper Hijaz tetrachord in our little taqsim as well (the Bbs and C#s).

I hope you enjoyed this little experiment in taqsim!

Clarinet: I play a western instrument: a Mazzeo model Selmer Bb clarinet that I bought in the 1970s. I have two different barrels, a regular one, and one I had cut 3/8" short. I use the regular one for playing without as much lipping of tones, and the short one when I want to play with a looser embouchure and lip up and down, and really wail! I generally use a soft reed and a couple of mouthpieces: a conventional Vandoren B45 for a more orchestral sound, and a Vandoren M30 Series 88 for a hotter, more cutting sound. I try to play in an urban Greek/Gypsy style - with wide lipping, indistinct passages, and use of upper neighbor notes on descents, as well as tetrachords and modern maqam theory. I like to play a lot of 7/8 , 9/8 and 11/8 rhythms on clarinet, as well as more conventional rhythms.

My favorite clarinetist: Giorgos Mangas

Other instruments: I play several other instruments in Americanistan, including duduk, saxophone, renaissance bass recorder, saz, double-chambered flute, transverse wooden flute, sipsi, zurna, and others. Each of these wonderful instruments has its own story to tell, and I’ll try to add them to this page as time permits.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your excursion to my little corner of Americanistan. Please let me know what you’d like to see more of, or learn more about, and I’ll try to add it to this corner of the Americanistan website.

Frederique al-Bayyati

About the author: Frederique al Bayyati, aka Frederick Wilson, is the newest member of Americanistan. His life long love of music began with studies of the clarinet as a child. His interest in folk dance, folk music, and Eastern European and Middle Eastern music has led him to travel the globe. He founded Balladina, an Eastern European and Middle Eastern music ensemble, and was a member of Trio Slavej, a musical ensemble specializing in Eastern European folk and Rom music.He is a multi-instrumentalist and composer.