Why do Arabic rhythms sound so sweet to Indian ears?

Shoba Narayan

Jan 18, 2011


A cousin of mine in Kuwait tells me that Bollywood music is de riguer at her parties these days.  Apparently, her Arab friends love it. Coincidently, I reveal, there seems to be a reverse musical migration taking place, with Arab music increasingly influencing Bollywood’s music composers.

Take Ya Ali, the hit song from the Hindi film Gangster.  It has Turkish, Arabic and Afghan versions. The Hindi tune was plainly lifted from these originals.  Another Hindi song called, Kaho na kaho, is a straight copy of Amr Diab’s hit, Tamally Maak.  Nightclubs occasionally mix both versions and nobody seems to care about the copyright infringement.

Amr Diab, of course, is the crossover Egyptian star whose eclectic 1996 hit Habibi ya nour el ain contained strong Moorish, Eastern and Franco-Arabic influences. A Malayalam version also appeared in the hugely popular movie Chandralekha, starring Mohanlal.

Intrigued, I decided to research Arabic music. It turns out, all the Bollywood songs I liked repeatedly had an Arabic tonality to them. Composer AR Rahman specialises in them and much of his more recent output has a Sufi influence, with a distinct beat and tone.

What is it about Middle Eastern music that so attracts Indian ears these days? The answer lies partly in the tonality that is quite different from the gliding notes of Indian ragas. Arabic music has a tone that seems off to the average western listener, but somehow primordial, all of which goes to show that music may not be as universal a language as we think it is. Popular western music, from Michael Jackson to Madonna to nursery rhymes, uses predominantly major keys, while eastern music relies on minor keys. In western music, it is blues music and gospel that include minor keys and that, arguably gives them their distinct sound.

Some of the differences in what we hear may be down to personal preference. According to Memory, musical expectations and culture, a paper written by Meagan E Curtis and Jamshed J Bharucha of the Music Cognition Lab in Tufts University, culture shapes our musical expectancies.  “When listening to music from an unfamiliar modal system we may impose our own cultural expectancies on that musical system,” they say. “Thus, our experiences with an unfamiliar modality may be drastically different than the experiences of one who is familiar with the modality.”

The modality that I superimpose on Arabic music is a certain sadness that comes from the use of what musicians call the minor third. Classical guitarist David Temple calls it “joyous melancholy,” and it comes from the tension between the major 3rd and the minor 3rd, he says.  The Japanese call this wabi sabi or serene melancholy.  Much of eastern music – starting with Eastern European gypsy music, to flamenco and then spreading onwards to Turkey, the Middle East, and India – incorporates this melancholic quality. China and the Far East are exceptions.



Western musicians who listen to flamenco or gypsy music say that its distinction comes from the use of minor keys as opposed to the brighter major keys. That may be an oversimplification but it has an element of truth to it. To tell an Arab that his music sounds a certain way dismisses the glorious variety between the sound of the oud and the lute; or the difference between prayerful Sufi music and exuberant Franco-Arabic pop music. To tell an Indian that his music sounds “exotic” ignores the difference between the North Indian style of music, which has Persian roots, and South India’s more Dravidian tones.

Yet, each culture has a certain metre and rhythm that gives its music a distinctive sound. The Arabic music I so adore, originated in Arab poetry, which in turn gave rise to the maqam or melodic tones. You can hear the influence of Iraq’s perfect maqams in a contemporary Bollywood song from the movie Fanaa, which opens with the words, “Subhan Allah.”  The words and beat are repeated in the background and provide a resting place for the overlapping melodies. Compare this with Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, which uses enough minor keys to sound foreboding but not melancholic. So, yes, minor keys make the music sound less straightforward but not always sad.

Recently, my Kuwaiti cousin visited me in Bangalore, where my daughter was throwing a party. The kids began dancing to Bollywood songs before graduating to western music, Wisin Y Yandel and other Latin beats before moving to Cheb Khaled and Arabic pop. They all sounded different, yet somehow similar. They all got a group of insouciant know-it-all teenagers on the dance floor. So perhaps, music is indeed universal.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore and the author ofMonsoon Diary

Subscribe to my newsletter