Zajal, think hip-hop, rap and toasting

Ed Emery in Le Monde Diplomatique:

Lebanon’s Ghada Shbeir won the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards this June and, with them, the West discovered Muwashshah, an Arab versified musical form that was previously known just to a handful of scholars. The Palestinian singer Reem Kilani has also helped Britain discover this music, which exists alongside a related form known as Zajal. Like Muwashshah, it is a strophic poetic form much loved and prized by Arabs the world over.

Although it is sung and has music, Zajal is not often performed in the West, for simple reasons: it is an art of poetic duelling in which two poets challenge each other with improvised verses, and each has to respond in kind. It is performance art, emulative poeteering between men. It is not a free-for-all, but takes place within established conventions. Think hip-hop, rap, Jamaican dancehall and toasting.

Since its performance depends on text, it needs an audience who can understand its meanings, cross-references, puns and interplays. And feedback from the audience – appreciative noises, rhythmic clapping and repeating of sung refrains – is necessary for its poets to perform their art, so Zajal could not easily transfer to the alienated spaces of the World Music stage.

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