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Introduction: makam geographies

The makam modal system is one of the most extensive modal systems in the world. Besides its obvious ubiquity in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, the system is the basis of most melodic music throughout North Africa (Algeria, Lybia, Tunisia, and Morocco), south in Africa (Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya), elsewhere in the Arab world (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman), in parts of Iran and Armenia, in parts of the new Turkic nations (Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Khazikstan), and in Europe (Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania). Traces of makam can even be found in Uighur music in western China and in contemporary musics of Malaysia and Indonesia!

map of the world of makamThe world of makams. Image © 2007, Eliot Bates

It is important to note that in every country I mention, there are significant regional variants in the makam system. There is NOT one makam system! It is more accurate to say that makam represents a way of conceiving of tuning and mode that creates a framework to understand a lot of different folk and classical music traditions, particularly in countries that have been ruled under Islam or were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.

This last statement informs us most of the widespread nature of makam. The Ottoman court was, at times, very interested in the (relatively) obscure folk traditions held by its subjects, and would send composers out to research folk songs and create "new modes" (which tended to be pilfering of old modes in some hithero uncharted region). One could say that the Ottomans at times were amateur applied ethnomusicologists, cataloging the music of their occupied territories in obsequious ways.

Because there are so many regional variants in the makam system, any attempt to authoritatively talk about a particular makam, or even a particular set of rules, will be met with counters from theorists from another region that shares that same makam. Thus, if one talks about the structure of makam Rast in a Turkish fashion, it won't match the way that the same maqam is perceived and talked about in Morocco, in Egypt, or in Bulgaria. Despite the difference in style in talking about these makams, there are substantial similarities and with these I will carefully tread onto the turf of describing elements about the makam system and introducing this modal system to a Western audience.
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