There are many words that are impossible to translate directly to English; their existence in one language and absence in another makes it difficult to ascribe a particular meaning to them. Tarab is one of those words. Loosely translated to “enchantment,” tarab is an Arabic word describing a deep, stirring musical performance that launches the audience into a trance-like state of ecstasy. The creation of tarab by an artist or musical piece is difficult to pinpoint. Whether it be a result of poignant, lilting vocals, mesmerizing riffs, stirring instrumentals or profound lyrics, these seemingly mystical components culminate to create an experience of utter mesmerization, a world in which all that exists is the music and the intense bodily response one has to hearing it.
When discussing the cultural presence of tarab in Arabic music, Umm Kulthum is almost always used as the pinnacle of such a phenomenon. An Egyptian diva who rose to fame in the mid-to-late 1900s, Umm Kulthum was known to bewitch her audience, rousing their souls in her entrancing live performances. With a powerful singing voice and intensive training in Quranic recitation, Kulthum held a firm command over her tone, unwavering and expertly controlled as it swelled into triumphant notes or dwindling cries. Her live performances can best be characterized as a conversation between Umm Kulthum, her musicians and her listeners. The audience is deeply immersed by the divinity of her vocals and the way they blend seamlessly with the powerful instrumentals backing her, sending the crowd into a delirious fit of cries and shouts. The spectators are steeped in rapture, and with every powerful waver of her voice or deliberately drawn-out note, they respond with unrestrained enthusiasm — a holy sermon between a preacher and her listeners.
Umm Kulthum’s live performances, and the tarab which she so expertly cultivated among her listeners, are rooted in a sense of ambiguity. Such profound bodily experiences engage with one’s mind, body and soul, and that power is difficult to articulate. No words I could muster would ever seem to do justice to the bewitching performances of Umm Kulthum and the seemingly supernatural force that fell over her listeners. Tarab as an experience, in traditional Arabic music and beyond, harbors that same sense of mystery. Because tarab is difficult to translate and is typically connotated with Arab musical performances, it feels like any attempt to neatly confine tarab to a short English definition falls short.
Perhaps the experience of tarab is not meant to be translated or systematized at all — it must be felt. After all, the indescribably deep connection that one can have with music is a universal part of the human experience; the out-of-body euphoria that music can evoke is one that transcends the simplicity of language. As a lover of music, I know that I’ve experienced the peculiar magic of tarab in ways that cannot adequately be described by words. You too can probably recall a moment in which that ineffable force has stirred you, whether it be unsuspecting tears welling in your eyes or an explosive, nameless sensation rising in the pit of your stomach. Maybe it’s the song that comes on in the car and hurls you into a fit of screams with your friends as you all pour every ounce of your strength into the lyrics. It might even be the quiet lull of your favorite Frank Ocean song, heard with eyes shut and body still, unraveling you through its celestial beauty.
The beauty of tarab is heightened by its lack of simplicity; it is more than a superficial engagement with the production or lyrics, rather it is a complete surrendering to the nameless, spiritual exaltation that this type of music demands. Though the conditions of tarab are difficult to explain, it moves us all in a way that does not need to be entirely understood. In its enigmatic nature lies a comforting sanctity: a shared, almost holy experience that connects us all.
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