The Art of Qur’anic Recitation

Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah
Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah

The recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture presents an opportunity to look closely at a Muslim music tradition that may have profoundly influenced black music in the United States. Historians have determined that Muslims made up about a quarter of all Africans forcibly shipped to the Americas through the slave trade. They brought with them long-standing traditions of unaccompanied vocal music that probably fared well under the ban on drums enforced by US plantation owners.

The Muslim call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an are marked by florid melodic lines (multiple notes to each syllable), altered notes outside Western scales, an absence of rhythm, and no instrumental accompaniment. Not surprisingly, a vocal tradition developed among African Americans that bears remarkable similarities to this Muslim heritage—the field holler, a genre that probably predated and influenced the blues.

When historian Sylviane Diouf gave public talks following the 1998 publication of her book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, she began by playing audio samples of these two traditions side-by-side. You can hear historic recordings of field hollers on the Library of Congress website, such as this one by Enoch Brown recorded in Alabama in 1939. Compare for yourself by listening to Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah, who will lead our lecture-demonstration on Qur’anic recitation on Saturday, November 5, at 2 pm at the Hammer Auditorium of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. The event is free—no tickets required—and presented as part of Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections.

Michael Wilpers

Michael Wilpers is the manager of performing arts at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. He oversees the museum’s chamber music series, which focuses on Asian composers and music inspired by Asia, as well as other programs that explore genres from traditional Asian music to new music, jazz, and fusions. Many of these concerts are featured in podcasts on our website, where listeners can enjoy more than one hundred high-quality audio recordings. During the museum’s closure due to COVID-19, he developed our Look & Listen series, which brings together top performers and curators to explore the intersections of art and music. He also produces concerts with studio-quality video recordings made especially for the museum. Wilpers received his master’s in music from the University of Maryland and was formerly the president of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology. He has played a variety of music, including jazz and Indonesian gamelan, in ensembles such as a Ugandan xylophone quartet, the Washington Toho Koto Society, and the Thomas Circle Singers.

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