Show Summary Details

Page of
<p>Printed from Grove Music Online. Grove is a registered trademark. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use&#160;(for details see Privacy Policy).</p><p> Subscriber: null; date: 23 July 2019</p>

Libya [Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Republic] (Arab. Jamahiriya Al-Arabiya Al-Libiya Al-Shabiya Al-Ishtirakiya Al-Uzma)locked

  • Monique Brandily

Country in North Africa. It has an area of approximately 1,759,540 km² and covers various cultural areas. Its coastline of approximately 2000 km between Egypt and Tunisia is part of the Mediterranean region, although most of its territory lies in the Sahara desert, extending from the Sudan to southern Algeria; to the south, it borders the sub-Saharan African states of Chad and Niger.

Since ancient times Libya has been situated at a cultural crossroads, where different musical currents co-exist without destroying each other. Two factors contribute to the cohesion of Libyan society, which comprised an estimated 6·39 million people at the beginning of the 21st century, namely uniformity of religion (all groups of the population, whatever their origins, are Muslim) and a single official language, Arabic. Some minority dialects are used in the sung poetry of various regions. Traditional music continues to flourish, preserving certain features of ancient societies, which include the reservation of musical instruments for certain social groups, although such differences have been abolished in the institutions of contemporary Libya.

1. General musical characteristics.

Arabo-Andalusian music, which has its own theoretical system, is traditional art music rather than traditional folk music. This article will concentrate on orally transmitted musical traditions, often of a functional nature, which act as markers of identity and have not been conceptualized into an explicit theory. While these traditions are shaped by rules that are often complex, these rules remain implicit; they are learnt by participation in the music and transmitted by imitation.

Notwithstanding their diversity, these musical traditions have certain common features that demarcate them as Saharan traditions and distinguish them from the music of sub-Saharan Africa and the traditions of the northern shores of the Mediterranean. They are all monodic; various percussion instruments are used to accompany a single melodic line, either vocal or instrumental, the range of which is often limited to a 5th or 6th. (Tuareg female fiddle players are an exception, often playing an octave leap at the beginning of or during a piece.) Instrumental ensembles therefore comprise a single melodic instrument (a chordophone or an aerophone) accompanied by percussion instruments, which vary with region and repertory. Vocal performance is most frequently of the responsorial type, alternating between a solo voice and a homophonic chorus. There is sometimes a slight overlap between the verse and the refrain, and most of this music is metrical.

2. Musical repertories.

The most obvious distinctions between the different repertories are based on functional criteria linked to the circumstances in which the music is performed.

Despite the latent disapproval of certain prominent fundamentalist Muslims, the population in general has a positive attitude towards musical performance on certain occasions, notably the periods of communal festivity that punctuate the religious calendar (in particular the end of the month of Ramadan) and wedding ceremonies. The music performed at wedding ceremonies in towns differs in certain respects from that performed at rural weddings. Differences that are regional or peculiar to certain communities are especially marked where traditional customs persist, and the celebration has not entirely lost its ritual aspects; this is particularly the case in certain oases, which until quite recently were separated by distances assessed in terms of several days' journey by caravan. The advent of motor transport has reduced travelling time, but distinctive cultural features several centuries old have not necessarily disappeared.

The more directly religious repertories are connected with the popular Sufism of the various religious fraternities found in Libya. The music, which is closely linked to their ceremonies, may be a sequence of alternating song (a soloist and a male chorus) accompanied by an ensemble of bandīr frame drums; a similar ensemble may be used to accompany a solo oboe. Music may also be performed by a more varied percussion ensemble, with voices merely repeating the name of God rhythmically in order to achieve ecstasy.

Private music does not involve the whole community. Included in this category are songs performed by women among themselves and music performed in isolation by herdsmen, who sing and play music that may have amorous or nostalgic themes. Herdsmen may play either the tazammart (small flute) or the magruna (double clarinet).

3. Musical instruments.

(i) Aerophones.

There are three reed instruments with different areas of distribution, namely the magruna, the zokra (bagpipe) and the ghayṭa or gaita (oboe); the latter is also found far beyond the boundaries of Libya. The flute, which is common in neighbouring Arab regions, is not played widely in Libya, but the sedentary populations (originally slaves) of the south-western oases play the tazammart. This differs from the Arab nay both organologically and in performance technique; it has four finger-holes, which are grouped in pairs, and the musician adds a vocal drone while playing the instrument.

The magruna has two melodic pipes made of reed or sometimes brass, each with five finger-holes; there is no hole at the back. The pipes are fixed together in parallel, so that the holes of each can be stopped at the same time by the same finger and will sound in unison. A small mouthpiece to hold the reed is inserted into each pipe. The reeds are of the idioglot type (cut directly in the wall of the pipe); their beating length is carefully regulated by a cotton ligature sliding over the tongues to keep them synchronized. The far end of each pipe has a horn-shaped bell. These features distinguish the magruna from the Egyptian double clarinet, which has no bells and only one melodic pipe; the second pipe of the Egyptian instrument has no finger-holes and acts as a drone. Players of the magruna use a circular breathing technique and can therefore play for a long time without interrupting the flow of sound.

The zokra has two melodic pipes fixed together like those of the double clarinet; they differ from the pipes of the magruna in that each pipe only has four finger-holes. Consequently the entire repertory of the zokra can be performed on the magruna, but the reverse is not true. The reeds of the zokra are about twice as long as those of the magruna. The bag, which acts as an air reservoir, is made of a whole kidskin with the feet tied. In general, the Libyan zokra resembles the Tunisian mezwid bagpipe, although the latter has pipes with five finger-holes rather than four and therefore has features in common with both the Libyan zokra and the magruna. (In Tunisia the name zokra designates an oboe.)

The ghayṭa is widely distributed both within and beyond the Mediterranean area. It is made of turned wood; the pipe has a conical bore and flares at the end. The ghayṭa has a double reed with a disc (usually made of metal) on which the musician's lips can rest and is played using a continuous breathing technique. Some ghayṭas are entirely covered by a thin sheet of brass to prevent them from splitting in dry atmospheric conditions.

(ii) Chordophones.

These are played mainly by two minority groups: the Tubu (sometimes called the Tibu or Teda in Libya), who are originally from Chad and live in large numbers in the Khufrah and Fezzan regions of the extreme south, and the Tuareg, who live mainly along the western frontiers of the country (see Tuareg music). There are two varieties of chordophone in Libya, namely the keleli (plucked lute) played by the Tubu, and the fiddle, played by both the Tubu and the Tuareg.

The keleli has a hemispherical resonator, which may be made of gourd, wood or enamelled sheet metal; this is covered with a soundtable of stretched skin laced into position. Its two strings have no pegs and are attached to the neck by ligatures; a third, shorter string is sometimes added, tuned an octave above the lower string. The body of the instrument can be turned into a kiiki fiddle simply by replacing the gut strings of the lute with a single ‘string’ made of a hank of horsehair, which is played with a bow consisting of a curved stick with another length of horsehair stretched between its ends.

The Tuareg imzad fiddle (sometimes called inzad or amzad) is also a monochord and is always played by women. Its resonator consists of a hemispherical gourd covered with skin laced in place, but its diameter is considerably larger than that of the Tubu kiiki, and the skin of its soundtable is usually decorated with symbolic designs in henna. The string is fixed to the neck, and, like the Tubu kiiki, the instrument has no pegs, but performance technique differs in the way in which the bow is held; a musician playing the kiiki moves the bow outwards, while a performer on the imzad draws it in the opposite direction. The two-stringed Arab rabāb does not seem to be played in Libya, but the imzad is sometimes known as the rabāba.

(iii) Membranophones.

The membranophones have resonating bodies of various shapes and dimensions, which may be made of wood or pottery. These instruments differ from one repertory and region to another, but for the sake of clarity their organological characteristics have been adopted here as the prime criterion of presentation.

(a) Double-headed drums.

The ṭabl is a cylindrical drum with two laced skins. The player rests it on the ground and strikes the upper skin with bare hands. The ṭabl is in widespread use, particularly to enliven the evening before a wedding ceremony, and may be used to accompany a singer or a magruna. The term ṭabl may also be used to refer to a kettledrum. The nuba drum, although much heavier and larger, is slung from the player's shoulder by a strap and beaten on both skins with a straight drumstick; it is mainly used during the dhikr religious ceremonies performed by various fraternities of the popular Sufism which flourishes in Libya.

The term Ganga is used to refer to double-headed drums, which belong to two different organological categories: one variety of ganga is a tubular or cylindrical drum and the other a frame drum. Tubular gangas are 40 to 60 cm deep and are played in pairs, one drum being regarded as a female voice and the other as a male. This idea is common in sub-Saharan Africa and indicates the southern African origin of these instruments. They are carried using a shoulder strap and the upper skin is struck with a curved beater, the lower skin is played with the bare hand, though some drummers never strike the lower skin.

The other form of ganga has a supple wooden frame (often of the kind used to make large flour sieves); this is held vertically with the left hand, while the right hand strikes one of the skins with a cross-shaped curved beater similar to that used to play the tubular ganga. The tubular ganga has snares on the lower skin, which produce a characteristic ‘chirping’ sound when the skin against which they are stretched vibrates (sympathetically, when the other skin is struck). Such drums are played for entertainment and may accompany a ghayṭa or a magruna, but are not used in religious ceremonies.

The Tubu in the Khufrah and Fezzan regions play the nang'ara, a large drum which has two laced skins. In performance, it is placed on the ground or suspended in a vertical position; its upper skin is struck by two men who each use two straight sticks. Blacksmith musicians (a special caste among the Tubu) accompany their songs by striking a drum called the kidi with their bare hands.

(b) Single-headed drums.

This category includes drums of many shapes and sizes, the bodies of which may be made of wood or pottery. Pottery drums are always of the goblet type, although there are many variations in form and dimension. This category includes the type widely distributed throughout North Africa under the name of darbouka (see Darabukka), which has an almost hemispherical body on which the skin is stretched. The conical drum is more specifically Libyan; Gharyan, in the west of the country, is one of the main centres where it is made. The skin of the darbouka, which may be goatskin or fish-skin, is glued in place. Some darboukas are played in ensembles of three instruments of different sizes, which produce varying pitches; the smallest is about 15 to 20 cm high and is named qullāl or al-darbouka al-ghadāmsī, from the name of the town of Ghadamis on the Tunisian border. These drums are women's instruments, particularly among the Berbers.

Other goblet drums have wooden cases and are considerably larger (about 80 cm high). The debedha, which has a rounded body like that of the darbouka, has a head made of sheepskin with a central cap placed on it to weight it; in this respect it resembles the debedba of the Hon region, the body of which is cylindrical. Libyan musicians consider that these drums have been in use much longer than pottery drums and that they produce the finest sound of all the local drums.

Bandīr frame drums without jingles are mainly played at religious dhikr ceremonies, as are the small baz kettledrums. Some fraternities prefer to use the small ṭār frame drums, which are approximately 20 cm in diameter and have jingles attached, and the drum also known as al-bandīr al-Aīssāwī, which has two rows of jingles.

The large tindé mortar drum is particular to the Tuareg and is played by women as an accompaniment to non-religious songs on various occasions.

(iv) Idiophones.

The most important instruments in this category are the large metal castanets called shakshaka (known in Morocco as qarqabou); these are plates about 30 cm long shaped into a hollow cup and are joined in pairs by a leather strap. They are played by a professional musician, who holds a pair of them in each hand, and are usually found in ensembles with ganga drums and ghayṭas or magrunas.

Cymbals are used by certain religious orders in their ceremonies, while everyday utensils such as spoons and bottles are often used as percussion instruments for entertainment; for instance, empty jerrycans balanced on a small pile of sand or a bale of fabric are struck with bare hands and make satisfactory substitutes for drums.

4. Musicians.

The institutions of modern Libya are founded on the principle of equality of all citizens. This rules out official recognition of castes of musicians, but the caste system persists strongly in minority groups of non-Arab cultures (mainly the Tuareg and Tubu peoples) and is apparent in the exclusive use of certain instruments and repertories by certain groups within these cultures.

Members of the musician caste are often blacksmiths. Among the Tubu, their instrument is the kidi drum, while among the Tuareg it is the ganga of either variety. Members of this caste are the only ones who perform praise-songs in public for a fee. As well as qualification by caste, gender is a factor in the performance of certain repertories; the Tuareg women, who do not constitute a caste but enjoy high social status, play the imzad, which is played exclusively by men in all neighbouring societies. Age is a relatively minor consideration, in contrast to many African societies in which the repertories performed by children and those performed by adults are substantially different.

The Arab, or Arabic-speaking Libyan population as a whole, does not recognize castes of musicians, but specialization in music has implications for the social status of those involved. There is a distinction between those who perform merely for the love of music and those who perform for a fee. In general, musicians are semi-professionals; they participate in the activities of the social group as a whole, and payment for their music is merely incidental. In the southern provinces, most of these musicians are of African origin. The men play the ghayṭa, the magruna or the zokra and the women specialize in certain song repertories, especially for wedding ceremonies; but while music is an indispensable feature of certain occasions, the performers' activities carry no particular social cachet.

During the closing decades of the 20th century, a new category of professionals developed in the urban environment; these musicians take part in ‘folk’ performances of traditional music and dance adapted to some extent to modern tastes, and their activities are broadcast on television and local radio.


And other resources
  • AMe (M. Brandily)
  • J. Rouanet: ‘La musique arabe’, EMDC, I/v (1922)
  • L. Balout and A. Sautin: ‘Le jeu de l'imzad’, Annales de l'Institut d'Études Orientales, 16 (1958)
  • M. Brandily: ‘Le son ininterrompu, remarques sur quelques exemples africains’, Africa-Tervuren, 26 (1980)
  • M. Guettat: La musique classique du Maghreb (Paris, 1980)
  • M. Brandily: ‘Le même et l'autre, sur l'appellation de quelques instruments de musique en Libye’, Les fantaisies du voyageur: xxxiii variations Schaeffner (Paris, 1982) [pubn of the Société Française de Musicologie]
  • M. Brandily: ‘Qu'exprime-t-on par et dans la musique traditionelle? Quelques exemples libyens’, Maghreb Review, 11/2–4 (1986)
  • M. Brandily: ‘La pratique musicale traditionelle en Libye et ses instruments’, Maghreb Review, 18/1–2 (1993)
  • Al musyqat al sha'abyat fi al jamhurya al ‘arabya al Libya (Tripoli, n.d.) [pubn of the Organisation Générale pour le Théâtre, la Musique et les Arts Populaires]
  • Libye: musiques traditionelles, coll. M. Brandily [forthcoming]
Algemene muziekencyclopedie
A. Lavignac and L. de La Laurencie, eds.: Encyclopédie de la musique et dictionnaire du Conservatoire