Cultural Diffusion is a term used by anthropologists, geographers, historians and others to describe the spread of ideas of various sorts. For example, gunpowder was invented in China c. 1000 CE; it quickly spread to other regions through trade and contact. It is not always a “one-way street,” of course. Ideas can flow in more than one direction. The development of languages exemplifies this process (words often get adopted and borrowed from one language to another). Think of the English word Algebra. It comes from the Arabic al-jabr, which means “completing, or restoring broken parts.” The English word “computer” is used in the Middle East; it has been adopted outright by Arabic speakers. For more words like this (click here). What about musical ideas? Does cultural diffusion apply to music? Let’s look at some of legendary jazz artist, Miles Davis’s music. (For a brief overview of jazz, click here).
Miles Davis songs “So What” and “Flamenco Sketches” from the album Kind of Blue (1959) followed by “Solea” and “Concierto de Aranjuez” from the album Sketches of Spain (1960).
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For additional information on the spread of Islamic culture see student-made videos on this topic (click here).
Pepe Romero from the album Flamenco (1991), “Lamento Andaluz” and “Capricho Árabe,” from the album Tarrega (1983).
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Selections from Habib Hassan Touma, The Music of the Arabs: Book with CD ( on Amazon click here). Songs, “Layali Kurd”, “Sawt Shami” and “Tagsim Magam Hijaz”.
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Sheet Music can help us find the patterns. Take a look at the notes and chords below:
These are the traditional Maqams, patterns or modes, used in Arab music:
See instructional videos from Vancouver-based, Middle Eastern music and dance duo called Majnuun Music and Dance:
Does cultural diffusion apply to music?
Try to describe the similarities or connections you hear in the excerpts above. Or describe the patterns you see in the sheet music. Try to describe connections involving traditional Arab and Spanish music and Miles Davis’s music. You may need to listen several times. You may need to hit pause and/or rewind to better focus on key examples of cultural diffusion.
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Click here for a biography of Miles Davis.
Click here for my article “The Arab Roots of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain”
This is my attempt to create a piece that borrows across cultures. I call it “Variations on Duke Ellington’s Caravan” (click here for more on the original song). After an extended introduction, I play it as a jazz piece for the first 32 bars–then I solo over Ellington’s form, trying to incorporate traditional Arab phrases and elements throughout (similar to the ideas featured and discussed above). Take Two is much shorter, with very little in the way of an introduction, followed by 32 measures with a jazz sound and then 32 measures incorporating Arab musical sounds.