JEDDAH (Rahnuma): A conservative brand of Islam has always existed in Saudi Arabia, one of the many strands of Saudi society. However, in the wake of the 1979 Grand Mosque siege, this school of thought gained increasing prominence, spreading into official institutions including the legal system and education.
Saudi society began to lose its artistic and cultural moorings under the influence of religious hard-liners who attacked music, sculpture, painting and photography, along with a host of other artistic activities. Regressive social ideas were widely propagated via schools, universities and mosques.
Conservative preachers argued that new entertainment devices — the record player, radio, cassettes, videotapes or television — were forbidden in Islam as they encouraged moral corruption and symbolized the technological domination of the West.
In 1965, shortly after the launch of the official Saudi TV channel, a group of extremists attacked the Saudi Broadcasting Authority building, claiming that the development was a threat to the Muslim nation.
This reactionary movement, which later morphed into the “Islamic Awakening” or “Sahwa,” succeeded in eliminating most forms of entertainment, including those with a religious theme.
Abdo Khal, a Saudi author, said that the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Makkah by a group of militants ushered in “an era full of extremism.”
Musical instruments were smashed by the Muhtasibin — volunteers in the religious police — in acts that appeared to have public approval, Khal said.
Although the leader of the Grand Mosque assault, Juhayman Al-Otaibi, and his followers were eliminated, their ideology spread like poison.
“Darkness reigned everywhere,” said Khal. “Television was the first to be affected. People woke up to a raft of prohibitions that turned society into an arid place where all life-affirming activities were prohibited.”
Before 1979, Saudi TV broadcast songs and concerts by Saudi folk bands and artists, including female singers such as Toha, Etab and Ibtisam Lutfi, as well as concert performances by Um Kalthoum, Fayza Ahmad, Samira Tawfik, Najat Al-Saghira and Farid Al-Atrach.
However, after the war on entertainment and the arts was launched, generations of Saudis grew up deprived of their rich cultural and artistic heritage, unaware of their country’s important role in regional art, music and culture.
According to researcher and critic Yahya Yzuriqan, the first Saudi radio station was established in 1948 in Makkah. It was later moved to Jeddah, where it flourished, recording and producing musical plays, and becoming the first building block of the modern Saudi music sector.
In Riyadh, there was no music on an official level until Riyadh Radio was founded in 1964. However, singers from other Gulf countries often visited the city, and Saudi folk music was a staple of official and private occasions.
The real renaissance of Saudi musical arts began in the 1960s when the Saudi army band was established. It was later transformed into an orchestra, featuring Arab musicians from Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, and is credited with sparking a musical revival across the Kingdom.
Private musical production and marketing companies soon emerged in Al-Ahsa, Riyadh and Jeddah, in addition to talents in poetry, and music composition and performance.
Saudi society was introduced to local voices such as Ghazi Ali, Talal Maddah and Jamil Mahmoud. Some singers — Mahmoud Halawani, Mohammed Ali Sindi, Abdullah Mohammed and Fawzi Mahson — gained fame as wedding performers. The list of contributors to that era is long, but two people — composer Omar Kadars and poet Taher Zamakhshari — deserve special mention. Private companies that appeared included Riyadh Phone, a recording studio established in 1964 by Talal Maddah and Lutfi Zaini.
The studio shut down after a few years when cassette tapes began to replace vinyl records in Saudi Arabia.
Talal Maddah, a Saudi composer and singer who became hugely popular across the Middle East, was known as “The Earth’s Voice” to his admirers in the Kingdom.
Maddah’s career took off in the late 1950s with the release of his first album, “Wardak Ya Zaree Al-Ward” (“Grower of Roses”).
Another prominent figure in that era, Saudi composer Tareq Abdul-Hakim, was a key player in the Kingdom’s musical renaissance.