Vision 2030 has brought rapid changes to Saudi Arabia, including greater social openness and contemporary forms of entertainment, like concerts and cinemas. With a shift to a generation that is concerned more with earning a living in modern sectors, traditional folklore is increasingly perceived as an unsustainable source of livelihood. There is a risk that this heritage might be lost.
However, some Saudis – like 31-year-old Tara Aldughaither, a vocalist and art curator – feels a responsibility to capture the musical and folkloric heritage of the country, concerned it might disappear.
Tara is the founder of Sawtasura, which in Arabic means voice of the image. Sawtasura is a crowdsourcing platform that documents women’s voice and lyrical heritage. The initiative also studies how musical practices have been integrated into the lives of women across different regions of Saudi Arabia.
A Tradition of Women’s Voices
Folkloric singing and musical traditions are an inherent part of Gulf Arab culture. In Saudi Arabia, some of these social traditions predate Islam. For instance, women have historically sung lullabies for their children or songs while carrying out their daily chores of grinding wheat and baking bread. During weddings or Eid celebrations, clapping or tanbura percussion accompanied the singing.
In “Music in Arabia: Perspectives on Heritage, Mobility, and Nation,” contributing author and independent researcher Kay Hardy Campbell noted that “through the centuries, women sang at weddings and other celebrations, performing folk genres and love songs.” She continued, “Women sang to mark times of family and community celebration.”
In the mid-20th century, female singers entered the public arena by performing in professional ensembles. The lead singer played the oud and was joined by a chorus that played different hand percussion instruments.
Over the 20th century, as several political, religious, and social evolutions took place in Saudi Arabia, the music scene evolved too. Starting in 1975, Kay noted a period of religious conservatism that affected official attitudes toward music. This negatively impacted the visibility of musicians, particularly female singers. However, starting in 1995, a cultural opening spurred by the government-sponsored Janadriyah Cultural and Heritage Festival allowed for the inclusion of folk performances by female artists. And the introduction of satellite television in the 1990s and internet in the 2000s made music widely available. “Even during the most conservative periods in the 20th century, a vibrant, if at times low-key, music culture existed in the cities and towns,” Kay wrote.
Documenting and Preserving a Diverse Vocal Heritage
Sawtasura stems from Tara’s passion for music and a desire to produce knowledge for artists. The lack of accessible local resources for artists and her curatorial background got her thinking about making knowledge production more participatory.
While there have been independent efforts to preserve Saudi Arabia’s musical heritage (an anonymous YouTube channel that is no longer available, Arabic newspapers profiling popular singer-songwriters, and personal cassette tape collections), these efforts have been ad hoc, intermittent, or inaccessible to the wider public.
“Growing up in the Eastern Province during the ‘90s, the cassette tape culture and live women’s performances had died out,” she said. “The only access I had to female performances was at family weddings. I was limited in thinking that was the only space where women performed. And that’s not true.”
Since this lyrical heritage resides in women’s spaces or family histories (that are generally not accessible to outsiders), Tara explained how Sawtasura’s archiving process is participatory, allowing for diverse authorship, documentation, and accessibility. “Rather than depending on authorities of music and heritage entirely, I rely on stories that are being gathered or recorded by a folklore’s own community,” she said. The public archive is compiled by forming personal relationships with the community and relies on participation of female artists, musicians, oral historians, researchers, and enthusiasts. “The folkloric traditions and rituals have deep-rooted storytelling elements; they are community oriented and have a nurturing and ritualistic nature,” she added.
With the popularity of crowdsourcing over social media – particularly, Instagram – Sawtasura has garnered attention and interest. Since its inception in 2020, the archive has assembled over 200 audio, visual, and written references on women’s musical histories in the kingdom. Tara has also used archive material to curate two exhibitions and has plans to curate an exhibit that will reenact musical traditions.
“People from different backgrounds have been approaching the initiative to find their own story within the story of women’s voices, and that gives me the determination to take it to the next level,” Tara explained. She also noticed a trend in increased archival projects in the region. “I believe it is a response to the fast-paced changes happening and people’s desire to revive memory of a culture, so that our roots are celebrated and preserved in the face of an ever-expanding or colliding economic and social world structure,” she said.
Looking Deeper Into Saudi Cultural Heritage, and Into Women’s Lives
While the archive aims to preserve a fast-disappearing heritage, it also offers a deeper understanding of the fabric of Saudi society for future generations. It offers a snapshot of the country’s diverse culture – like the Javanese and Yemeni influence in Hijazi songs, the al-samri (from the Arabic word for night) poetic traditions of the Najdi region, and the Iraqi influence in seafaring and pearl diving songs of Sharqiyah.
Venturing into the field of music and accessing these spaces can be challenging. Tara noted that after a long period of religious conservatism in the history of the country, people have internalized the idea that women’s voices are shameful. “A woman’s voice is part of her modesty, and in general, music was considered taboo. Cassette tapes were purchased on the black market and entertainment was often censored,” she said. “We’ve forgotten these things because the changes in the last few years have been so drastic, but the effects are still within us. It’s important to acknowledge this history.” She added, “Working with that sensitivity has been incredibly humbling and enlightening, and it’s been an honor to tackle this specific challenge.”
On the other hand, she said the most rewarding part of her work with Sawtasura has been the opportunity to meet with women from a previous generation. “Their generosity and graciousness have really surprised me. Even when people are cautious, unsure, or untrusting, there is still a bright light in their eyes that they want to be listened to.” Tara said it is a privilege to hear the younger generation exclaim that they didn’t know this part of their aunt’s or grandmother’s story. “These stories are being told after such a long time of being buried or not being paid attention to. It is a very empowering and beautiful thing to witness.”