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When travelling in and around Biskra, Algeria, in 1913, Béla Bartók recorded almost two hundred melodies on phonograph cylinders. Bartók’s unique research was the subject of my PhD dissertation at the Sorbonne in Paris in 2003. The dissertation was based on about half of Bartók’s Arab collection available at the time at the Budapest Bartók Archives. In the meantime in 2006, the CD-ROM Bartók and Arab Folk Music has made for the first time available all the surviving transcriptions and sound recordings, which represent Bartók’s collection almost in its entirety. The article summarizes new research into the source material which has recently become available and points out the special significance of his study of Arab folk music for ethnomusicological research into the Maghreb.

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In 1913 Béla Bartók traveled to Algeria to research Arab folk music. He took with him the most modern technological device then available, the Edison phonograph, and recorded Arab peasants performing their music. Analysis of his ensuing scholarly documentation and free composition reveals the inspiration Bartók drew from Arab folk music, not only in his treatment of traditional musical elements — melody, rhythm, and harmony — but also in novel incorporation of exotic timbre, scales, drum modes, ululation, and exorcism. This paper elucidates diverse musical elements with examples from authentic folk music and Bartók’s compositions. What emerges is a remarkably comprehensive image of Arab music, seen through the lens of Béla Bartók’s unique scholarship and creativity.

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