Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Jane C. Sugarman

Committee Members

Stephen Blum

Virginia Danielson

Peter Manuel

Subject Categories

Ethnomusicology | Linguistic Anthropology | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Oman, Praise Poetry, Arab Music, Exchange, The Gift, Moral Economy


This dissertation traces the musical constitution of moral, economic, material, and social relations between rural communities and the state in the Sultanate of Oman. I argue that communities embedded within the authoritarian state hegemony of the Sultanate form and affirm social relations with the state through its embodied proxy, Sultan Qābūs bin Ṣa‘īd Āl Bū Ṣa‘īd, via the reciprocal exchange of state-directed giving and praise poetry responses. The circuit of exchange catalyzes the social production of political legitimacy and ensures continued generous distribution by mythopoetically presenting such cyclicity as resulting from elite and non-elite mutuality. This praise poetry is rendered within two song and dance complexes: al-razḥa, a collective war dance with drumming and antiphonal choral singing, and al-‘āzī, a choral ode with a solo singer, tight poetic structure, and a chorus of responders. Through a close analysis of the content and context of praise poems sung by Arab men’s performance troupes experienced over a year of participant observation fieldwork, I argue that praise poetry is an overlooked site for the construction and negotiation of state political legitimacy. Drawing on heterodox and Gramscian political economy, I show how musical performance operates within broader circuits of exchange by functioning as a site wherein non-market economic logics are fused with moral, performative, and political norms. Instead of simply tracing a circuit of utilitarian exchange (praise for gifts for praise), I focus on the how gifts and their responses reciprocally negotiate social relations between state elites and non-elites. By focusing on the words and actions of non elites as they integrate the various proffered benefits of a distributive state into their own communities, I attempt to complicate standard explanations of Arabian Gulf politics and statecraft. I posit two social mechanisms—one which relates generosity and political legitimacy and one that relates performance with the construction of a moral political community—and then follow them through their operation in social space. By singing praise poetry at celebrations of state distribution, praisers rhetorically render such state gifting as “generosity,” which is deeply tied to good leadership in the Omani context. In addition, praisers simultaneously mythopoetically generate a political community of generous givers and grateful receivers who are linked by relations of history, homeland, religion, and kinship. In this way, praise “opens palms” and induces continued elite distributions. However, unequal gifting is fraught with social hazard and threatens to trap communities in dependency relations with the state. By attending to the pragmatics of performance, however, I argue that razḥa and ‘āzī tacitly address this threat of dependency by performing strength and dignity while simultaneously seeking to redraw the relations of unequal gifting from ones of dependency to ones of mutual obligation—a “moral economy.” This ethnomusicological study is an attempt to show how musical and linguistic performers draw on a wide variety of tacit and explicit economic, moral, political, and communal factors in order to take social action in a context of authoritarian state hegemony.