"Did you ever go to Sephardic synagogue on a Shabbat (Saturday services) morning and wonder why the cantor picked the melodies and tunes that he did? These melodies and tunes are not chosen at random. Each week when the cantor appears at the pulpit, he has prepared which melodies he is going to use based on the maqam system.
This concept is not new to the Sephardic Jewish community; in fact, we had the system in place for about 200 years! Please allow me to briefly reintroduce the concept simply for those who are unfamiliar with it.
A 'maqam,' which in Arabic literally means 'place,' is a standard melody type and set of related tunes. The melodies used in a given maqam aims effectively to express the emotional state of the reader throughout the set liturgy (without changing the text).
There are hundreds of different maqamat, but in our tradition, we only use about 10 of them on a regular basis throughout the year. As a general rule, the same maqam will never be used two weeks in a row. Also, the schedule tries to rotate the maqamot in such a fashion that the 10 maqams are spread out almost equally in time as to avoid the redundancy of hearing the same maqam within a short period of time.
Which maqam will be used is based on either the story/theme of the Parashat Hashavua (weekly portion of the torah reading) or whether there is an upcoming holiday during the next week.
The 10 main maqamot used are: Rast, Mahour, Ajam, Nahwand, Bayat, Hoseni, Rahawi/Nawa, Saba, Sigah and Hijaz. Each of these maqamat have different melodies to them and have different reasons as to why they are used.
Here is a short description of some maqamot and when they are most often used:
Maqam Rast (which means 'head' or 'beginning') would be used for the beginnings of the new book of the Humash, therefore you will see that it is used at the parashat that begin the new Humash (unless there is a holiday that supercedes it). You will also notice that Maqam Rast is also used on May 3, the Shabbat immediately after Passover, because this marks the 'beginning' of the Omer period.
Maqam Ajam is used for happy occasions such as weddings and holidays. You will notice that Maqam Ajam is used on June 10th, the second day of the Shavuot holiday.
Maqam Hoseni, which means 'beautiful,' is used on weeks where the parashat describes the Mishkan, the receiving of the Torah (which is 'beautiful'). You will notice on the calendar that Maqam Hoseni is used on June 7th, the Shabbat prior to Shavuot ('Matan Torah').
Maqam Saba (which in Arabic means 'baby boy') is used when there is a berit in the parashat (either circumcision or the observance of mitzvot).
Maqam Hijaz (named after Saudi Arabia) is used on weeks with sad events in the parashat, such as a death or a major national tragedy. Maqam Hijaz is used on June 21st for Shabbat Shelah, this is because we are saddened over the tragedy of the spies in that week's parashat.
There is only a rotation of maqamat on Saturday morning Shaharit prayers, but not for the other prayers throughout the Shabbat. Every Friday night, the hazzan always performs in Maqam Nawah (or Nahwand), because this is the traditional maqam of the Kabbalat Shabbat services. Every Shabbat morning, the Mussaf prayers are conducted in the maqam of the following week's parashat in order to give you anticipation for next week's parashat. Every Shabbat Mincha, the cantor applies Maqam Rast (which means 'head' or 'beginning') to the prayers because you begin the new parashat in the Torah readings. Each Saturday night, Maqam Bayat is used because the pizmonim of Mossae Shabbat are conducted in that maqam and also because the mood of Bayat is a 'slumber' and ending the Shabbat is a 'slumber' occasion.
Starting this month, IMAGE Magazine's website will be introducing a new "Maqam of the Week" feature to the calendar in the back of each issue and to the community calendar on their website, www.imageusa.com. For each Shabbat and holiday, we will list which maqam you can most likely expect at your local Sephardic synagogue.
Viewers can also listen to our Sephadic radio live every day. Broadcasting pizmonim and music from famous artists such as David Shiro, Yeheskel Braun and Menachem Mustachi.
Prior to this, IMAGE's calendar was primarily used by the women of our community to take note of the candle lighting times and the dates for upcoming bake sales. Now, the men have a good reason to look at the calendar as well! We are very proud of IMAGE's collaboration with the Sephardic Pizmonim Project to introduce the weekly maqam, and we encourage you look to at the calendar and take note of what the maqam will be each Shabbat before attending synagogue, so that you may be familiar with the melodies of the prayers."
For more info you can read about the Weekly Maqam at The Sephardic Pizmonim project and Wikipedia.