Arab orchestra hits the right notes in US

The National Arab Orchestra, which aims to promote Arab music in the US, played its first concert last week.

The National Arab Orchestra was founded in Michigan in 2009 [Chris Weaver/Al Jazeera]

They came from all corners of the United States and as far away as the Middle East to perform in their world premiere concert, in front of a full house at the Atlanta Symphony Hall in the US state of Georgia.

Founded in 2009, the National Arab Orchestra was originally a small chamber music group called the Michigan Arab Orchestra and included an oud (Arab lute), qanun (Arab zither), violin, nay (Arab reed flute), and riqq (Arab tambourine). But now, co-founder and music director Michael Ibrahim said the ensemble has “grown into a full orchestra made up of Arabs and non-Arab musicians”.

The orchestra’s goal is to “promote music through education and performance with an emphasis on preserving the musical traditions of the Arab World”, said Ibrahim.

Its debut concert in Atlanta included English subtitles so non-Arabic speakers could understand the lyrics. The playlist included classical love songs from legendary Arab artists such as Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Mohamed Fawzy, Umm Kulthum, Wadih el-Safi, Farid al-Atrash, Sabah Fakhri, and Fairouz.

The National Arab Orchestra recently won a $100,000 grant to run an after-school music programme for inner-city youth in Detroit. Maggie Hasspacher is one of the teachers working for the programme. While she teaches choir to 25 students and brushes up on her Arabic language skills, she admits: “It’s a strange position for me, a classical bassist and jazz singer. But I love Arabic music and I love teaching, so I couldn’t be happier.”

The NAO hopes to use this programme as a model to replicate across the US, and eventually overseas.

Music is what helped me keep it together... I left Lebanon alone when my musical career was just getting started.

by - Jamal Sinno, qanun player

Another non-Arab, Katie Van Dusen, has played violin in the orchestra since its founding. She discovered Arabic music in college and instantly fell in love. She said her participation in the orchestra has been “an amazing conduit… I know that it has presented many opportunities for me to learn and teach others about a culture they may have misconceptions about”.

Others say playing with the orchestra has allowed them to remain engaged with their heritage. Vocalist Ghada Derbas, who was born in Beirut and is half-Palestinian, half-Syrian, grew up with a family of singers and said she became a musician because of her father. “My father always listened to legendary composer and singer Mohammed Abdul Wahab and wanted to pursue a musical career, but his family objected,” she said.

However, unlike her father’s experience, Ghada was encouraged by her mother to pursue a musical career. “She enrolled me in the Higher Institution of Music in Beirut, where I eventually performed with respected artists such as Ali Al Kurdi, Kathem al Saher, Assi Al Hellani and Wael Kfouri.”

For qanun player Jamal Sinno, who had his share of living in a civil war-ravaged Lebanon, “music is what helped me keep it together”. One song by Mohammad Abdel Wahab, “Yamsafer Wahdak” – or “The Lonely Traveller” – is especially poignant for Sinno, who works as an engineer during the day. “I left Lebanon alone when my musical career was just getting started, so when I play that song it transports me back in time when I was forced to say goodbye to my friends and family in order to start a new life in the US.”

Sinno’s story is shared by many Arabs who left everything behind due to political conflict and instability in their home countries. For many, the bittersweet melodies and lingering sadness in Arab music stir a sense of nostalgia for the homeland that they don’t experience listening to Western music.

The first generation of immigrants is usually the closest to their native culture, and finds it easiest to pass along traditions to their children. Victor Ghannam, an Arab American who was born in the US, said he was able to preserve his heritage through music – and the generosity of his father.

“I began playing the guitar at four,” he said, but soon after, “my father bought me an oud, which was his favourite. He was a lover of Arabic music. I’ve been playing ever since.” While he plays multiple instruments as part of the orchestra, mainly the oud and qanun, Victor’s experience has allowed him to travel around the world and collaborate on Arab and fusion albums – as well as work on TV series such as Hercules, Xena Warrior Princess, Legendary Journeys, and most recently, Spartacus.

Roberto Paolo Riggio, a violinist, said playing with the orchestra “offers another approach to building bridges by preserving and highlighting the beauty and treasure of Arabic culture – itself bearing cosmopolitan influences throughout its history… It helps Arab Americans to rediscover the richness of their own heritage, and to preserve their own strong voice within the multi-cultural fabric of American society.”

Source: Al Jazeera