Haflah! Arabic Music in the Diaspora

B9318703737Z.1_20150904153243_000_GPNBQHR8C.1-0On September 19, the National Arab Orchestra will perform at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts in Detroit, with special guest composers Kareem Roustom and Wael Binali.

The NAO (which used to be called the Michigan Arab Orchestra) has for a while now been one of the best Arab orchestras in North America, along with the New York Arabic Orchestra, directed by Bassam Saba. Several years ago, there was also the Arabesque Music Ensemble. Although there are many ensembles and orchestras playing Arabic music, the NAO’s performances are special, because of the talent of the musicians and because of the obvious feeling they have for the music. For example, I love that the director Michael Ibraahim claps and sings along! Here are some of my favourite NAO performances:

Here, Elias Lammam’s accordion taqsim is amazing:

The director Michael Ibraahim is originally from Syria but grew up in Detroit. In this article, Ibrahim mentions the orchestra’s pedagogical initiatives, noting that in teaching students about Arab music and culture:

“We are teaching non Arabs in Detroit, [where] let’s face it, probably their only experience they’ll have with an Arab is at a gas station and it’s usually not really pleasant,” Ibraahim says.

Along similar lines, there is the wonderful Bustan Seeds of Culture, which “offers structured exposure to the language, art, music, dance, literature, and natural environment of the Arab world,” but which also invites people like Rima Khcheich and Marcel Khalife to give performances like this one:

But what does it mean to play Arabic music in the diaspora? To be playing sometimes for non-Arab audiences and sometimes for Arab audiences in the ghurba? It’s wonderful but also strangely sad to see the great Naji Youssef singing along with his son Kareem to an audience that doesn’t understand the words – it’s wonderful to see the audience enjoying the music despite not knowing the words, and to see that this is something valued across generations, but at the same time the wistfulness of the songs are a reminder of “back home.”


In a recent article in Gulf News, composer Mohammed Fairouz talks about Arab cultural production and Arab artists, insisting that there is hope for the future: “A new generation of Arab artists continue to push the envelope further with the same vision that developed the intricate musical landscape of Aleppo for over a millennium. They do so in prosperous Arab states and in a thriving diaspora.”

The article begins with Fairouz’s memories of visiting Aleppo in 2004, and his hope that Aleppo will one day return as a city full of music and culture, despite the war and terror that it has seen in the past four years, the “the combined terror of Daesh’s barbarism and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s barrel bombs.”

Fairuz pays tribute to Shaikh Habboush, the great Sufi musician who hosted a Zikr Fairuz attended in 2004, and recalls learning about Aleppo’s heterogenous musical heritage.

As a boy, I studied the sacred and profane music that flowered in Aleppo during the ninth, tenth and 11th centuries. The musical styles combined over the ages as Aleppo became a central trading point at the end of the Silk Road. Its musical heritage drew on strands of Sufi poetry, Christian chant, the maqam-based music originating in pre-Islamic Arabia and influences of mainstream Islamic philosophy and literature.

One day, perhaps, music will return to Aleppo – and all the other cities the musicians have fled. This is the hope Fairouz writes about, the hope that is expressed by those involved in saving Gaza’s grand piano, the hope that is represented at the end of Malek Jandali’s Qashoush symphony, when the little girl picks up the music and begins to play at playing.

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