Following a series of events throughout the fall, Al-Bustan’s project on Andalusian muwashahat, “Words Adorned: Andalusian Poetry and Music” culiminates in a much anticipated concert this Saturday, December 5. The concert features two new compositions by Kareem Roustom and Kinan Abou-afach as well as four popular muwashshahat from the Levant and North Africa, featuring Palestinian singer Dalal Abu Amneh.
The concert brings together a classical Arab ensemble (Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble) and a Western choir (The Crossing) and that cross-cultural emphasis has been central to Al-Bustan’s work, and to the “Words Adorned”project as a whole, as “a multimedia project inspired by Andalusian poetry with a series of events and newly commissioned works bridging the traditions of East and West.”
Ahead of the concert this Saturday, I had an opportunity to interview Al-Bustan’s director, Hazami Sayed, and ask her about the “Words Adorned” project, the work accomplished over the past decade and what the future holds for Al-Bustan.
More than a decade on from founding Al-Bustan, what would you say have been its greatest achievements, and what new directions would you like Al-Bustan to take in the future?
It has been gratifying over the past decade to work with so many amazingly talented and dedicated people who have helped us further our mission in significant ways and those who have benefited from their participation with Al-Bustan. I think our main achievements are two-fold: our ability to attract and retain talented artists and teaching artists who are passionate about sharing their expertise with both adults and a young generation; and our ability to develop quality arts initiatives that bring together youth and adults of diverse backgrounds, learning, participating and appreciating exemplary Arab arts and educational programs.
Looking ahead, I see the organization on a growth path. We have the potential to scale up our work to have more breadth and depth in our engagement with the community. We want to establish a physical space in West Philadelphia that can foster and incubate multi-disciplinary ideas that will develop into year-round programming for people from all walks of life to participate.
You have described one of Al-Bustan’s goals as “teaching the [Arabic] language through the arts”. Do you share the concerns many have expressed about the decreasing use of Arabic among younger generations, particularly in diaspora? How do you feel about the fact that Arabic is often described as a “difficult” language?
Yes, there is a declining interest among younger generations, both in the Arab region and abroad, to be well versed in their mother tongue, as Suzanne Talhouk laments in her compelling Ted Talk. This trend is something we seek to counter in our programs by making the language fun and accessible through the arts, especially for the youth. For example, we have seen the impact of learning Arabic songs and immersing students in the poetry and the cultural/historical context of the songs they are learning, with an understanding of the melodic and rhythmic patterns. Our Music Director, Hanna Khoury, is a master of teaching youth and adults to sing in Arabic with the proper diction and intonation. You can see a number of examples on our YouTube Channel, for example Hanna working on Immi Namet with the Wilmington Children’s Chorus.
Personally, I have found it takes a lot of persistence and dedication to acquire and maintain a good command of the Arabic language while living in the US. My husband and I agreed early on when our boys were born here that we would raise them to be bilingual and fully literate in Arabic. We are fortunate that they had so many wonderful mentors and peers to learn from and opportunities to apply their Arabic skills while appreciating the culture and history within the context of Al-Bustan. It is gratifying to see our older son now a junior in college taking a media analysis class in Arabic and sharing his excitement and confidence as he researches and prepares oral and written presentations, all in Arabic.
Through the years, Al-Bustan has put on concerts featuring many great artists such as Marcel Khalife, Sonia M’barek, Karima Skalli, and Rima Khcheich. In the context of increasing anti-Muslim bigotry and Arabophobia, what challenges does Al-Bustan face in celebrating and teaching about, if not “mainstreaming,” Arab culture, and how do you work to counter these challenges?
Since the founding of Al-Bustan in 2002, we have been committed to presenting local and international artists to demonstrate and showcase their artistic practice. We hope the work presented and taught speaks for itself and will open people’s minds beyond what they see in the mainstream media. More importantly we are creating forums for people to come together and engage with one another, learn about arts and culture and, in the process, make new friends – these personal interactions inevitably build community and cross-cultural understanding. We want to make the beauty, richness, and nuances of Arab culture, people and language accessible and present in schools, universities, and a variety of community settings. It is by being, nurturing, and persisting that we can, as our name indicates, plant the seeds of culture and see them flourish and grow in the Philadelphia area and beyond.
We see the impact of our programming on participants and how their perceptions change, as evident in feedback from one of the students who recently took our Arab Music Ensemble course offered in partnership with University of Pennsylvania: “I really didn’t now much about Arab language, culture, people. As an American Jew, sometimes you hear negative things. This class completely opened my eyes to the amazing people, music, and culture. I have a deep appreciation now.”
There is a pervasive rhetoric of nostalgia around the “golden age” of Andalusia which sets this idealized time against the present. For example Lebanese novelist Hanan Al Shaykh once noted that “we Arabs today have no connections with the Arabs of Andalusia” and then asked “why is it that we didn’t complete our cultural journey and how is it that we have ended up today in the very worst of times?” The melancholy look back to this Golden Age characterizes many adaptations and renditions of the muwashahat. How would you situate the Adorned Words project in relation to these discourses?
Yes, there is indeed a nostalgic view of Al-Andalus, a longing for the Golden Age of Muslims/Arabs, an era that people keep yearning back to for many reasons. They are crying on the ruins of something great that happened and will never happen again, or they are evoking these great times with the hope they will come back. Either way we engage with the memory of Al-Andalus — it “now belongs to the landscape of the poem,” as Dr. Huda Fakhreddine noted in her lecture as part of our Words Adorned event series. Dr. Fakhreddine added that Al-Andalus has a special place in Arab history as the intersection point of contrasting ideas; such as East and West, or tradition and innovation—the latter visible in muwashshat’s simultaneous embrace of and breaking away from the traditional Arab qasida.
We were certainly aware of all these associations when we conceived of the project, and were intrigued to revisit this time period from a contemporary perspective — to revive the poetic tradition of Andalusian muwashshahat, not simply recreating history, but rather re-interpreting it in the present day, showcasing the development of Arab musical tradition (into the modern-day takht) and Western musical tradition (into orchestra and choir). The project brings together these two manifestations of Arab and Western music in a dynamic and contemporary way. It is an example of how our work is grounded in tradition, though not limited by it. Our view of cultural production is that of a dynamic process, continually produced in relation to myriad influences, rather than a static set of traditions and values handed down from generation to generation. Through our work we invite participants to produce new cultural forms that incorporate and transform the world around them.
The Adorned Words project brings together a classical Arab ensemble with a Western choir, hybridizing the already hybrid form of the muwashahat. What do you hope will come out of this project, and, more generally, what do you feel is gained through Al- Bustan’s emphasis on cross cultural collaboration?
The Words Adorned: Andalusian Poetry and Music project is our largest production to date and we are very excited about the partners we are working with. We have commissioned new works by two Arab American composers, Kareem Roustom and Kinan Abou-afach, who have written compositions inspired by Andalusian poetry. It is a unique collaboration involving traditional Arab takht ensemble, Western chamber choir, and solo Arab vocalist. You can watch a short video of Hanna Khoury and Donald Nally speaking about this collaboration.
We have developed multiple resources and a series of events in partnership with Bryn Mawr College, University of Pennsylvania, and Trinity Center for Urban Life. The highlight of the project is a concert in Philadelphia coming up on December 5, 2015, presented at Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall, featuring The Crossing Choir (24 singers with conductor Donald Nally), Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, and guest soloist Dalal Abu Amneh.
The project will continue beyond the concert performance with a studio recording of the new works, and that CD will be part of a complete set of resources readily accessible for any choral directors around the country interested in presenting contemporary choral music in Arabic. We envision this project as an example of the type of innovative artistic work that Al-Bustan will continue developing, projects with local roots that have national and international reach.
Here is a video of a rehearsal of “Words Adorned.”
How can people get involved in supporting Al-Bustan?
We invite people to attend, experience, share, and sustain Al-Bustan’s programs. We are on a growth path and welcome support in any and all forms — from volunteering, spreading the word about our programs, serving on the board of directors, contributing financially — these are but a few ways that people can contribute while near or afar.