[Marxism] Fwd: SHU NYC Arabic Music Concert: Simon Shaheen at the CUNY Graduate Center (4/10)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 23 09:28:19 MST 2012

The CUNY Graduate CenterPresents

*Simon Shaheen**
*Tuesday, April 10, 2012

/Arabic Songs of Freedom, Dignity, and Pride/<http://liveat365.org/>

Simon Shaheen, the Palestinian-American oud and violin maestro,
composer, and bandleader, is known for his arresting
improvisations and groundbreaking collaborations. He has worked
with the Arab world’s musical superstars, has opened for Sting,
and continuously tours worldwide. This performance of new works --
performed, curated, and directed by Simon, who is joined by his
ensemble and special guests -- reflects on the first anniversary
of the Arab Spring.

For more information on this event and to order tickets:




*Concert Review: “Aswat: Celebrating the Golden Age of Arab
Music,” Simon Shaheen and the Aswat Orchestra with Featured
Vocalists, Town Hall, New York City, March 7, 2009*


Ammiel Alcalay once appropriated the apt phrase “Wounded kinship’s
last resort” in describing the role that music has played in
maintaining what little connection is left between Arab Jews and
their Middle Eastern compatriots.  The place of the master
musician Simon Shaheen in this complicated and contested
relationship cannot be underestimated.  Not only has Shaheen
recorded many albums of classic Arabic music as well as
contemporary readings of the tradition, but he has participated in
many of the musical events that have over the years taken place in
the Brooklyn Sephardic community.  In private homes and
Synagogues, we have become familiar with the magical art of Simon
Shaheen’s mastery of this brilliant musical tradition.

On an evening devoted to the most beloved songs of the 20^th
century Arabic musical tradition, Shaheen brought back the
hallowed tones of the great composers, singers and musicians of
the Middle Eastern world.  Organizing the program, as he explained
to the audience at New York’s Town Hall, after a request from the
Kennedy Center in Washington for its current series on Arab
culture, Shaheen developed the “Aswat” concept in order to restore
the grandeur of the great musical past that was shared by all
members of Middle Eastern society regardless of religious affiliation.

This music enriched the classical palette of Arabic music by
incorporating Western motifs and styles into the tradition.  Early
20^th century figures like Sayyid Darwish and Da’oud Husni were
the progenitors and the inspiration for the acknowledged giant of
20^th century Arabic song, Muhammad Abdel Wahhab.  Abdel Wahhab’s
collaboration with the Egyptian diva Um Kulthum electrified the
Arab world where Abdel Wahhab’s place as a songwriter was akin to
Gershwin, Berlin and Porter and where Kulthum was the Sinatra,
Presley and Ella Fitzgerald of her age.  As is known, the monthly
concerts of Um Kulthum, broadcast on the radio all over the Arab
world, quite literally became required listening with millions of
people stopping what they were doing to sit by their radios to
hear the performances.

In addition to these two legendary figures, the Arab world was
treated to the art of singers like Farid al-Atrash, Wadi al-Safi,
Asmahan, Fairuz and Leyla Mourad.  This rich and glittering
tradition of song was the foundation of Shaheen’s “Aswat” program.

After many years of touring with his world music fusion group
Qantara, it was wonderful to see Shaheen turn back exclusively to
the classics.  Inviting master vocalists from the contemporary
Arab world, Ibrahim Azzam, Sonia M’Barak, Khalil Abonula and Rima
Khcheich, the “Aswat” concept allowed Shaheen and his expert
orchestra to reproduce the rich and intoxicating swirl of this
great music.

The intuitive assimilation of these musical traditions was
something taken for granted in our cultural development for those
of us who grew up with Arabic-speaking grandparents.  As the
scholar Mark Kligman has recently been pointed out in his
excellent study /Maqam and Liturgy: Ritual, Music, and Aesthetics
of Syrian Jews in //Brooklyn/, the link between Arabic music and
Jewish liturgy in the contemporary Sephardic world is both
sacrosanct and definitive.  The auditory memories that have been
generated in our Synagogues and happy occasions are defined by the
sounds of the Middle East in the period we are discussing.

For those who are not familiar with this liturgical tradition, the
songs known in Hebrew as /pizmonim/, written by the cantors and
rabbis of the community, were adaptations of the melodies of
songsmiths like Abdel Wahhab.  So many of the songs of Egypt,
Syria, Lebanon and Iraq appear in the contemporary Syrian Jewish
liturgy having their Arabic words replaced with sacred texts in
Hebrew composed by poets like Refa’el Antebi Tabboush, Moses
Ashear and Ezekiel Hai Albeg.

This is the music that we grew up with.  At the feet of my
grandmother I personally imbibed this music and it became for me –
as for many of my peers – a critical part of my cultural
identity.  There was little sense of a divide between the Arabic
originals and the Hebrew adaptations.  The only way to understand
and appreciate this music was to go back to the originals – and
that meant listening to the recordings of Um Kulthum, Abdel
Wahhab, Farid al-Atrash and the others who sang this music in the
Arab world.

In his between-song patter, Shaheen explained to the audience how
many of these songs were originally performed in Egyptian films
and recalled his discussions with the legendary Stanley Rashid, a
Brooklyn fixture whose family business Rashid Sales was
responsible for bringing this great music to America, who imported
these movies which he arranged to have screened at the Brooklyn
Academy of Music.  I can add to this what I heard from older
members of my community of the same films being screened at a
local Bensonhurst movie theater on Friday evenings.  Sabbath
observers wishing to see the movies would prepay for tickets and
were joined by members of the Christian Arab community of Bay
Ridge who would make the trek to 18^th Avenue and 65^th Street to
assuage their homesickness.  It was a shared world of culture that
was once a central part of the Brooklyn Arab community.

Such are the Proustian vicissitudes of memory in an age of erosion.

“Aswat” was a magical evening that brought back rich and resonant
memories of this world that is now in the process of being eroded
in our communities.  On the one hand, the musical traditions, like
food traditions, are alive and well; but in the larger cultural
sense, the ongoing acrimony between Jews and Arabs in the Middle
East has served to break the harmony between individuals native to
the region.  While Arabic music remains a central part of
religious life for many in the Sephardic community, antipathy
towards Arabs themselves has increased to the point where there is
little if any human contact between non-Jewish Arabs and the
Jewish community.

So this evening’s performance was a timely reminder of the world
that our grandparents – those wiser than us – inhabited.  As might
also be known, this music has become antiquated in the Arab world
as well.  Similar to the place of Jazz in American culture,
Shaheen’s project is that of reclamation and the evoking of a
world now passed.  As I have said previously, his role in the Arab
world is similar to that of the great Wynton Marsalis here in the
United States.  Part curator, part archivist, part activist, part
rabble rouser, such artists restore for us older artistic visions
and provide the riches of a noble musical tradition to a new
generation of listeners.

Sitting in New York’s Town Hall one could summon to memory the
great concert halls of Beirut, Cairo and Damascus.  As if
transported on the proverbial magic carpet, the audience sat
enraptured listening to precise and inspiring performances of the
classic songs like Kulthum’s legendary “Intizarak” and Asmahan’s
“Layali  l-‘Unsi fi Vienna.”  The instrumental backing was never
less than expert, bringing the larger orchestral elements together
with the earthiness of the percussion and the exotic flavors of
the ubiquitous ‘Oud and Qanoun.

The blending of the Eastern and Western elements was typical of
the classic school created in many ways by Abdel Wahhab.  The
singers – who brought their own unique artistry to these classic
songs – brilliantly interpreted the material though I did not envy
the female singers who had to take on the Um Kulthum material.
Such a task is indeed Herculean, but in the end all the vocalists
acquitted themselves wonderfully creating an inspirational mood
which informed the proceedings.

After many years of listening to Simon Shaheen’s recordings and
attending his many performances both in New York concert halls as
well as events in the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community, “Aswat”
was a revelation.  Never had his dedication to this great musical
tradition been so intense and so personal for me.  As the
orchestra’s sound swelled to crescendo, I found myself welling up
and becoming extremely emotional, recalling the moments when I sat
with my late grandmother listening to these songs – the 78 RPM
records played on an old Victrola that I would crank up on her
instructions.  When music becomes so much a natural and organic
part of our most intimate being, the emotional resonance of its
timbres strikes a deep chord within us.

But even more than this, what I have learned over the years in
remaining true to my grandmother’s vision of the world is that
this music is not merely a static part of my life, but, as the
term “Wounded kinship’s last resort” indicates, it is a cultural
force that reflects a symbiosis that we are now told never existed
– that could never have existed as Jews were never Arabs.

This destruction of a cultural identity, what I have called “The
Levantine Option,” is marked by the ways in which the Arabic
musical heritage has been used and abused in our times.  Many in
the Sephardic community who love, honor and cherish this music
find themselves at the very forefront of anti-Arab sentiment due
to their inability to adopt the larger setting of Arabic
civilization in their own lives.

What Simon Shaheen has so successfully done in his illustrious
career is to bring the varied strands of Arabic culture into a
unified whole.  By tirelessly bringing this music to the larger
world, a world that often marks Arabs as uncivilized and barbaric,
he has instilled in the contemporary artistic universe an
appreciation for a culture that has been wrongly stigmatized.  And
while the inroads that have been made have not completely broken
the cultural prejudices in certain corners of our culture, a
project like “Aswat” provides a glorious reminder that the Arab
world has produced much that is of great worth for us in the West.

For those of us who grew up with this music, this discovery is no
surprise.  What is important about the recovery of the Arabic
musical heritage for us today is its ability to bridge the divides
that separate us.  Aswat, an Arabic word meaning “voices,”
articulates the genius and glorious past of an Arab culture that
can inspire and astonish us today.  These voices can humanize and
civilize what has now become an intractable series of conflicts
that has created only hate and violence.  In these great songs of
our conjoined past, we luxuriate in the memories of a life better
lived, a life where people treated one another with respect and

For this reason, the art of Simon Shaheen, our greatest expositor
of this musical heritage, is a critically important component of
the current dialogue over issues that are plaguing us and the
world we inhabit.  It is through the sounds and visions of the old
Arabic masters that we can better understand who we are today and
what this might mean for what we might become in the future.


David Shasha



You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google
Groups "Sephardic Heritage Update" group.
To post to this group, send email to Davidshasha at googlegroups.com.
To unsubscribe from this group, send email to
Davidshasha+unsubscribe at googlegroups.com.
For more options, visit this group at

More information about the Marxism mailing list