America's Other Orchestras: Arab American Ensemble Series Episode 12
Guarding the Heritage with Turath Ensemble
BY: Sami Asmar/Contributing Writer
The model of a volunteer community ensemble is beautiful as it shows the artists’ passion and dedication to the music and to their community. Another model is to form an orchestra from professional musicians and university students. The benefits of the latter include shorter rehearsals (due to fewer arguments), focused leadership, and the agility to carry out a specific mission. Over a decade ago, Turath Ensemble was formed in Southern California, by this writer, based on the latter model with the mission of guarding the musical heritage of the Arabic-speaking Near East in the US.
Turath did not start as a performance group, however. The members had been collaborating and performing outreach activities at and via UCLA. After numerous lectures and demonstrations, invitations came to perform at sponsored concerts, at museum, libraries, churches, YMCA, and cultural centers. The name Turath, meaning heritage, was selected to reflect the genre.
Education remained the underlying mission of the ensemble with every concert including explanations of the music, demonstrations, and often program books for additional reading material. This helped non-Arabic speakers relate to the music and the culture and children of Arabic speakers take interest in their parents’ excitement. For many years Turath musicians teach Arab music to LA school teachers at an annual retreat on the culture of the Middle East so the teacher later share the knowledge with generations of their students.
Another essential element of Turath Ensemble concerts has been poetry reading. Typically one poet such as Nizar Qabbani, Mahmoud Darwish, or Kahlil Gibran is featured and the reading is interweaved with solo instrumental improvisations in maqams carefully selected to match the theme of the poem. In the “A Poet And A Singer” concert series, the poetry and songs are selected from the same artist or duo, such as Mahmoud Darwish and Marcel Khalife, Kahlil Gibran and Fairuz, Qabbani, and Abd al-Halim, etc. Further enhancing the form of their concerts, Turath started featuring art and calligraphy of local Arab artists on display during the event, making the Arabic word sung, read, and displayed.
After successfully featuring long sketches from Fairuz and Rahbani musicals (with the participation of a member of the Rahbani original orchestra), projects are underway to recreate entire plays with a large cast supplementing the orchestra and Dabke dancers. With members trained in musical theater, this seems to be the next big step for Arab music in the US. To maximize chances of success, the ensemble has been investing in training additional musicians, singers, actors, and dancers.
With long experiences in both community and academic orchestras, members of Turath Ensemble present the right mix of both where a core of professional master musicians present singers from the community (Arabic and non-Arabic speakers) and instrumentalists from colleges in events that generate tremendous interest in both the local community and local schools.
For a decade, Turath has been awarding an annual scholarship to graduate students in the U.S. to carry out field research in Arab music. The scholarship, described on turath.org, is named after their mentor, UCLA professor A. J. Racy to also honor him at the peak of his career as an educator, scholar, composer, and performer. Awardees to date have published papers and books on their research in Arab countries funded in part via Turath Ensemble concerts, on a mission to guard our heritage.