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America's Other Orchestras: Arab American Ensemble Series Episode 10

posted on: Nov 30, 2016

Tarab in the Windy City – Chicago’s Orchestra al-Sharq al-Awsat


University of Chicago Middle East Music Ensemble. Image Credit: Huffington Post

BY: Sami Asmar/Contributing Writer

One of the most renowned scholars in ethnomusicology is Martin Stokes, currently the King Edward Professor of Music at the King’s College London. In the 1990s, he taught at the University of Chicago, where he also founded, in 1997, the Middle East Music Ensemble (MEME). After a couple of years, Stokes handed over the directorship to other qualified artists such as Palestinian ‘ud player, composer, and award winner (and periodic Arabic Music Retreat faculty member) Issa Boulos who stepped down in 2010 at which time, Wanees Zarour, fellow Palestinian composer, violinist and distinguished buzuq player, became the director.

Wanees Zarour

Born in Ramallah, Zarour specialized in what he calls maqam music, compositions based on the application of the complex modal theory of Eastern un-tempered music, although his own compositions explore both traditional and non-traditional instrumentation and arrangements. The busy director and lecturer, Zarour works with several groups in the Chicago area such as Hisar and Duzan ensembles, as well as his own Wanees Zarour Ensemble. Zarour has released an album ‘Quarter to Midnight’ in 2014 featuring some of his original compositional works. His emphasis on the maqam practice is evident in the orchestra’s choices in compositions and improvisational techniques.

The university orchestra has an active outreach program and attracts musicians from all backgrounds. No experience in this genre is required as long as they can read music; in fact, they have innovatively replaced auditions with an open house for all musicians, which has helped the group grow to as much as a 45 piece orchestra. Instruments include the familiar authentic Eastern instruments ‘ud, nay, qanun, as well as the tablah, riqq, and tar. The clarinet is also included, along with the baglama, in addition to the string section of violins, violas, cellos and double bass.

Traditional Middle Eastern instruments

MEME has had numerous famous guest artists. In Arab music, the Palestinian Joubran Trio, three brothers playing the ‘ud, and Iraqi-American Amir al-Saffar are the most known and they can bring in large crowds as well as put on concerts that the community talks about for the remainder of the season.

Once the season starts and the open house has brought in a lot of new members, the director’s time consuming tasks include numerous practice sessions and countless repetitions to make the unfamiliar music and language not only familiar but come to life. Accurate transcription is mandatory for American members, although less so for Arab musicians who tend to rely on memory due to their more intimate familiarity with the material. Additionally, tutoring individual students on their new instruments, one might be a virtuosic piano player but have taken up the qanun, for example, also takes up a lot of the director’s time. One does not go from Bach on the piano to Umm Kulthum’s 1964 classic Inta Omri on a qanun overnight.

Rehearsal of the Middle East Music Ensemble. Image Credit: Huffington Post

When it comes to vocals, different ensembles use different approaches. MEME is big on authenticity in the pronunciation and singers perform only in their native tongue. Arabic speaking audiences have an unsettled relationship with singers in the US. On the one hand, they highly appreciate the effort made by a non-native speaker to learn to sing in Arabic with all the guttural sounds we all know are difficult to master; they also enjoy the novelty of the process and actually feel good and loved that an American has learned their language. On the other hand, they tend to be highly critical of imperfections and are protective of their language.

It has been said that Arab music is infectious. A good director can help spread this bug widely in the windy city. Issa Boulos and Wanees Zarour have managed to electrify the entire Chicago area with Arab music. It takes leaders like them to spread the beauty of the culture through hard work, emphasis on authenticity, and being educators first and foremost. Capturing the attention and then the hearts of college students, many stay in the ensemble long after graduating, turns them into ambassadors. Like all the orchestras we have featured in this series, although they are university-based, they are truly community-centered. MEME is no different in attracting the local musicians to participate or contribute. When the larger community waits for the concerts and crowds line-up to listen to Arab music and sung Arabic poetry, peace through education and love through the arts are achieved.