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America's Other Orchestras: Arab American Ensemble Series Episode 2

posted on: Jul 20, 2016

The Arabic Music Retreat


BY: Sami Asmar/Contributing Writer

It is rare when an experimental event turns into a national and international institution of historical significance. This is what happened when twenty years ago, a handful of musicians decided to hold a training camp on a college campus, empty for the summer, to allow interested participants an immersion experience in Arab music.

In 1996, Simon Shaheen, AJ Racy, Kay Campbell, and a handful of other instructors opened the Arabic Music Retreat on the campus of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, in the middle of August, with approximately 75 participants. For one week, they taught the history, theory, and practice of this art.  They provided individual instrument lessons, led small chamber groups and one large orchestra practice every evening.

The full engagement experience has the feel of a military camp where punctuality and discipline are expected combined with a cruise ship vacation, where it is fun, hot, and all meals are provided under the supervision of oud instructor Najeeb Shaheen, who is famous for oud repair as well as cooking skills. The participants slept in a dormitory, if they slept much. After scheduled activities conclude for the evening, the music continues as all the talented musicians feed on each other’s energy to play, improvise, and socialize, yet still make the lecture of the next morning. They come from all over the country and a few from overseas and leave with bonds of strong friendships, future collaboration and, what turned out to be a unique network of alumni of the world-famous annual Arabic Music Retreat; an experiment that turned into an expectation!

A virtuoso oud and violin player, composer, and instructor, Simon Shaheen came to the US from the Galilee to pursue graduate education and remained to implement new ideas that clicked with American audiences.  He founded several groups such as Al-Qantara, the bridge, which linked the two oceans of musical aesthetics of the Arab and Western worlds.  Before founding the retreat, he became famous for his lectures, recordings, as well as concerts that not only showed off incredible skills on the oud – – he is considered one of the best in the world, but pioneered the concept of featuring the oud at the center of the stage.  

Although the oud is the most popular of Arab instrument, Arab music is traditionally centered on a singer who takes the spotlight.  The orchestra remained in the background with instrumental introductions, fillers, or solos as beautiful as they are, essentially in support of the vocalist who gets the bulk of the praise from the audience. Even the “king of the oud” of recent history, Farid al-Atrash, who mesmerized audiences with his oud skills and famous opening taqasim improvisations, was a singer first.  Simon Shaheen changed this paradigm by featuring the oud first with vocals being optional. Audiences came to hear and appreciate instrumental music, which is a significant development in the Arab arts. Thanks in part to his pioneering work, this trend moved to the Arab World itself where instrumentalist such as oud player Naseer Shamma or violinist Jihad Aql get featured in sold out concerts.

Although evening activities are open to friends at the retreat, the end-of-the week concert is the big attraction. Graduating students perform to the public in their chamber groups and the large orchestras to celebrate their hard work and try to get over the shock of having to go back to work and face real life the following week. The featured event, however, is the concert of the instructor’s ensemble, for which audiences drive from all over the East Coast.

This performance captures the essence of Arab music and can be analyzed in numerous university courses.  It follows a format of featuring instrumental compositions from the classics of the last one hundred years as well as compositions of the performers, especially Shaheen and Racy, and truly spends the well deserved time on solo improvisations.  This is when the audiences can appreciate the full capabilities of instruments such as violin and oud in the hands of Simon Shaheen as well as his brothers Najib and William, the buzuq, in the hands of Professor Racy, Jamal Sinno’s qanun, Basam Saba’s nay, and Michel Mirhej Baklouk’s riqq, among others.  Improvisations show the performer’s skills and prototype templates for the students, who study the recordings of the concert, to learn proper modal maqam transitions, ending qaflas, and creative ideas of on-the-spot composing in reaction to the responses of the audiences and the energy of fellow musicians. Vocal instructor Rima Khcheich dazzles with beautiful singing to complete the festivity.