Advertisement Close

America's Other Orchestras: Arab American Ensemble Series Episode 5

posted on: Aug 31, 2016

The Big Apple Tastes the Hummus

BY: Sami Asmar/Contributing Writer

There is probably nothing one cannot find in New York City, the metropolitan like no other. This includes Arab music of all forms. Over the years, several innovative bands were formed there and, until recently, the city was the home of Simon Shaheen, the world famous oud and violin player and composer. In 2007, it was time to form the New York Arabic Orchestra and its founders were two people very familiar to followers of Shaheen and the Arabic Music Retreat. They have performed in New York’s most prestigious venues with local and guest singers.

The co-founder and artistic director is the acclaimed Lebanese multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba who is a talented performer on the nay, oud, and violin, as well as the Western flute, on which he can play the Arab maqam-based micro-tones. He is also a brilliant educator who tours the country giving workshops and master classes on Arab music, and has been a regular faculty member of the Retreat since its founding. He studied in Beirut, Paris and Moscow before settling in New York. Along the way, he toured extensively with Fairuz, Marcel Khalife, and Simon Shaheen, and has worked with Ziad Rahbani, Wadi’ al-Safi, Majida al-Rumi and Taoufiq Farroukh. In the US, he collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, Sting, Alicia Keys, Santana, Herbie Hancock, and Quincy Jones. He is currently an active member of Simon Shaheen’s Al-Qantara and Near Eastern Music Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Daniel Schnyder’s Nay Concerto, and leads his own Bassam Saba Ensemble.

April Centrone (left) with Bassam Saba (right)

The moving force behind starting and running the orchestra is New Yorker April Centrone, co-founder and executive director.  April is a performer, teacher and music therapist. She has spent the last couple of years in Beirut working as the principle drummer of Ziad Rahbani’s jazz band and has performed with Marcel Khalife. A trained forensic psychologist, Centrone utilizes music therapy as part of her work. She studied classical Arabic music and riqq with the legendary Michel Merhej Baklouk, as well as ‘ud and Arabic violin with Bassam Saba and Simon Shaheen. The tireless Centrone is currently leading the Juthoor (Roots) music education and therapy project in Lebanon primarily serving the youth of refugee camps.

Under Saba and Centrone, the 40-musician New York Arabic Orchestra brings together a culturally diverse group of musicians interested in promoting traditional Arab music through concerts and educational programs. These impressive programs include Arab percussion classes on the tar, riqq, and tablah, and a choral class for adult students who wish to learn and sing in Arabic. There is an ensemble performance course that includes maqam theory as well as improvisation and rhythms. They make this course a prerequisite for the New York Arabic Orchestra. Unlike similar orchestras, they have a family program that focuses on exposing children to classical Arabic language via music and parent participation. They don’t stop at this. Saba and Centrone run a college level Arabic Music Semester Intensive as well as an Orchestra Residency program where they visit universities and teach and demonstrate the music.

While many Arab orchestras focus on formal performances as their method of connecting with their communities, this innovative orchestra stresses educational and outreach programs. This brings the music to the city and all Americans in a manner that removes the foreignness out of it. Once you are exposed to the theory and terminology of Arab music, you fall in love with it faster.  It is still exotic and enchanting, but it is not hard to understand to appreciate. This has generated a following of young musicians who come from different backgrounds. One meets most of them at the Retreat and is amazed at their talent and their pride in their New York orchestra.

As big as the Big Apple is, the dynamic duo of Bassam and April are even bigger. They can expand their amazing ideas and educational programs to a national level and apply their methodology in most major cities. As we have done in Los Angeles a few years ago with great success, your city, community, or school should book them now for an intensive week or semester of Arab music near you!