America's Other Orchestras: Arab American Ensemble Series
BY: Sami Asmar/Contributing Writer
Talented artists typically prosper in the U.S. and American audiences are fortunate to have access to world-class music of all genres. Most major cities have full-size orchestras, as do large universities. Some communities are so interested in promoting music education that their high schools have successful classical orchestras. Not counting colleges, the U.S. has over 1,200 orchestras, many of which have multi-million dollar budgets. In contrast, there are dozens of countries in the world that do not have a single orchestra.
Since the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, music from a variety of cultures is abundant – this is sometimes called ethnic music or world music. It is common for large immigrant communities to have active orchestras or large ensembles, some of which are in the Western-style interspersed native instruments, and others are in the pure style of their areas of origin. The general public typically encounters these ensembles during festivals or commemorations, while dedicated fans follow them every season.
Arab Americans have made numerous contributions to the American culture, economy, academia, and cuisine that have been documented in many sources, including Arab America. Enriching the American musical culture is one of the most significant contributions to society. Arab music is so significant in that it is now common to see Americans who are not of Arab origin active in Arab music, not only as consumers (as they would enjoy hummus and tabouleh as consumers), but as major contributors.
For example, the number of advanced degrees awarded by American universities in music and ethnomusicology specializing in Arab music seem to be awarded more frequently to non-Arab Americans, rather than Arab Americans only. Additionally, the number of non-Arab American participants, players, and composers at the annual Arabic Music Retreat is significant.
Arab music has made meaningful paths in greater American society, and many orchestras, ensembles, and large bands and groups that perform traditional Arab music, as well as original compositions in the Arab maqam system, deserve a spot light. Gone are the days where Americans were exposed to Arab music only in movies with belly dance scenes, restaurants or nightclubs, or the Arab co-worker’s “exotic” wedding celebration.
While it might still be exotic music in some parts of the country, Arab music is featured programmed music in prominent venues in many large cities with touring artists as well as local groups. Hopefully, music can make a difference in both the integration process, as well as the acceptance process, and possibly counter the political environment, in the U.S. and worldwide. There is a clear, unfavorable image of Arab culture across the world, which must change, because it is a rich culture with a sophisticated musical system.
In America’s Other Orchestras: Arab American Ensemble Series, many of the ensembles specializing in Arab music will be featured every other week. They vary from academic environments (UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Tufts, Boston, Virginia and others) to non-profit organizations (MESTO, Aswat, Al-Bustan, National Arab Orchestra, Chicago’s, New York’s, and others), to the 20-year old phenomenon known as the Arabic Music Retreat. Founders, prominent leaders, and key members of these groups are pioneers with established records of composing, arranging, and teaching Arab music.
This series will showcase and document the history and accomplishments of America’s other orchestras. Inevitably, a pattern will emerge with one individual, or a handful of people, that are considered the inspirational cornerstone of the orchestra, with a dedicated following from the community that collectively works through the daily challenges of sustaining an orchestra. Like most American orchestra, the leading challenge is funding, which is why some succeed at a local level and others at an international level.
Seeing new generations of Americans interested in classical and traditional Arab music, and forming large ensembles to express their art, is very exciting. Many artists in the U.S. already count as leading recording and performing artists in the world, and some tour in leading venues in the Arab World itself!