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Heritage Month: Arab Americans as Musicians

posted on: Apr 27, 2016

BY: Patrick Nahhas/Contributing Writer

The moment a beat of an Arabic instrument is played through a speaker, it is immediately recognizable by most Arab Americans. Classical and pop music from the Arab World is influencing American music and creating hits. However, many Arab Americans strive to preserve the classical music of their ancestors back in the Arab World. Although these talented artists are not as well known as the mainstream songs and musicians, they are represented in very strong numbers.

Hanna Khoury is perhaps one of the most notable Arab American classical musicians. As a violinist, Khoury has excelled in both the realms of Arab and Western music. He has collaborated with major Arab artists such as Lebanese singer Fairuz, Iraqi Singer Kazem Al-Saher, and Algerian singer Cheb Khaled. He has also been involved in the Western pop scene, having roles in the song “Beautiful Liar” by Beyonce and Shakira, as well as Shakira’s hit song “Hips Don’t Lie.” Khoury has recorded two traditional Arab music albums: Al Fursan Al-Talatha and the Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of People. Khoury continues to expand his knowledge and is currently obtaining his PhD in Ethnomusicology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hanna Khoury is also a music director with Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture in Philadelphia. Al Bustan is an organization dedicated to presenting and teaching Arab culture through the arts and language. Al-Bustan is a successful platform for welcoming classical Arab and Arab American musicians to perform in ensembles and concerts with the use of traditional Arab Instruments.

Children learn how to play tablehs with Al Bustan – photo source

The New York Arabic Orchestra is New York City’s leading institute in classical and contemporary Arab music, directed by world-renowned Arab American virtuoso and educator, Bassam Saba. The Orchestra brings together a culturally diverse group of over 40 musicians together around one common passion: Arab Music. Saba is a professional flautist and oudist who often tours the U.S. and the Arab World, performing with other talented musicians like Fairouz and Simon Shaheen.

Bassam Saba on oud with the New York Arabic Orchestra

Another prominent orchestra is the Multi-Ethnic Star Orchestra, MESTO, in California is conducted by Arab American Nabil Azzam. MESTO brings traditional folk music from the Arab World, Asia, and Latin America to Western stages in order to harness appreciation and awareness of the unique instruments of these cultures that are often left out of Western orchestras. The non-traditional style of MESTO gives it authenticity and character unlike any other American orchestra.

Maestro Nabil Azzam, conductor, performs his violin suite “Mutlaq” with MESTO

Simon Shaheen, an oud player, is another recognizable Arab American musician. Shaheen leads Qantara (“arch” in Arabic), an Arab ensemble in New York City that he created. Qantara has released many albums, the first being Blue Flame, which the Washington Post referred to as “eminently cosmopolitan.” Shaheen also performs with the Near East Music Ensemble that travels throughout the world, hosting lectures of the academic importance of music and raising awareness of Arab music through workshops and presentations.

Finally, there’s the National Arab Orchestra, a Michigan-based classical orchestra that features musicians from all over the world in their live performances. The National Arab Orchestra is conducted by Michael Ibrahim, a professional ney player, and aims at “building bridges through music” by bringing together the diverse people and voices of Arabs everywhere for an evening of fun.

National Arab Orchestra

For those who still prefer the Arabic pop hits, there is no shortage of wedding singers and bands, as well, that are maintaining Arab World traditions in an American way. These performers, such as Ghada Derbis, Usama Baalbaki, Karima Skalli, Basem Saleh, Doris Farhat, Sam Abdullah, and Emad Batayeh, dominate the local wedding scenes and sometimes tour the U.S. to perform the Arab World’s biggest hits.

These musicians and performers are some of the best reminders of heritage to the Arab American community. They are also leaders who are giving back to their communities, educating the youth, and maintaining high culture within our society. Music is truly the largest instrument of peace, as anyone from any culture can appreciate the sound of various Arab instruments such as an oud, kamanja, tableh, riqq, or a quanun. And the best way to show your appreciation is by dancing your heart out like these Arab Americans!

See all articles about National Arab American Heritage Month here.