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National Arab Orchestra Builds Bridges through Music

posted on: Nov 16, 2019

National Arab Orchestra Builds Bridges through Music



For anyone who’s been moved by the arts, the power within creative expression is profoundly understood. Art holds the capability to heal, to inspire, to educate, to connect and to transform.

It serves as a catalyst for change — a fact that is not lost on conductor Michael Ibrahim, who founded the National Arab Orchestra a decade ago with the mission of preserving the classical and contemporary traditions of Arab music, while bridging social and cultural barriers through music education, outreach and performance.

On Saturday, the Detroit-based ensemble, featuring musicians of both Arab and non-Arab backgrounds, will make its Houston debut in Stude Concert Hall at Rice University, following a successful appearance at Trinity University in San Antonio last year. The program, in collaboration with a local youth choir and award-winning Lebanese vocalist Abeer Nehme, will include pieces from the traditional, classical canon of Arab music by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez and the Rahbani Brothers, as well as newly arranged, original works by Marwan Khoury, Nehme and Ibrahim.

“For me, it was more about bringing this music back to life, putting it at the forefront of the conversation so that you can show the gamut of Arab culture,” said Ibrahim, a Detroit native born into a Syrian immigrant family who started playing the oud, the grandfather of the modern-day guitar, when he was 10-years-old.

National Arab Orchestra: Building Bridges Through Music featuring Abeer Nehme

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Stude Concert Hall at Rice University, 6100 Main St.

Details: $50-100;

Arab music, a tradition primarily passed down orally until notation was used around World War I, bears a similarity to Western music in that there will always be form and development in a song, Ibrahim explained. Yet, it has a different aesthetic with a system of melodic modes, known as “maqam,” and complex rhythmic patterns.

“It’s like organized chaos,” he said, while demonstrating how a melody can be ornamented through homophonic and heterophonic textures on his oud.

Due to immigration, minimal training and cross-pollination of the arts within the Middle East, there are variances in opinions on how Arab music should be played, Ibrahim explained. Such discrepancies served as a source of motivation when he decided to start the orchestra under the guise of a student group at Eastern Michigan University. The following year, in 2010, he incorporated the nonprofit organization, formerly called the Michigan Arab Orchestra, while pursuing a master’s degree in conducting at Wayne State University.

“If we were to describe it easily, it is like the difference between accents and culture between Texas, Louisiana and Detroit,” he said. “We’re all American, but we do the same thing differently. When I started the orchestra, my long-term vision was to have a full-time ensemble and a school that helps preserve this art form in a way that is legitimate and that shows an actual consensus.”

In 2013, the orchestra received a grant from the Knight Foundation that would allow it to establish the Building Bridges Through Music education program, and shortly after, Ibrahim renamed the ensemble the National Arab Orchestra to more accurately reflect its growing out-of-state support.

In preparing for the orchestra’s Houston debut, Ibrahim visited in early October to work with the newly formed Arabic Youth Choir, instructed by local pianist Adam Yaqot, at the Arab American Cultural and Community Center. Throughout the rehearsal process, 19 students, ages 15 to 20, have not only learned to sing in Arabic, but they’ve gained an understanding of the meaning behind the music and the culture.

Besides educating those who are not well-versed in Arab traditions, the concert will unite the city’s already proactive, albeit diverse Arab American community in a way that’s unlike other cultural hubs, such as civil rights groups, Ibrahim explained.

“We’re not making a statement, which is so popular to do these days,” he said. “We want to change the narrative, and you do that by sharing who you are. When you want to learn about culture, you don’t look at politics. You don’t look at religion. Those are not accurate indicators, but the arts can show you what the soul of a people is.”