Q&A: Simon Shaheen On Occupy Wall Street, The Arab Renaissances, And Uncovering Arabic Music’s Instrumental Repertoire


While hip-hop spread the word during the Arab Spring (at least they didn’t have to endure the incessant drum circles of Zuccotti Park), Palestinian composer, bandleader, and oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen heard echoes of a remarkably beautiful and sophisticated era of Arabic music throughout the popular revolts of 2011. This Saturday at Roulette, Shaheen will connect the dots between this year’s rebellions and the nationalist songs that flourished during the collapse of colonialism some six decades ago. Three great singers—Nidal Ibourk (Morocco), Naji Youssef (Lebanon), and Ali Amr (Palestine)—and a chorus will join Shaheen’s Near Eastern Music Ensemble at “Songs for the People: Voices of the Arab Renaissance”, a World Music Institute concert. Even if you don’t understand Arabic, the combination of emotionally devastating vocals, virtuosic musicianship, and mind-blowing improvisations should prove fairly spectacular. SOTC spoke to Shaheen about the first and second Arab renaissances, Occupy Wall Street, and the United States’ growing appreciation of Arabic music.

Your upcoming concert celebrates the second Arab renaissance. Could you describe the first one, by way of background?

Musically speaking, the first Arab renaissance occurred throughout the 19th century, when musicians and artists in the Arab world started to revive their own music after 500 years’ occupation by the Ottoman Empire, which was both positive and negative. The negative thing was the occupation itself and resulting lack of creativity. On the other hand, there was a kind of exchange between the Arab world and Ottoman Empire. Today Turkish musicians perform the Arab repertoire while elements of Turkish music can be found in Arabic traditional music. During the 19th century, Middle Eastern musicians returned to the golden age of Arabic music, which flourished from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries.

When was the second Arab renaissance?

The second Arab renaissance followed the first half of the 20th century, the colonialist period. A fantastic musical repertoire was created during the late ’40s through the ’60s. It reestablished national pride and restored dignity to the Arab world. Freedom of expression was a common theme across many songs. At the beginning of 2011, another fantastic movement started in Tunisia, then Egypt, and then other countries in the Arab world. This movement has the same theme. It’s about recapturing our pride, dignity, self-expression, and political freedom. I want to musically link the second Arab renaissance to the present by playing works by the earlier era’s greatest musicians These include Mohammad Abdel Wahhab, Farid al-Atrash, and Gamal Abdel-Rahim in Egypt, and the Rahbani brothers, Fairuz, and Wadi Al-Safi in Lebanon. Their songs addressed the status quo and expressed the ache for freedom, dignity, and the restoration of identity. Hearing those songs from the ’50s while witnessing what’s going on now, it’s as though they’d been written yesterday, or at least the beginning of the year.

Didn’t Abdel Wahhab compose “Ya Beladi”—or “Libya, Libya, Libya”—the national anthem of the pre-Gaddafi Kingdom of Libya that was revived by the post-Gaddafi transitional government this year?

That anthem was actually composed by another great Egyptian musician, Sayed Darwish. Abdel Wahhab refreshed and reorchestrated it. The Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, and many others performed Abdel Wahhab’s songs. Another Egyptian composer, Kanal al-Tawil, was younger than Abdel Wahhab but part of the same group. He composed several nationalistic songs for Halim Hafez. Al-Tawil’s “Bil Ahdan” means “back to our lap”—like, “come back to my lap, Egypt, and feel safe, loved, and free.” It’s a fantastic song. Another composer, Riyad al-Sunbati, composed “Ya Hubbina al-Kabir” during the mid-’60s. It addresses Egypt as the “great beloved country close to our heart” and was performed by Umm Kulthum. We’re also going to do another important song by Abdel Wahhab, “Dawr al-Sharq,” which means “call of the Orient,” i.e., the Middle East. He addresses the beauty of the land, the sky, the Nile, the dignity of the Arab people, their generosity, and their yearning for freedom. So all these songs share a theme, and I felt the link between the two eras immediately as the year began.

So while the West was inventing rock and roll, the Middle East was updating its classical tradition into a nationalistic popular music. What’s the sound of the new Arab rebellion?

Its inconceivable how fast things are happening today and I don’t see the artistic side keeping up. But it’s coming. I can imagine great works of poetry and theatrical music. But these things require a little bit of time.

You performed at the American Task Force on Palestine gala last week. What did you play there?

We played instrumentals and two songs with Moroccan singer Nidal Ibourk, who lives in Chicago. “Iraq,” an instrumental I composed four years ago, is based on a short Iraqi folk theme. We also performed a song whose title translates as “The Land Speaks Arabic.”

Have you visited Occupy Wall Street yet? How does it compare to the popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya?

I can certainly draw similarities from what I’ve seen on TV and the fact that people are camping there. It’s so obvious that the occupiers themselves recognize it. I’d like to go there and participate. Maybe I’ll do a performance. I haven’t been down there yet because this semester I’ve been teaching at Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory in Boston. And with all my travel, projects, and performances, it’s a nightmare.

I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but I suspect a lot of Westerners have trouble enjoying Arabic music because of its perceived sameness. They only hear the swelling strings, melodramatic vocals, and “habibi habibi habibi.” Not to mention the belly dancers.

I’ve been in the United States for 30 years, and I’ve seen a huge growth in appreciation of Arabic music. I think I was part of it. I remember when I first came here and we didn’t have any audience. Americans generally viewed Middle Eastern music as cabaret with belly dancers, and those were the venues in which it was mainly heard, unfortunately. But my colleagues and I worked very hard to reach out to performing-arts centers, universities, and even elementary schools; we offered residencies, workshops, and lectures in addition to performances. Nobody can deny that Arabic music contains fabulous poetry, but I started the Near Eastern Music Ensemble in order to concentrate on instrumental music. People here didn’t know there even was instrumental Arabic repertoire. Arabic music has made fantastic strides outside the Middle East since the late ’70s and early ’80s. I can feel it during my performances.

What Arab music speaks most strongly to the current situation in Palestine?

We are including a song Fairuz sang for Palestine at the beginning of the ’60s. In Palestine we have a strong folkloric repertoire; indeed, folklore is the repertoire. Much of it doesn’t need a political statement to reflect what’s going on. Palestine’s poetry is very powerful and speaks of the land, olive trees, hills, the nature of the people, and intricate details of village or rural life. Dances like the dabke are important, too, of course. Folklore, music, dance, embroidery, and theater all speak for Palestine.

Simon Shaheen performs at Roulette on Saturday night as part of “Songs for the People: Voices of the Arab Renaissance.”

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