Traditional Arab Music with Simon Shaheen at 6th & I Street Synagogue

Simon Shaheen is performing at the Sixth and I Street Synagogue, one of Washington’s more eclectic performance venues, through the auspices of Washington Performing Arts at 8 p.m, Saturday, Feb. 7. 

That won’t tell you much.  Shaheen himself, in a phone interview this week, said there will be his group, five members, playing various instruments.  He is a renowned player of the ‘oud (pronounced “ud”) as well as a classical violinist, and he tells us that the concert is a mixture of traditional Arab instrumental music, along with some recent compositions  of his, as well as duets, singing, the violin.

The promotional material describes him as a man on a mission to incorporate and reflect a history of Arabic music.  He is called a Palestinian ‘oud and violin virtuoso who also goes beyond traditional Arabic music, infusing his compositions with jazz and Western classical styles.

Shaheen is quoted as saying, “I want to create a world music exceptionally satisfying to the ear and for the soul. . . . This is why I selected members of the group who are all virtuosos in their own musical forms, and whose expertise and knowledge can raises the music and the group’s performance to spectacular levels.”

All that tells you a little more.

But there is more, much more to Shaheen, centering around the idea of duality, as he will tell you himself. 

The early life is a thick measure of what duality can be: a Palestinian born in the village of Tarshiha in the Galilee, where he was a member of a musical family—a brother, who lives in New York, as does Shaheen, makes  exquisite ‘ouds, while his father, Hikmad, was a professor of music and a master ‘our player.

“There is no question,” he said, “that my father was the largest influence on my life. It’s almost as if I couldn’t have been anything else but someone who played the ‘oud.”

Shaheen started playing at the age of five, and, to him, it was the music of a large culture that went far back in time and continues into the future.  “Music, and traditions of music, are living things, they are not dead to the touch or the ear, they change.  Music is constantly becoming, adding and subtracting, becoming richer. . . . There is no last word in music. It’s always evolving.”

He studied music at age six at the Conservatory of Western Classical Music in Jerusalem, graduated from the Academy of Music in Jerusalem in 1978 and moved to New York for graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music and music education at Columbia University.

When he came, he stayed and became a U.S. citizen.  Shaheen, too, was constantly adding and subtracting, evolving.

“Obviously, there is a great deal of duality in my life,” he said. “In music, with the pursuit of exploring  and playing traditional Arabic music (with the Near Eastern Music Ensemble), there is the traditional and with the group Qantara, there is the exploration of new forms, jazz and such. 

Shaheen is a Palestinian, a Catholic, an American, who spent his  growing youth in Israel and came to America.   He is a musician, a performer, a composer and an educator.

“You could say there are some dualities there,” he said.  “A few, but they are not separate from one another.   No one is one thing. No music is one thing.  I always get surprised when people focus on religion or some other singular form of identity.   A musician once identified himself to me—he said he was from New York and that he was Jewish.  And I wonder about that, not just this instance but to others.  I am a Catholic, for instance, but that’s not all I am. “

When Shaheen talks about traditional Arab music, he’s talking about the music of daily Arab life, the rituals and common place glories of particular lives and settings—the market, the mosques, the dinner table, the weddings and passings, the local eating establishments, all of which move to music without necessary being musical.

“When I say ‘Arab,’ I mean the worlds closest to the Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the old world,”  he said. “I tour all around the world, in the Middle East, I come back to my birthplace every year.  The expectations in today’s audiences in the Middle East is they want to hear traditional music, the way it was played long ago with traditional instruments. They want to hear it as authentic and true.  “

He explores other forms, particularly jazz, world jazz, which has evolved, too, it’s added to itself from other kinds of music.

“Arab music comes from the table, from the lives of families. It is full of poetry,”  he said.  “It is a rich table that’s set with the music.”

In the world, Shaheen is, not so much a rock star, as a figure embodying certain kinds of playing—he plays the Western canon, too, on  the violin—a man who does more than make music—he makes musicians, too.

We talk a little about a great Egyptian singer, Mohamed Abdu Wahad, considered the father of classic Arab music.  Shaheen recorded an instrumental album of his songs.  “The man had many phases in his life,” he said. “Late in his life, he reportedly lost his voice.  But look at the body of work in his life.”

“When you try to understand Arab music, you have to think in terms of rhythms and melodies and how they’re connected,” Shaheen said. “It is deeply lyrical.”

In an online video, taken from his famed album, “Blue Flame,” you can see and hear him playing the ‘oud by himself.  The result, far from strange, is infectious in a serious way.  It is exactly what he says, a rhythmic dance full of melody, hypnotic.

Shaheen, as he did in the aftermath of a snow storm that hit Boston, commutes back and forth from New York, where he lives, to Boston, where he is a professor at the Berklee College of Music.

“I teach violin, cell and mandolin, and hopefully,  we’ll incorporate some Middle Eastern instruments, like the ‘oud, the qanun.”

He incorporates teaching and education elements and workshops in many of his performance, as “a way of spreading the music, giving back.”

What you remember, though, is an idea, that music is transcending, that it can rise above the fray, that it can, simply by being played with passion and exceptionalism, drown out the sounds  that divide the world.

It’s not something he might say—politics is hardly ever tender on the ears.  But music, his own compositions,  the traditional Arab music that he plays, they come from all of our lives, musicians playing their instruments, singing joyful laments, around a tables full of food and drinks.

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