Concert Review: “Aswat: Celebrating the Golden Age of Arab Music”

Concert Review: “Aswat: Celebrating the Golden Age of Arab Music,” Simon Shaheen and the Aswat Orchestra with Featured Vocalists, Town Hall, New York City, March 7, 2009

by David Shasha

Ammiel Alcalay once appropriated the apt phrase “Wounded kinship’s last resort” in describing the role that music has played in maintaining what little connection is left between Arab Jews and their Middle Eastern compatriots.  The place of the master musician Simon Shaheen in this complicated and contested relationship cannot be underestimated.  Not only has Shaheen recorded many albums of classic Arabic music as well as contemporary readings of the tradition, but he has participated in many of the musical events that have over the years taken place in the Brooklyn Sephardic community.  In private homes and Synagogues, we have become familiar with the magical art of Simon Shaheen’s mastery of this brilliant musical tradition.

On an evening devoted to the most beloved songs of the 20th century Arabic musical tradition, Shaheen brought back the hallowed tones of the great composers, singers and musicians of the Middle Eastern world.  Organizing the program, as he explained to the audience at New York’s Town Hall, after a request from the Kennedy Center in Washington for its current series on Arab culture, Shaheen developed the “Aswat” concept in order to restore the grandeur of the great musical past that was shared by all members of Middle Eastern society regardless of religious affiliation.

This music enriched the classical palette of Arabic music by incorporating Western motifs and styles into the tradition.  Early 20th century figures like Sayyid Darwish and Da’oud Husni were the progenitors and the inspiration for the acknowledged giant of 20th century Arabic song, Muhammad Abdel Wahhab.  Abdel Wahhab’s collaboration with the Egyptian diva Um Kulthum electrified the Arab world where Abdel Wahhab’s place as a songwriter was akin to Gershwin, Berlin and Porter and where Kulthum was the Sinatra, Presley and Ella Fitzgerald of her age.  As is known, the monthly concerts of Um Kulthum, broadcast on the radio all over the Arab world, quite literally became required listening with millions of people stopping what they were doing to sit by their radios to hear the performances.

In addition to these two legendary figures, the Arab world was treated to the art of singers like Farid al-Atrash, Wadi al-Safi, Asmahan, Fairuz and Leyla Mourad.  This rich and glittering tradition of song was the foundation of Shaheen’s “Aswat” program.

After many years of touring with his world music fusion group Qantara, it was wonderful to see Shaheen turn back exclusively to the classics.  Inviting master vocalists from the contemporary Arab world, Ibrahim Azzam, Sonia M’Barak, Khalil Abonula and Rima Khcheich, the “Aswat” concept allowed Shaheen and his expert orchestra to reproduce the rich and intoxicating swirl of this great music.

The intuitive assimilation of these musical traditions was something taken for granted in our cultural development for those of us who grew up with Arabic-speaking grandparents.  As the scholar Mark Kligman has recently been pointed out in his excellent study Maqam and Liturgy: Ritual, Music, and Aesthetics of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, the link between Arabic music and Jewish liturgy in the Sephardic world is both sacrosanct and definitive.  The auditory memories that have been generated in our Synagogues and happy occasions are defined by the sounds of the Middle East in the period we are discussing. 

For those who are not familiar with this liturgical tradition, the songs known in Hebrew as pizmonim, written by the cantors and rabbis of the community, were adaptations of the melodies of songsmiths like Abdel Wahhab.  So many of the songs of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq appear in the contemporary Syrian Jewish liturgy having their Arabic words replaced with sacred texts in Hebrew composed by poets like Refa’el Antebi Tabboush, Moses Ashear and Ezekiel Hai Albeg.

This is the music that we grew up with.  At the feet of my grandmother I personally imbibed this music and it became for me – as for many of my peers – a critical part of my cultural identity.  There was little sense of a divide between the Arabic originals and the Hebrew adaptations.  The only way to understand and appreciate this music was to go back to the originals – and that meant listening to the recordings of Um Kulthum, Abdel Wahhab, Farid al-Atrash and the others who sang this music in the Arab world.

In his between-song patter, Shaheen explained to the audience how many of these songs were originally performed in Egyptian films and recalled his discussions with the legendary Stanley Rashid, a Brooklyn fixture whose family business Rashid Sales was responsible for bringing this great music to America, who imported these movies which he arranged to have screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  I can add to this what I heard from older members of my community of the same films being screened at a local Bensonhurst movie theater on Friday evenings.  Sabbath observers wishing to see the movies would prepay for tickets and were joined by members of the Christian Arab community of Bay Ridge who would make the trek to 18th Avenue and 65th Street to assuage their homesickness.  It was a shared world of culture that was once a central part of the Brooklyn Arab community. 

Such are the Proustian vicissitudes of memory in an age of erosion.

“Aswat” was a magical evening that brought back rich and resonant memories of this world that is now in the process of being eroded in our communities.  On the one hand, the musical traditions, like food traditions, are alive and well; but in the larger cultural sense, the ongoing acrimony between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East has served to break the harmony between individuals native to the region.  While Arabic music remains a central part of religious life for many in the Sephardic community, antipathy towards Arabs themselves has increased to the point where there is little if any human contact between non-Jewish Arabs and the Jewish community.

So this evening’s performance was a timely reminder of the world that our grandparents – those wiser than us – inhabited.  As might also be known, this music has become antiquated in the Arab world as well.  Similar to the place of Jazz in American culture, Shaheen’s project is that of reclamation and the evoking of a world now passed.  As I have said previously, his role in the Arab world is similar to that of the great Wynton Marsalis here in the United States.  Part curator, part archivist, part activist, part rabble rouser, such artists restore for us older artistic visions and provide the riches of a noble musical tradition to a new generation of listeners.

Sitting in New York’s Town Hall one could summon to memory the great concert halls of Beirut, Cairo and Damascus.  As if transported on the proverbial magic carpet, the audience sat enraptured listening to precise and inspiring performances of the classic songs like Kulthum’s legendary “Intizarak” and Asmahan’s “Layali l-‘Unsi fi Vienna.”  The instrumental backing was never less than expert, bringing the larger orchestral elements together with the earthiness of the percussion and the exotic flavors of the ubiquitous ‘Oud and Qanoun. 

The blending of the Eastern and Western elements was typical of the classic school created in many ways by Abdel Wahhab.  The singers – who brought their own unique artistry to these classic songs – brilliantly interpreted the material though I did not envy the female singers who had to take on the Um Kulthum material.  Such a task is indeed Herculean, but in the end all the vocalists acquitted themselves wonderfully creating an inspirational mood which informed the proceedings.

After many years of listening to Simon Shaheen’s recordings and attending his many performances both in New York concert halls as well as events in the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community, “Aswat” was a revelation.  Never had his dedication to this great musical tradition been so intense and so personal for me.  As the orchestra’s sound swelled to crescendo, I found myself welling up and becoming extremely emotional, recalling the moments when I sat with my late grandmother listening to these songs – the 78 RPM records played on an old Victrola that I would crank up on her instructions.  When music becomes so much a natural and organic part of our most intimate being, the emotional resonance of its timbres strikes a deep chord within us. 

But even more than this, what I have learned over the years in remaining true to my grandmother’s vision of the world is that this music is not merely a static part of my life, but, as the term “Wounded kinship’s last resort” indicates, it is a cultural force that reflects a symbiosis that we are now told never existed – that could never have existed as Jews were never Arabs.

This destruction of a cultural identity, what I have called “The Levantine Option,” is marked by the ways in which the Arabic musical heritage has been used and abused in our times.  Many in the Sephardic community who love, honor and cherish this music find themselves at the very forefront of anti-Arab sentiment due to their inability to adopt the larger setting of Arabic civilization in their own lives. 

What Simon Shaheen has so successfully done in his illustrious career is to bring the varied strands of Arabic culture into a unified whole.  By tirelessly bringing this music to the larger world, a world that often marks Arabs as uncivilized and barbaric, he has instilled in the contemporary artistic universe an appreciation for a culture that has been wrongly stigmatized.  And while the inroads that have been made have not completely broken the cultural prejudices in certain corners of our culture, a project like “Aswat” provides a glorious reminder that the Arab world has produced much that is of great worth for us in the West.

For those of us who grew up with this music, this discovery is no surprise.  What is important about the recovery of the Arabic musical heritage for us today is its ability to bridge the divides that separate us.  Aswat, an Arabic word meaning “voices,” articulates the genius and glorious past of an Arab culture that can inspire and astonish us today.  These voices can humanize and civilize what has now become an intractable series of conflicts that has created only hate and violence.  In these great songs of our conjoined past, we luxuriate in the memories of a life better lived, a life where people treated one another with respect and kindness.

For this reason, the art of Simon Shaheen, our greatest expositor of this musical heritage, is a critically important component of the current dialogue over issues that are plaguing us and the world we inhabit.  It is through the sounds and visions of the old Arabic masters that we can better understand who we are today and what this might mean for what we might become in the future.



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