A Heritage without Boundaries
Simon Shaheen: Tradition and Creativity
By Kay Hardy Campbell
Photo: (C) David H. Wells / The Image Works
Reprinted from Aramco World magazine, May/June 1996
All day the Brooklyn Museum had rung with the rhythms of Arab musicians, the verses of poets and the background buzz of crowds in conversation. So when Simon Shaheen appeared on stage late in the afternoon, the quiet that settled around him was his audience's way of acknowledging a special maestro. Shaheen ran this fingers through his dark wavy hair, lifted his violin and bow and locked eyes with each of the 16 musicians in his Near Eastern Music Ensemble.
Inspired by the Arab-American music and dance festivals that flourished from the 1930's to the 1950's, Shaheen organized last fall's Mahrajan al-Fan, or festival of art, a weekend extravaganza of Arab-American culture. Booths from Arab restaurants, henna-painting lessons, folk dance, and a show of traditional Arab costumes framed performances by Arab-American musicians, poets, authors, filmmakers, and scholars. They came to Brooklyn from around the country to give visitors---and each other---an exciting vision of the Arab cultures of their homelands, from Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula.
But as Simon Shaheen drew his bow into the haunting measures of his best-known composition, "Sama'i Kurd Shaheen," his role as festival organizer and fundraiser fell away, and the hall was filled with the musical gifts that have made 40-year-old Shaheen one of the brightest, fastest rising stars in Arab music.
Shaheen's musical journey began, in a sense, even before he was born in Tarshiha, in the Galilee. His family was full of instrumentalists and singers.
"My grandfather was the principal singer in the church, and he also sang the classical Arab music repertoire," he says. Shaheen's father, Hikmat Shaheen, was a well-known player of the 'ud--- the pear-shaped, short-necked, fretless forerunner of the European lute---as well as a composer, educator, and founder of two regional orchestras.
At seven Shaheen began eight years of study of western classical music in Haifa; by age 12 his father had him help run the orchestra. "I did all the rehearsals and arranged everything, while he supervised," Shaheen says.
And at night, he says, the family would listen to the radio, where the airwaves were full of great Arab music, for those were the days of the famous Thursday-night broadcasts on Egyptian Radio's "Voice of the Arabs." The whole Arab world came to a halt to hear Umm Kalthum sing live full-length concerts to the big orchestral compositions of Riyad al-Sunbati, Mohamed Abdel Wahhab and others.
Umm Kalthoum "used to come on the air on the first Thursday of each month," Shaheen recalls with a smile. "I always remembered much of any new song she sang. The next morning I would hum the introduction and different parts for my father, and he would notate them."
Shaheen went on to earn his bachelor's degree in literature and music from the Academy of Music in Jerusalem, where he later taught. Yet "my real education," he says, "was working with my father."
Since he came to the United States in 1980 to pursue graduate studies---in music, of course---Simon Shaheen has made New York City his base for both the preservation of traditional Arab music and the exploration of artistic frontiers. Now, he is increasingly regarded as one of the most dynamic musical links between the Arab world and the West.
A fast-paced concert schedule brings him and the Near Eastern Music Ensemble to stages throughout North America and Europe. He is a master teacher of the 'ud and violin as well as a popular lecturer. He composes both alone and in collaboration with others. But most important, Shaheen is increasingly looked upon as an inspiration.
"He has so much love for Arab music that you cannot escape it," says ensemble soloist Ghada Ghanim. "Even if you are in the audience or just passing by, his enthusiasm will grab you!"
As a performer on both violin and 'ud, Shaheen conquers complex phrases with mesmerizing frenzy and caresses others with quiet tenderness. He draws from a deep well of technique, applies it creatively, and metes out expression in deliberately tantalizing measure.
In 1994 Shaheen was awarded one of 11 National Heritage Fellowship Awards for outstanding contributions to traditional music. The New York Daily News has called his interpretations "some of the most sublime Arab music to be heard this side of the Dead Sea." In February, he played a concert of traditional and original music as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series.
Shaheen "combines technique with feeling," says ethnomusicologist, composer and performer Ali Jihad Racy (See Aramco World, September/October 1995). "He is the product of two traditions. Conservatory-trained, he has one foot in western classical music, the other at the center of the Arab musical tradition. This is very unusual."
Shaheen is also a master of taqasim, or improvisations. Arab instrumentalists use taqasim to explore a maqam, a scale or mode, with a series of musical phrases that the performer strings like pearls on a strand of pauses. Shaheen's improvisations "invoke all the possible wealth of the maqam and rhythm," says poet and musician Mansour Ajami. In a collaborative 1983 recording titled "Taqasim," Shaheen playfully traded improvisation on the 'ud with Racy on the buzuq, the 'ud's long-necked cousin.
Likewise, modal shifts and unexpected rhythmic phrases fill his popular compositions, such as "Sama'i Kurd Shaheen." The resulting level of invention within traditional form is unrivaled among today's composers. In its third verse he changes the maqam an astonishing six times, and only at the very last moment does he bring the melody back to kurd, the "home" maqam for which the piece is named. In the last verse, he bursts out of the base 10/8 rhythm, not into the sama'i's traditional 3/4 or 6/8 closing rhythm, but into what proves to be a thrilling, unusual 7/8.
Shaheen's traditional arrangements and compositions appear on two recordings. "The Music of Mohamed Abdel Wahhab" is Shaheen's tribute to the late Egyptian composer and consists largely of Shaheen's orchestrations of Abdel Wahhab's music. "Turath" ("Heritage") is Shaheen's compilation of classical Arab ensemble music; the Library of Congress named it one of the outstanding traditional recordings of 1992. By late 1995, Shaheen had three further recordings in progress.
Ever since he was a boy, Shaheen's artistic openness and gregarious personality have propelled him across cultural boundaries, and in New York, he has delighted in the city's trove of artistic possibilities. "I have preserved my artistry, the traditional Arab and western classical repertoire, in New York," he says. "At the same time, I've been exposed to many ideas. I have met many musicians in New York who have widened my perspective."
He is one of several jazz artists who make up the experimental fusion group Material, which appears on the Axiom label. Rolling Stone called Material's 1994 "Hallucination Engine" "One groovy om of exhilaration and release." Shaheen left a strong imprint on the group's "The Hidden Garden/Naima", and "Ruins," both of which blended Arabic vocals and instrumentals with western rock, jazz and classical elements. Another fusion recording, with Indian slide guitarist Vishwa Bhatt and titled Saltanah, is forthcoming on the Water Lily Acoustics label.
As a teacher of students of both Arab and non-Arab backgrounds, Shaheen reaches out to help them grasp the sensibility and structure of Arab music. William Nakhly, the Galilee-born conductor of Boston's Middle East Orchestra and Chorus, pursuing a doctorate of music in the United States, says that he and many other young Palestinian musicians emulate Shaheen's ensemble concepts. They collect tapes of his rehearsals and his live performances, he says, to study his work more closely.
"I think Simon is having a great impact," says Racy. "The culture needs a role model who combines tradition, authenticity and creativity, someone who combines roots with innovation. Simon thinks deeply about his music. He has true sensitivity to it as a culture, as a legacy, as a message, and he is conscious of the importance of this musical message."
The coming years will no doubt see Shaheen's work bear further fruit as his global audience widens. Two sold-out concerts in January in Haifa, played in honor of his father, featured his recent compositions, "Long Kurd Shaheen" and "Al Cantra." His debut in Lebanon, scheduled for this year, will mark the fulfillment of his personal dream to perform, at last, in Beirut.
Beyond recording and composing, Shaheen is exploring the possible foundation of an Arab arts institute in New York. But his greatest hope, he says, is to make music "that people will view as sincere and without boundaries." Music "should become the heritage, the turath, of whatever community you belong to. For music to be truly successful, it has to be within the realm of turath."
As Shaheen carries his reinvigorated legacy to a new generation, it is easy to imagine he will reach his goal.
What to Listen For:
Simon Shaheen has some advice for those listening to Arab music for the first time. "Think with your voice when you listen to Arab music. It has a linear quality like the voice. Concentrate on its melodies, and listen to how they interact with the rhythm. Arab music is characterized by the use of quarter-tones, which lie between the half-steps of western music. They have a quality that you may not be able to hear at first. Don't think of them as out-of-tune notes. They are deliberate. The more you listen, the more you will begin to hear them and come to love them, for it is the quarter-tones which distinguish many beautiful maqams in Arabic music."
What to Listen To:
Taqasim: Improvisation in Arabic Music; Lyrichord, 1983, LYRCD 7374
The Music of Mohamed Abdel Wahhab; Axiom/Island Records, 1990, 846754
Turath (Heritage); CMP Records, 1992, CMP 3006
Hallucination Engine, by Material; Axiom/Island Records, 1994, 314518-3512
Saltanah; Water Lily Acoustics, 1996.