Is it necessary for Arab musicians to make a clear distinction between Arab and Western music?In the first place, I believe that it is essential for us to understand our musical roots and appreciate the richness of the Arab musical heritage. Obviously, this has been a central part of my academic and artistic mission. I would say, however, that performers typically follow a musical sense that allows them to include elements from various sources in their background and musical education. I feel that it is perfectly natural for different styles to co-exist in the same culture. It would be lamentable to think that one style should supercede all others. It is also desirable for an Arab musician to learn about all world musics such as Jazz, African, Indian, and so on, and not only Western classical music. It would be wrong to say that one world music is categorically better than the others. I, for one, can in one day enjoy listening to the layali of the Arab singer Salih Abd al-Hayy, and the next day listen to a symphony by Mahler. If I judge by my experience as a listener, both styles of music provide tremendous emotional gratification. Our culture can both enjoy its own artistic legacy and be open to the entire musical world at the same time. That can only add to the richness and vibrancy of the world we live in.
What is your vision for traditional Arab music in the next ten years and your role in that?
We live in a highly homogenized global culture. One might often hear popular music from Taiwan on the same radio station right after popular music from North Africa, for example, and might observe the shared use of electronic instruments or certain scalar structures. At the same time, many cultures are beginning to look for their unique identity in the world at large. I feel that Arab music is actually beginning to be known worldwide and is proving to be an enriching experience for so many. I once received a letter from a teacher at a very well known American music conservatory that includes instruction in various world musics telling me that he sees a future for the conservatory where Beethoven can thrive among many other voices. This is a progressive idea and show that the musical world is becoming increasingly interconnected.
What are some of the great moments of your performing career?
I can not pick one single moment but I can tell you that great moments can happen in various performance contexts. Sometimes I also feel that such a moment can never be repeated. These are moments of utmost creativity stemming from the amazing synergy between the musicians. During my performances with Simon Shaheen, for example, sometimes the music or the improvisation we produce, although not premeditated, comes out very effective and well synchronized. It is difficult to explain in rational terms something that seems to entail a mystifying sense of telepathy or intuition. These are moments that we cherish. Another musician with whom I can communicate without words is percussionist Souhail Kaspar who has an amazing sense of rhythm. I have special fondness for musicians who improvise. But note that in Arab music, to improvise well, one has to know the music and the standard repertoire very well, since improvising comes as a culmination of musical learning. I am also particularly fascinated with performing with older musicians. They have a certain "soul" that I find deeply engaging. It should also be noted that audiences contribute to creating special moments when a musician senses the energy of the audience and reacts accordingly.
Do you have a favorite song or composition?
I enjoy music from different traditions. In Arab music, I include the muwashshahat in general, and those of the Syrian composer 'Umar al-Batsh in particular. When I was growing up, the late Syrian buzuq player, Muhammad 'Abd al-Karim, was featured on Syrian radio once a week. Listening to him was a ritual for me; I absorbed every note. I have always enjoyed listening to Mary Jibran singing the old adwar by 'Abduh al-Hamuli and Muhammad 'Uthman. I also enjoy the improvisations heard in Sufi music and the qasa'id (plural of qasidah) recited as part of the Sufi rituals. The sama'i and bashraf compositions, as well as nay taqasim of the Turkish Mevlevi order, are special to me. In other traditions, I have heard the North Indian shehnay player Bismillah Khan in a live concert in London, and was deeply moved. His artistry still lives with me. In Western classical music, I enjoy a vast number of composers from different historical periods, including the Baroque and the 20th century.
How do you relate to Kahlil Gibran and the mystic Sufis?
I have always been interested in Gibran and have developed special affinity for his works. In some ways, his life is a metaphor for our lives. He came from a small Lebanese village but presented us with a message that was universal. I saw in him the power that comes out of gentleness and humility. The violet stands against the wind in pursuit of its dreams as the sound of the nay endures until the end of time. Similarly, Gibran's romantic drawings are quintessentially human but also very transcendental. All that makes Gibran particularly appealing as a thinker and artist. In mysticism, I was always fascinated by the role of music. The mystics take the phenomenon of sound and give it a deeper meaning. Accordingly, music is universal, otherworldly, as well as participatory and communal. Such emphasis on music in the mystical practice has given me further insights into the nature of music and its efficacy as a human expression.
Does it surprise you that a lot of American students are studying Arab music?
I am always delighted to see so many people interested in Arab music. It is my pleasure to transmit what I have grown up with to my students and friends. It is amazing to observe the wide interest. Also, UCLA has a particular program for teaching world music through the ethnomusicology department. I have students of Arab backgrounds. They have heard the music and know the language but that is not enough. On the whole, it takes a level of dedication on the part of all students regardless of their background. Some university students come to the musical tradition from a theoretical perspective whereas others seem to take a more practical approach. Those who know the music intuitively may wish to understand its structure as well as learn to play it well.
What do you do for relaxation?
About one hour before I go on stage, I try to have silence around me. I spend some of the time alone meditating. I then focus and prepare to become absorbed by the music. In my daily life, in addition to listening to music, I find that cooking is a creative art on its own and proves to be a relaxing activity. Writing, though not strictly speaking relaxing, is therapeutic. I totally lose any sense of time when I am writing. As a researcher and performer, I derive a good a sense of balance working in both scholarly and artistic domains.This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, no. 25 (Fall 1998)
Copyright © 1998 by Al Jadid