Classical Egypt in America

The room is not filled, but there are enough people to embrace the musicians as they deserve — warmly, affectionately, and personably. Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is known for exceptional traditional and world-oriented programming, and is a fitting venue for what is to come.

Seven men and one woman dressed eloquently stroll onto stage, displaying with their instruments an intriguing blend of Arabic and Western histories — the tambourine riqq, the small lute oud, the zither qanun, and the more recognizable violin and cello. Three singers sit at the helm of the semi-circle; a 30-ish man and woman flanking a man more than double their age. He will be the spotlight of the show, though in truth everyone plays brilliantly.

That man’s name is Youssef Kassab, a Syrian professor who has been singing the classical folk music of the Arabian world for over five decades. While he did not found the Chicago-based Arabesque Music Ensemble, his advice and guidance on their latest album, The Music of the Three Musketeers (Xauen), proved to be a godsend to the young collection of musicians. Their aim was to capture Arabian folk traditions in their every nuance, and though they were forced to completely re-record the original to meet Kassab’s approval, founder/qanun player Hicham Chami felt blessed for the opportunity.

Started in 2006 under the name The Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble, their new moniker suits this prestigious and passionate outfit. While their debut focused on the work of Egyptian composer Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh, the latest hones in on the works of Muhammad al-Qasabji, Zakariyya Ahmad and Riyad al-Sunbati. Collectively, they became known as the Three Musketeers, due to their compositional work for legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. In total they are said to have written three-quarters of the more than 300 songs this woman has recorded.

Three hundred songs may sound like a lot, but that number does not boggle the mind — there are plenty of musicians that equal and even dwarf that number in their work. Yet we have to put this into perspective. Kulthum’s monthly Thursday evening performances cleared the streets of Egypt, as fans surrounded radios in anticipation.

Over the course of six to eight hours, the woman would sing perhaps five songs, at times even less than that. The four-minute “song” that we know of today wouldn’t even be a clearing of the throat in Kulthum’s world. Thirty-three years since her death, her importance to Arabic culture truly remains a world unto itself. It is an understatement to say that her voice helped create the identity of early 20th century Egyptians.

Suggested Listening

Om Kalsoum – The Classics (EMI Arabia)

With such a rich catalog (and little available in the States), this compilation produced by EMI Arabia is a great entry point to the singer’s unearthly voice.

Cairo Orchestra – Tribute to Om Kalsoum (Hollywood Music Center)

While an instrumental tribute to a singer may seem odd, this orchestra’s stunning renditions of Kalthoum’s song prove nearly as powerful as the riveting vocalist herself.

Mahmoud Fadl – Umm Kalthoum 7000 (Piranha)

In one of the legendary Nubian percussionist’s final recordings, Fadl produces an exceptional and rich album of some of Egypt’s most inspired and important works.

Hossam Ramzy – Best of Om Kolthoum (Arc)

One of Cairo’s most revered percussionists pays homage to the diva in this cinematic masterpiece.

Hamza El Din – Music of Nubia (Vanguard)

While this Egyptian oud master and vocalist went on to create one of his country’s most endearing bodies of work, this 1964 debut is timeless in every dimension imaginable.

Born in El Senbellawein in 1904, Kulthum went on to capture the hearts and imagination of a nation. Her career was as entwined in politics as it was music, though by shrouding her personal life in mystery she was able to keep herself out of gossip circles, as much as possible. Her focus was not on entertainment as much as it was on reliving the traditional repertoire of her culture while inventing it anew. She worked with numerous composers, but it was the Three Musketeers, who predominantly wrote for her during the peak of her career, that helped define her tremendous style, her unforgettable voice.

Like many other traditions, however, this one is focused on the singer, with the instrumentalists secondary and the composers often remaining in obscurity. It is reported that Ahmad — a man that composed 56 operettas, over 90 songs for 37 films and roughly 1,070 total works — died penniless. Such is the love and torture of artistic madness. Yet there is something that transcends the earthly desires in the creation of music, which the poet Bayram al-Tunsi captured when penning the lyrics to Ahmad’s “Ghannili Shewayya Shewayya”:

Music is the life of the soul

That cures the sick who hear it

That heals the injured

When even doctors cannot help them

That brings light in the darkness of the night

To the lover’s eyes

Softly, sweetly, softy, sweetly

Sing for me; I’ll give you anything

Chami probably had similar sentiments in mind when founding the ensemble: do it for the love of the music, and things will fall into place. Considering the Arabesque Music Ensemble’s success thus far, there is a craving for the precision and accuracy of tradition, even in the younger generations. For artists in their 20s and 30s — some whom have recorded with pop stars Shakira and Beyonce — to throw themselves fully into a classical setting can only be done for the passion of the music itself. And the timing for Americans to be exposed to the cultures of the Middle East couldn’t be better.

There will always be something political about music, especially when performers are highly regarded. Kulthum was “found” by a future Egyptian president, and her career almost ended when she was associated with a deposed king. While the Arabesque Music Ensemble is not saying anything blatantly political, their formation and preservation efforts at a time when anything associated with the Arabic world is questioned by Westerners is both courageous and applauded. By shining the light on the vast, rich cultures of the Middle East, they are bringing misconceptions and misunderstandings out of the darkness of the past (not to mention the dark corners of our present), which have shadowed Westerners’ appreciation for the totality of nations too-often slighted by mainstream media.

This does not make their work esoteric, either. There is nothing exotic about these beautiful compositions – the music will be familiar to the ear trained to any classical Western tradition.

The performance this February at Symphony Space is received warmly by Middle Eastern fans reliving their culture and remembering their beloved star through these eight musicians, and Westerners in the audience share their joy. Kassab, as noted, receives the loudest applause, though singers Aboud Agha and Dima Orsho are equally poignant in delivery and tone. Riqq master Michel Merhej Baklouk, the only other elder of the troupe, proves more is always less on his brilliant percussive efforts. Chami on qanun and the astute Walid Zairi on oud play gorgeously on strings, while cellist Kinan Abou-Afach adds a lilting low end behind the otherwise acrobatic atmosphere. And perhaps the most pleasant to watch is violinist Hanna Khoury, whose joyful facial expressions perfectly match his musicality.

And still, the room is not full, when every aspect of the performance indicates that it could have been. This is the constant battle that the classical world fights in attempting to maintain integrity and gravity with a younger culture steeped in more modern forms of art. I know it well—I too straddle these worlds, being both a club DJ and fan of all things digital, and student of mythology, folk music and history. It is refreshing to witness artists my age keeping tradition alive, for they are acutely aware that whatever form each new era assumes, it will be meaningless without knowledge of that which has recently passed. By recognizing the necessity of culture and continuing the evolution of their own birthright, they have not only transcended the boundaries of geography, but also that of time.

On nights like this something beyond borders comes into play, and no single nationality or musical background defines those present. What brings these musicians, and what brings those of us in the audience to this excellent show is an appreciation for the highest aspect of global culture, that which shares it’s creations to all whose ears have been opened to listen. And it is a beautiful thing to behold.