Saving an oud tradition

Boston Globe, October 10, 2008

NEW YORK – To enter the world of Simon Shaheen, the virtuoso musician and bandleader who has become Arabic music’s most prominent ambassador and most active educator in the United States, simply consider his principal instrument, the oud.

As Shaheen describes it, the elegant lute with its pear-like shape, fretless neck, and 11 strings – five pairs of two plus a single one at the low end – not only grounds Arabic music, but offers clues to the whole aesthetic of a culture.

“The oud is the center of the Arabic traditional small ensemble,” says Shaheen, who visits the Museum of Fine Arts tonight for a trio session of classical Arabic pieces and new works. “It has a very round, well-projecting sound. It has fantastic technical abilities. And like the piano in the West, it acts like the main instrument in the hands of composers and singers, to accompany themselves or use as a reference when they are composing.”

Sitting in a shaft of afternoon sunlight in his Brooklyn apartment, Shaheen cradles his oud and points out its features, the intricate woodworking and rich colors that give it the aspect, when turned upside down, of a beautifully adorned human face.

“Look at the oud,” he says. “It’s embellished, it has all these beautiful ornaments. And I explain to people that the ornaments are part of our way of living. We ornament our food. Traditional clothing is all embroidered. Arabic writing, you look at calligraphy, it’s all ornamented. So making people understand this concept definitely helps them feel closer and closer to the music.”

The observation encapsulates the mission of Shaheen, who came to New York in 1980 from his native Palestine. He grew up in Galilee and studied in Jerusalem, and he began to learn the oud from his father at age 3 and was playing concerts at 4. He has become, from his base here, one of Arabic music’s most important promoters worldwide.

At the helm of different groups, he performs classical Arabic music in the refined tradition of Egypt and Syria as well as new compositions that reflect global migration and exchange, pairing oud with guitar, the Arabic flute called ney with saxophone, or frame drums with the Western drum kit. He’s worked with pop, jazz, Latin, and classical artists; his concerto for oud premieres with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra later this month.

But he’s also an activist and teacher who has spread awareness of Arabic music and helped develop a whole generation of new talent – especially through his weeklong Arabic Music Retreat, held annually since 1998 at Mount Holyoke College, which began with 12 students but now sees close to 100.

“He’s planted the seed for Arabic music in this country,” says Iraqi-American jazz trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who attended the retreat in 2001 and 2002 and went on to master the stringed instrument called a santoor; ElSaffar is now reviving a whole repertoire of Iraqi maqams, or classical compositions, that risked being lost to war and migration.

“He’s a great performer who has completely mastered the Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese repertoire,” ElSaffar says of Shaheen, “in addition to the improvisational styles of the great oud players. But his even bigger contribution is as an educator, because he’s taken his knowledge and shared it.”

When Shaheen arrived here, he found Arabic music confined to cabarets. “It was kind of a mishmash of several countries,” Shaheen says. “It catered to the belly dance scene. There was no music that you could call traditional music, stage music where people just come to listen. I started this.”

He was continuing his own studies – on violin at the Manhattan School of Music, and then in musicology and music education at Columbia. But scattered in the boroughs he found some great Arabic musicians, particularly Lebanese, who were getting by in the cabarets but were deeply versed in the classical forms.

The group he formed in 1982, the Near Eastern Music Ensemble, gathered some of these artists and began to put traditional Arabic music on the map in the United States – using talent that was already here thanks to immigration, lacking only a catalyst.

Shaheen would go on to make his mark on a much larger territory. After obtaining US citizenship he became able to travel to the Arab world – previously off-limits as he had only Israeli documentation. Not only could he now visit relatives whom he had never met before, he could also perform in Arab capitals where traditional music often finds itself on the defensive under the assault of synthesizers and pop lyrics.

“It frightens me: People don’t differentiate anymore between the various genres,” he says. “What is traditional, what is urban, rural, sacred, secular, they don’t know anymore. So big pop singers take over and people listen only to them.”

Shaheen is doing his part to reverse that, be it when he performs in the Arab world or when he brings students from Gaza and the West Bank to his retreats here. It’s an urgent task, he says: “Local people in different parts of the world are losing the intricacies of their traditions.”

But between his success promoting Arabic music in America and the reception he gets in the Arab world, Shaheen has grounds for optimism.

“When I play in Beirut or Cairo, the hall is packed and they want me to perform five or six nights,” he says. “That proves to me one thing: If you make it available, and there are people on the level to perform it, there is a crowd for it. The young generation is not dumb. It is open, diverse, and if you give them something good, they will definitely digest it.”