Concert review: Simon Shaheen – The Call, Songs of Arab Pride, Dignity and Liberation!

Date: April 10, 2012
Location: CUNY Graduate Center/ Live@365 World Music Series, presented by Elebash, curated by Isabel Soffer
Reviewed by Brian Prunka
Simon Shaheen is well-known among Arabic music enthusiasts as one of the most gifted living performers on the oud, the fretless near-eastern antecedent to the lute and as a superb violinist.  For several decades he has worked tirelessly to increase awareness and understanding among Western musicians and audiences of the rich Arabic musical tradition, and encouraged Arab musicians to embrace their musical heritage. I became aware of Simon in the late 1990s when I first began learning the oud, and learned of the annual Arabic Music Retreat that he directs each summer.  Simon and his colleagues, such as Ali Jihad Racy and Bassam Saba, introduced to me and countless others the remarkable depth and richness of the Arabic Tradition.  While my opinions on this performance may not be wholly objective, I hope that my intimate familiarity with the playing styles of the musicians will compensate to some degree for that deficiency.

Many of Shaheen’s concerts have a particular theme, and in the past he has focused on the repertoire of particular composers such as Farid Al Atrache and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. This concert represents a more overt theme, focused on songs that embody feelings of pride, dignity and freedom, inspired by the events of the Arab Spring and the efforts of the people in the Arab world to replace autocratic rulers with democratic self-determination. The music chosen is all from the 20th century, ranging from Sayyed Darwish’s “Ahu Dalli Sar” from the near the turn of the century to the late 20th century “Al Quds” by the Rahbani brothers, into the 21st century with Shaheen’s own compositions “Iraq” and “The Call”. The latter, while not explicitly programmatic, represent instrumental music inspired by the people and events of recent years.

The opening piece, “Ibnil Balad,” is well-known instrumental by Mohammed Abdel Wahab featuring the nay (end-blown reed flute), played by Bassam Saba, in the maqam (musical mode) Saba.  This maqam is quintessentially Arabic, with a subtle interplay of melancholy and spiritual beauty perfectly suited to the nay.  Saba is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, often performing on western flute, oud, and violin, but it is as a nay player that he shines most brightly, effortlessly using the full expressive capabilities of this notoriously difficult instrument to serve the music.  This piece also featured some excellent qanun (Arabic plucked zither) playing by the young musician Ali Amr.

The singer Nidal Ibourk seemed to show a slight nervousness at the beginning of “Ya Hubbinal Kibir”, but she quickly overcame any hesitation and sang wonderfully, as she continued to do the rest of the night.  In a pleasant surprise, the qanun player, Ali Amr, took the stage to sing “Bil Ahdan” and showed outstanding expressiveness and precision in his singing; I look forward to hearing more from him in the future.

“Iraq” was composed by Shaheen around the time of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and is a reminder of the deep musical and cultural roots of the Iraqi people (the piece is in a maqam named after Iraq). A technical tour-de-force of composition and improvisation, it brought Simon’s remarkable oud playing to the forefront. Having heard Simon perform this piece many times before, this was an exceptionally virtuosic and inspired performance.

This concert was the premiere performance of a new composition by Shaheen, entitled “The Call.”  Inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, it combines elements of the Arabic with those of Western classical music in an interplay between the piano (played by Helen Sherrah Davies) and violin.  It represents a new dimension for Shaheen as a composer, bringing elements of modernistic harmony and dissonance into his palette.  For this performance, the modern dancer Elena Lantini choreographed and performed an accompanying dance piece meant to be evocative of the citizens of the Arab world breaking free of their oppressive governments.  While there were some slight hints at elements of raqs sharqi, aka “belly dance”, they were subtle and the overall sense was languid and interpretive.  Shaheen has recently taken a teaching position at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston; perhaps this partly inspiring the exploration of these other dimensions.  If so, hopefully it will continue to yield new directions.

In addition to the musicians mentioned above, the performers were ably supported by Najib Shaheen (Simon’s older brother) on oud, Peter Slavov on acoustic bass, Tareq Rantisi on percussion and Insia Malik on violin.