مشاهدة جميع الاصدارات : interview with Simon Chahine

27-10-2005, 11:48
April 2005
Simon Shaheen
A musical virtuoso, Simon Shaheen not only creates new sound, he
also has plans to make his unique blend of Arabic music mainstream
By Abdalla F. Hassan

For one musician, the work of bringing Arabic music to mainstream
American audiences began two and half decades ago. A virtuoso of
both the oud and violin, Simon Shaheen was trained as a Western
classical musician as well as a classical Arabic musician. His
musical education since childhood was shaped by a blend of Arabic
music, Western classical music, jazz, Indian and Persian music.

Shaheen's collaborations with musicians from New York, which is
where he's based, and a multitude of other international musicians
creates what he calls "fusion alchemy.". He defines the term as an
amalgam that combines the unique inflections of Middle Eastern music
and other influences to create a dynamic musical `arch' of different
musical traditions. "The alchemy of fusion, if done without vision,
adequate knowledge and talent, results in nothing but a big fiasco.
It'll be a total disaster," he says. "But if approached tastefully,
aided with the necessary depth and knowledge, I don't see how it
could go wrong; provided there's talent," he says.

A musicalvirtuoso, Simon Shaheen not only creates new sound, he also
has plans to make hisunique blend of Arabic music mainstream.

Aside from his illustrious solo career, Shaheen's latest
collaboration with his group Qantara, (`arch' in Arabic) was a
smashing success. It was through his work with the group that
Shaheen devised a formula that utilizes his collective musical
knowledge, which results in a unique genre that defines his new
innovation. This formula yields an organic-sounding musical fusion
that becomes a space where musical aspects from different cultures
interact to become "the sound of one world," as Shaheen describes

Qantara explores the different possibilities of making music that
are deeply rooted in the traditional Arabic sound. "I chose
musicians who are eclectic, who have knowledge of music from
different parts of the world and who have the openness to accept
musical terminology, concepts and ideas that they may not be used
to," says Shaheen.

Qantara's latest album, Blue Flame, boasts some rich instrumentals,
rhythmic syncopations and soaring technique. Shaheen considers it to
be a culmination of his life's work. The innovative album presents
celebratory solos by the members of Qantara that include "Fantasie,"
a Western classical composition for the oud and string quartet; the
melodically elaborate "Dance Mediterranea," a sensual rearrangement
of The Police's "Tea in the Sahara," and the folk tune "Olive
Harvest," which was composed by Shaheen upon visiting the village of
his birth.

Born in the village of Tarshiha in northern Galilee in 1955, Shaheen
was exposed to music at an early age. His father Hikmat Shaheen, a
professor of music and an established master of the oud, began to
teach his son to play the instrument at the tender age of five. A
year later, Simon Shaheen went to the Conservatory of Western
Classical Music in Haifa to study the violin.

Following his graduation from the Academy of Music in Jerusalem
(1978), the young Shaheen was then appointed as an instructor of
Arabic music, performance and theory. He later moved to New York
City in 1980 to complete his graduate studies in performance at the
Manhattan School of Music, followed by another degree in performance
and music education from Columbia University.

We aren't presenting Arabic music to save face, as some Arabs may
think. I am not trying to save face for anybody. It's part of who I
am and it's beautiful art that I proudly believe in. So I am
exposing it, I am not saving it.

While still in New York, the world-acclaimed violin virtuoso Henryk
Szeryng came to teach a graduate class at the Manhattan School of
Music. Shaheen recalls playing a Beethoven sonata for him. He then
asked the master violinist if he would mind listening to an Arabic
music improvisation piece. Upon agreeing, Shaheen detuned his violin
and began to play. When he finished, Szeryng was puzzled: "Young
man, this is incredible. I don't understand how this music was
created or composed by you instantaneously. But let me ask you why
you played so many notes out of tune?" Szeryng inquired, referring
to the trademark half-flats and quartertones that are characteristic
of Arabic music.

That remark, Shaheen believes, illustrates just how absorbed people
have become in their own musical traditions to the point where they
don't realize that other musical forms exist on the world music
scene. Microtonality (a musical interval smaller than a halftone),
commonly used in Arabic music, expresses a rich tapestry of sounds
and emotional qualities. "This variability in Arabic music, which
identifies our music and our musical identity, is steadily
diminishing," Shaheen says. Synthesizers and electronic instruments
are gradually replacing many authentic Arabic instruments and they
are simply not designed to play microtonality, he explains. Also
threatened, he believes, is the art of improvisation (irtijalat or
taqasim), which comprises the heart of Arabic instrumental and vocal

While in New York, Shaheen witnessed many instances of distorted
Western portrayals of Middle Eastern music. "When I first came to
America, Arabic music was viewed as music that was played in
cabarets," he recalls, "music for belly dancers, music that American
composers tend to compose for Hollywood films that deal with Arabic
themes in a very negative and debasing way."

Without institutions, which we really lack in the Arab world, I
don't know how far we can go. It's because of this that things don't
live to see the light, or get the necessary support. It's also the
reason behind the fact that we are under so much control. Do we
really want to keep living like that?

This became his starting point: Through a series of lectures,
concerts and demonstrations throughout the United States, he was
able to slowly create a cultural awareness of true Arabic music. He
performed at colleges and performing arts centers armed with his
violin, his oud, and a trove of Arabic sheet music. He worked
tirelessly to bring Arabic music into the mainstream while always
making it a point to educate audiences about this genre, its form
and composers, and thus began to create the groundwork for listening
with interest.

At first, the crowds were small. But soon, they grew.

He performed on stages and in venues all over the world, from New
York's Carnegie Hall to the Cairo Opera House in Egypt. He
introduced the oud to audiences in America, Europe, and the Arab
world. Every year, he has a busy performance schedule that boasts a
range of about 120 to 150 concerts in various parts of the world.
These performances include prestigious concert halls, universities,
performing arts centers and jazz festivals.

As an accomplished Arab classical musician, Shaheen is considered to
be a purist who champions Arabic music at its finest. Just two years
after arriving in New York, he had formed the Near Eastern Music
Ensemble an orchestra comprising ouds, qanoun (zither), flutes,
percussions, double bass and violins preserving Arabic music not
only for Middle Eastern audiences but also for American and
international listeners.

"We aren't presenting Arabic music to save face, as some Arabs may
think. I am not trying to save face for anybody. It's part of who I
am and it's beautiful art that I proudly believe in. So I am
exposing it, I am not saving it."

Shaheen had previously performed in Jerusalem, Beit Lahem and
Ramallah. In the course of a conversation with a man after a
performance in Ramallah, Shaheen discovered that the man had lost
his son three or four weeks prior to the concert.

"How were you able to concentrate during the concert?" Shaheen asked.

"I was in total focus," the man replied. "I was actually able to
enjoy the performance."

"My son is a martyr, and in the West Bank, we live day by day," the
Palestinian man told Shaheen. "We want to live for the day. I am not
going to die if I lose a family member. My soul will live, my being
will exist, and I will continue to fulfill my daily duties. This
concert embodies my feelings towards the death of my son."

"This incident, in itself, is a sort of inspiration," explains
Shaheen. "It's an event that creates a situation and condition in my
mind that will eventually evoke something." Experiences like these
become the essence of his creativity and artistic vision; it's from
moments like these that the inspiration for his music evolves.

Adding to his range of achievements, Shaheen has also composed music
for film sound tracks like The Sheltering Sky, Malcolm X and the
documentary For Everyone Everywhere, that celebrated the 50th
anniversary of the United Nations' Human Rights Charter. His idea to
build a Conservatoire for Arabic music in New York is in motion,
with plans to have a structure standing on the ground by the coming

"Without institutions, which we really lack in the Arab world, I
don't know how far we can go. It's because of this that things don't
live to see the light, or get the necessary support. It's also the
reason behind the fact that we are under so much control. Do we
really want to keep living like that?"

He cites Egypt as an example, blaming it for not investing enough to
have a premier cultural establishment, unlike Lebanon, which hosts
several international annual music festivals that attract renowned
artists the world over. "I would like to see Egypt there," Shaheen
says. "They influenced and affected the Arab world and their
surroundings. It is not time for Egypt to step back, it is time to
move ahead."

Presenting the best of Arabic music, dance, poetry and craft,
Mahrajan Al-Fan, another brainchild of Shaheen's, is an educational
and cultural event that takes place in New York's notable venues of
concert halls and museums. When the festival first began in 1994, it
featured local musicians and singers but soon took on an
international flavor.

Shaheen initiated the annual Arabic Music Retreat, held at
Massachusetts' Mount Holyoke College, a weeklong series of lectures,
workshops and performances for musicians interested in learning and
performing Middle Eastern music. "After eight years we have already
created pockets of musicians who perform Arabic music and who
educate the surrounding community about Arabic music," he says.

He is working on projects with UNESCO and the European Community to
bring music to children in the Middle East, especially in
Palestinian refugee camps. Last May in Rome, Shaheen performed at a
fund-raising event attended by a half million people called "We Are
the Future." The show was produced by jazz legend Quincy Jones to
support children's artistic and educational programs in six
developing countries, including Palestine. The main theme song of
the performance, entitled "For Everyone Everywhere" was arranged by
Shaheen and was sung in seven different languages, with Iraqi singer
Kadhem Al-Saher singing the Arabic version.

Shaheen is currently planning recordings that consist solely of oud
improvisations that express his love for this pivotal instrument in
the context of Arabic music an instrument with potential that is yet
to be unleashed, he says. "The oud is sometimes abused by being
taken in the wrong direction, like playing the oud as an imitation
of the guitar, or making the oud mimic other string instruments like
the sitar or sarod. Technically, the oud has such great potential,"
he adds. "I am going to do a great deal of recordings to illustrate
this point. I am recording a lot of Arabic taqasim, and oud
compositions as a solo instrument to show its many different facets
and multi-dimensions."

A true artist for art's sake, Shaheen explains: "My profession
provides just about enough to live with dignity, but I wish I could
make more money," he says with a laugh, "to conquer the American
dream, so to speak. But in order to make more money I have to
sabotage my music and that is impossible."

But the long journey that has taken him from Tarshiha to New York
and around the world has only just begun: On Tuesday morning four
Septembers ago when the Twin Towers came crumbling down, the world
changed overnight. "September 11 created this enormous fear,"
recalls Shaheen. "I wouldn't say that it was the event itself, but
more so the policies that manipulated the event. These policies
definitely created a gigantic fear in the minds and spirits of

Following that fateful day, Shaheen, together with Qantara, were
among the first groups in the United States to both perform and
travel, while other artists, paralyzed by fear, entered into a state
of self-imposed hibernation. That next Saturday, Shaheen performed
at a memorial located at Riverside Church by New York's Columbia

Silence filled the hall as he picked up his Nahat oud, a
Stradivarius-quality oud crafted in 1920 by a Syrian family that
descended from a fine heritage of oud craftsmanship, and with
passionate bravura began to perform. The instrument's soothing
rhythms reverberated through the halls of the church and across the
airwaves the memorial was repeatedly broadcast a dozen times on
television during that week. "By performing there with dignity, I
reaffirmed the credential of our music, our art and of us, as
people." The following day Shaheen and Qantara performed in
Chicago's Symphony Hall to an audience of over 3,000.

What does music have the power to do? I ask.

"Lets take your question a step further. Many people ask me, `Can
music bring people together?'" he says, grinning. "I always say that
music cannot do that. Music cannot bring people together and cannot
solve problems.

"Political traditions have great weight and power, especially in our
current age of information and media. Art cannot compete with this.
But it has much more to do with more profound levels of existence
and education. On the popular scene, art cannot replace politics,
media and the power of the mainstream, but art can fundamentally
help individuals, with depth and vision, to probably enhance
themselves, their spirit and their thoughts to become better people.

"Good art that has depth, vision and beauty will definitely help
people become better. I am sure of that."

28-10-2005, 15:36
also audio interview ( with NPR American Radio ) here

www. npr.org/dmg/dmg.php?prgCode=ATC&showDate=08-Dec-2001&segNum=9&NPROldMediaPref=RM

page is here :
www. npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1134548