National Arab Orchestra: Spreading harmony through Middle Eastern music

The orchestra performs compositions from the classic Arab music canon for U.S. audiences

Under founder Michael Ibrahim’s direction, the Michigan Arab Orchestra grew from seven players in 2009 to the 28-piece orchestra that debuted in Atlanta in January. Renamed the National Arab Orchestra, its mission — spreading harmony through Middle Eastern music — has become more ambitious along with its sound.

The ensemble performs intricate, heavily orchestrated compositions from the classic Arab musical canon of the early 20th century as well as recreating the lush sound of Arab musicians from the mid-20th century who dared perform non-spiritual music. The players are Arabs, Arab-Americans and others who simply love to play traditional Arab music. The ensemble effect is haunting. Vibrations of the traditional Egyptian nay bamboo flute intertwine with the dry strum of the lutelike oud and the reverberations of the qanun, a type of flat stringed instrument that is plucked.

Listen to the National Arab Orchestra play in January at Atlanta Symphony Hall.

'Lama Rah il-Sabri Mino - Mournir Murad'

Source: National Arab Orchestra, sound engineering by Dave Schall Acoustic.

“Hearing the orchestra makes me feel nostalgic,” says 33-year-old Lebanese-American entrepreneur and activist Moose Scheib, who serves as the orchestra's board chair. “I remember Lebanon before I left. There was chaos, fighting, no electricity; music was people’s only escape.”

The music connects people cut off from their homeland, he says. “A taxicab driver in Egypt had tears in his eyes when I played it to him,” says Scheib. “He said it took him back 40 years, to the good old days, before the turmoil.”

The pain of displacement can be great for scattered diaspora Arabs, knowing that extreme change makes it impossible to go home anymore; that world is gone. The music can bring it back, and it can also bring new generations together. What excited me about the orchestra was how it brings people together. You don’t very often see Syrians mixing with Iraqis, Jordanians, Lebanese and Egyptians, but Arabs from all over get together to hear the orchestra.”

Ibrahim’s drive from affluent Dearborn to the orchestra’s beaux-arts residence at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts downtown, both the tragedy and possibilities of Detroit are on display on streets like Woodward Avenue that switch from prosperity to devastation in a matter of blocks.

Ibrahim was born in America, to a Greek Orthodox Syrian family. As the only Arab-American in his school, he experienced race-inflected bullying. “Everything changed after 9/11," he says. "There was a negative light on Arabs.” Music became his solace, particularly after an experiment with leaving the secular world to join the Greek Orthodox priesthood made him reconsider his purpose. He had been exploring Western music, but realized he had to revitalize himself with his own roots.

“Most of the Arab community here thought I was dreaming too big,” says Ibrahim. “They said nobody would be interested in a professional American orchestra playing Arab music. But nothing is impossible.” 

Ibrahim conjures the soul of Arab music from his players, from the ecstatic sensation of “tarab” (when the musicians release themselves in improvisational frenzy) building up to “saltanah” (a deeper music-induced bliss).

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which aims to foster arts and communities, recently awarded the orchestra a $100,000 grant to help it with educational outreach.

As in all U.S. schools, regular arts studies at the Woodward Academy were severely slashed by 2001’s No Child Left Behind program, in favor of more conventionally vocational academic areas. Ibrahim decided to work with the Academy.

The sense of connection with the Woodward Academy students is immediate. He passes around two books of Arabic folk songs. The children sing the phonetic Arabic and learn the meanings of “haram” (“not kosher, forbidden,” Ibrahim explains,) and “habibi” (“It’s a term of affection, like when they sing ‘baby’ in a pop song”). The students sing with no hesitation. Ibrahim is grooming these strong but vulnerable after-school students to sing with the National Arab Orchestra.

Their director of after-school programs, 27-year-old Marsae Mitchell, was born in Detroit. “When Michael first came to the school, the students asked if he ate hamburgers, like them. They didn’t mean to be rude; they had just never met an Arab before,” she says. “Being exposed to other cultures (like Detroit itself, the school is almost wholly African-American) they learn to respect them. Otherwise they might only see Arabs working in the gas station.”

“Things have changed since I was at school,” Mitchell says. “Many of these children have the responsibility of taking care of their households. Sometimes it is hard to focus on education, because they’re worried about financial issues that children should not have to be concerned about. But our students are definitely resilient.”

Along with artistic skills, rewarding in and of themselves, these youths on the frontline of America’s urban crisis relish the other benefits of their orchestra sessions. The emotional literacy, communication skills and confidence they get from making music — in unfamiliar languages, to boot — could help stop Detroit from falling deeper into financial and cultural despair. 

Elijah Giffys-Henderson, 10, comes from a musical family and plays several instruments. “Some people can’t express their feelings in words,” he observes. “They can use music.” Jeydome Prince, 11, says, “Singing helps me get over feeling nervous. With music, you can always fit in.” 

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