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Simon Shaheen

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | April 2005 

A musician virtuoso, Simon Shaheen not only creates new sound, he also plans to make his unique blend of Arabic music mainstream.

Simon Shaheen


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.


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 it. 


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.


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, the musical interval smaller than a halftone that is 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 music.


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.”


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 on the ground by the coming year.


“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’s 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 fundraising 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 people.”


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 University. 


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.


“Let’s 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.”

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