'Arab Lands' expresses traditional and modern music

March 7, 2013

Brandeis University played host to a diverse group of musicians during the last week of February. This group, naming themselves “New Sounds from Arab Lands,” provided a fusion of traditional Middle Eastern and African music with Western classical music. The musicians hailed from countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia, and they possessed training in western classical music as well as Arabian music. Their goal was not to stay completely true to the music of their cultures, but rather to show that their music was adaptable and continuous, that it would not die out but could still be created. One of the musicians said, “A musical style dies when there can no longer be improvisation, when nothing new can be done.” The group, staying at Brandeis for three days as part of the MusicUnitesUS program, showed that they could meld the music of Arab lands with western styles.

“New Sounds From Arab Lands” performed in Slosberg Music Center to showcase their wide range of talents the day before their actual show, on Feb. 28. They played before a full hall of students, all of whom listened attentively to the sounds at hand. Professors of anthropology, art, music, literature and math all brought their students to listen to the group—encouraging the propagation of new music and to take in the amalgamation of different cultures. The first piece that the musicians played was completely improvised. The five musicians interwove their melodies, harmonies and rhythms with great skill, making the piece seem fully rehearsed. The audience could hear the Arabian tunes stemming from the clarinet, qanun, and saxophone, but these were crossed expertly with clearly Western inlays. The percussionists switched back and forth seamlessly between more Western and more Arabian rhythms, sometimes playing classic four-four beats and then switching to the more non-regular beats famed in Eastern musical heritage.

Judith Eissenberg, director of MusicUnitesUS, stated, “Their music brings together three beautiful classical traditions: Arab and European art, music and jazz.” This adaptability is what brought the musicians together—they were eager to show that Arab music was not dying out, but that it could still be new and bring to life the context and culture that exists in today’s world. Music is a reflection of self and of the world that shapes the self. As such, the influences that each musician had, in training in their respective countries and across the West, were clearly displayed in their performance. They travel frequently, from New York, to Paris, to Lebanon, gathering new material that influences their play.

In their show on Feb. 28, the group played pieces written by each one of the musicians. Their improvisations and control were shown even in their traditional music, proving that tradition is not necessarily a restraining force. The members of the group said that they were originally hesitant about banding together, concerned that distinct sounds would be incapable of blending together. They found, however, that their individual styles were not wholly separate, and “were ultimately enthralled with the idea of expressing traditional sounds in contemporary ways,” according to an interview with BrandeisNOW.

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