For the past two years, a group of youth, college students, and adults from diverse backgrounds have gathered in West Philadelphia to celebrate their interest in Arab culture through music. By day, many members of the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble are doctors, teachers, and students. Every Monday night they come together with fellow musicians and music enthusiasts to learn a wide selection of Arab classical music.
While there are many returning members this fall, the Ensemble continues to expand with new students joining. This year many Penn students are participating because for the first time we are offering the Ensemble as a course in partnership with the UPenn Music Department and Greenfield Intercultural Center. Last night three new members shared with me their interest in the Ensemble.
Penn student Ellie Sun, a new member of the choir, decided to join the Ensemble because of her interest in Arab culture and Arabic language. She saw the Ensemble “as an easy way to start learning Arabic.” In spite of the difficulty she has had with pronunciation, she is enjoying the melody and richness of the music.
Amal Kabalan, a grad student at Villanova is from Lebanon, has found pleasure in other aspects of the ensemble. Cognizant of the fact that she has a tendency to speak softly when giving presentations, she said she has benefited from the emphasis Music Director Hanna Khoury places on projecting her voice.
Peter Schwab was looking for opportunities to continue to play the oud when he came across the Ensemble. “I’m learning about some of the basic structures and scales in Arab music, and rehearsals are training me to hear and play quarter tones.” The introduction to the theory and ideas behind the music that Khoury and the other teachers, Kinan Abou Afach and Hafez El Ali Kotain provide has allowed Peter to build on his previous exposure to Arab music. Abou Afach recently joined the ensemble, sharing with the group his knowledge of Arab music and skills as a cellist, oud player, and composer.
Khoury selected music for the Ensemble with the repertoire of the October 29th concert in mind. During this concert Syrian singer Youssef Kassab will present music from the “golden age” of Syria and Egypt. Khoury has been leading the Ensemble through Ana Winta composed by Farid Al-Atrash, a Syrian composer from that era and Ashki Li Min Thul lil Hawa, a work composed by Kassab. I’m already looking forward to the December 9th concert when the Ensemble will perform followed by poet Suheir Hammad.