Presenting at Moffet Elementary

On Thursday, I had the great opportunity to share a travel experience with an inquisitive group of youngsters. A few weeks ago, I sat in on Ms. Fredericks’ class at Moffet Elementary while they held conversations via Skype with a classroom full of children in Baghdad. It just so happened that the next day, I would be catching a flight to the Arab World / Middle East myself. I asked Ms. Fredericks if I could come back to Moffet once I returned from my trip, to tell the students about what I saw. She graciously agreed, adding it might lend context to their future Skype conversations, and understanding of the region.

I recently traveled to the lands of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. I visited such famous sites as Petra, the ancient trading city of the Nabateans, which was featured in such movies as Indiana Jones, and – the children told me – Transformers 2. Petra is best know for the elaborate tombs the Nabateans carved into the cliffs surrounding their city. I connected these audacious tombs with the Egyptian pyramids, as another example of men seeking to immortalize themselves and their families, even in death.

From there, I discussed the story of Abraham and Isaac as something shared by all three of the world’s great monotheistic faiths. I showed photographs of the holy sites I visited: the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and many others. The children asked very respectful and inquisitive questions about the differences between the faiths. I ended by touching on the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, using a photograph of graffiti saying “Stop this Wall” and “Loves Wins” as a jumping off point. I gave an introduction into the relevant history and spoke about the tensions and fear that lead people to use violence against one another, and build walls and guard towers between each other. It was a short introduction, given the immense complexity and history of the conflict, but I feel a valuable one. And learning a little bit more about the Arab World will surely help contextualize the future conversations that these fortunate youngsters will have with their peers across the globe.


Creative Arab Percussion at Science Leadership Academy

The following post was written by Mr. Diamond, a music teacher at the inquiry-based Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

Mr. Diamond performing
with the Philadelphia
Arab Percussion Ensemble

“I teach music several times a week at Science Leadership Academy. I am fortunate to have a set of Arab drums, or doumbeks, provided by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture. My students and I use the doumbeks to provide students with the tools of technique, and with some of the traditional beats associated with the drums. With SLA’s inquiry-based focus, I leave it to my students’ own creativity to apply these techniques in ways that captivate them.

In my music classes, we utilize the drums primarily in the context of contemporary popular music, in combination with Western percussion (mostly drumset). Students identify beats and grooves that overlap between various cultures, and also find ways to combine grooves in novel ways. We also use the techniques of the doumbek (Dum and Tak) to explore and break down the drumset patterns found in the music that we study in class.

There is also a great deal of impromptu music-making. For example, just recently I overheard some students singing a pop song, Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning,” with one of the students accompanying on doumbek. This student was not in music class but had played around with the drums before. I approached the group of students, said I thought what they were doing was awesome, and asked if I could share some things about the  drum. I conduct many ad-hoc lessons with the drums, and I use them regularly in my music classes, with an eye toward fostering students’ own individual creativity.

This evolved into a lesson, with the drumming student (whom I had not met before whom I had not seen in the music room before), on the proper way to hold the drum, the use of Dum and Tak techniques, and a review of Baladi, Maqsoum, and Laf. Similar lessons have happened on an individual basis around school over the course of the year, and I have also given demonstrations of these techniques and beats to the percussionists in my music classes. But this day, I had a single student’s uninterrupted attention and interest and was able to share, in a very personal and direct and real way, what I think is most interesting and innovative about the way the Arab drums fit into music education at SLA.

One of my primary musical values, both as an artist-performer, and as an educator, is diversity. I believe that all musicians should be exposed to multiple styles of music, and multiple traditions, and all should be aware that their tastes, preferences, and the styles in which they are most at home, exist among a huge variety of musics from all over the world. SLA’s set of doumbeks provides us with a great tool for exploring the shared, yet diverse, musical heritage of the world.

SLA students with Hafez El Ali Kotain in the 2010-2011 academic year

Lines and Sounds Swirl Together in ‘Roads to Damascus’

All photos by Danielle Nowak
Kinan Abou-afach 

As the newest member of the Al-Bustan team, I was so excited to attend the Roads to Damascus concert!  I watched the audience react as thick, coiled strands swirled along the base of the paintings projected overhead, creating shapes and hues that expertly flowed together.  Soon domes, human forms within shadows, and landscapes became real. 

After sitting in on a rehearsal, I knew this would be a superb music and visual art performance.  And, indeed it was! The composer Kinan Abou-afach’s expert timing for each musician truly paid off because the music really was quite wonderful.
Renowned visual artist Kevork Mourad in partnership with Kinan combined art and music to depict the tragedy of Syria as well as the beauty of the region during Al-Bustan’s Arab Music Concert Series world premiere of Roads to Damascus.  Also, this was one unique performance featuring two of Philadelphia’s finest jazz musicians Barry James on keyboards and David Brodie on bass.  Roads to Damascus is a very stimulating and entirely recommendable pairing of Arab music, jazz, and visual art. 
Kevork Mourad
Both Kinan and Kevork are Syrian born and both included much of their own feelings and emotions about their histories into the performance.  In talking with audience members after the show, I discovered they, too, felt the raw depiction of this region through the music and art.  Kevork explained that he “holds up a mirror to my present, but pays homage to the past.”  His work does not have a specific style, he added but he “values the line: lines are precise, direct and concrete.”
Maroud’s signature black lines
turn into beautiful images
He began his work, with his signature black line and continued to build upon the initial black line to create multiple images in concert with the dramatic sounds of the drums, cello, violin, bass and piano.  Although many of his scenes featured heroic equestrians on magnificent horses or refugees fleeing the chaos, he also created a sense of lightness and hope as his images and the musicians’ splendid performances unfolded the stories of strength and resilience of the people of this region.

The beauty of Damascus captured through music and art!

Cynthia Arnold, Marketing/Outreach

Umm Kulthum in the West Bank

Some time ago, Al-Bustan chose the incredible Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum to be the focal point of an online curriculum. She was chosen because her life can serve as a window into the larger issues of Arab art, culture and history during her turbulent time period in the mid-twentieth century. She serves as such a window, because of her ubiquity in the Arab world. From Morocco to Egypt to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, the unforgettable sound of Umm Kulthum’s voice is popular and serves as a touchstone of Arab identity.

This fact was reinforced to me recently. On a trip to Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank, I suddenly heard a sound that was instantly familiar to me.

I was in a taxi cab traveling between West Jerusalem and the small town of Mazra ash-Sharqiyya in the West Bank. I was on a mission to meet the family of a friend of mine from college, and a former Al-Bustan colleague. On the way there, the taxi driver’s phone rang. The ringtone was none other than the voice of Umm Kulthum, accompanied by her orchestral ensemble! I asked the driver if it was Umm Kulthum, and he said, “Of course! I love her!” We talked briefly about her, and the discussion reinforced to me just how central and representative Umm Kulthum is, as a figure in the formation of Arab cultural identity.

We continued speeding towards Mazra ash-Sharqiyya, where I met with my friend’s parents, and took in their extraordinary view, and enjoyed the delicious fruits of their land. Olives, fresh bread, kebab skewers, and homemade hummus made for an unforgettable meal and day.

For more information on Al-Bustan’s Umm Kulthum project, and the curriculum and lesson plans that make it up, feel free to use the following link: