Reflections of Notes and Voices: Al-Bustan’s Arabic Choir Class

Al-Bustan has been an active contributor to the arts and education community in Philadelphia. Just three years ago, it partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to offer Arab music instruction including choir, percussion, and instrumental classes taught by renowned musicians Hanna Khoury and Hafez Kotain. As a recently admitted Penn student, I’ve had a lot of new experiences over the last few weeks, including working with Al-Bustan and learning all about its incredible music program. In my role as a program assistant/work-study intern, I have gained first hand knowledge about Arab music and culture.

The Arab Music Ensemble class meets every Monday, 6-9pm at the Department of Music building. After a few weeks into the semester, I got a chance to meet up with some of the students in Hanna Khoury’s choir class. It has been in session for less than a month but the students have progressed immensely due to their commitment to the class. I interviewed some of them to see what they thought about the class and how it has informed their perception and understanding of Arab culture.

I first interviewed Joseph Gorman, a long time teacher in the school district of Philadelphia who is learning Arab music for the first time.

How has this class helped you learn about music?

Choir participant Joseph Gorman

I’m traditionally a piano player and this class is giving me the opportunity to exercise my voice, something that I’ve never had a chance to do. And Hanna’s instruction is so well communicated that it’s really easy for me to understand and adapt quickly to whatever he is teaching. As such, I’m gaining a much deeper knowledge of musical instruction and I hope to teach it to my students one day.

Have you thought about how you will introduce this material to your students?
Yes, I actually want to compose a piece and contribute it to the Monday class. I want to see what I can add to the class, and I think this method will allow me to not only practice my singing voice but also employ my creative abilities. If my piece gets approved, then I’ll build on it so that I can teach it to my own students.

Is the class challenging in anyway?
Some of the notes are definitely harder to hit. For example, the higher notes are a little bit harder because my voice frequency cannot reach that high. But with each week, I feel like I am getting closer to controlling my voice more.

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I then interviewed Sarah Shihadah, a junior student at Penn, majoring in Middle Eastern studies. Here’s what she had to say.

So what do you particularly like about this class?

Choir participant Sarah Shihadah

I like that I’m getting to know the culture in a more intimate way. Hanna always gives a brief history of the song right before he starts and it’s interesting to see that these songs are very much shaped by the culture of the Arab world.

Have you had experience with singing?
No, not at all. I only started three weeks ago and since my mom is a music director and my brother a musician, I thought I’d try my own musical muscles.

I can hear the conviction in your voice. I mean you don’t have that beginner’s fear.
Oh thank you! I’m just enjoying the class so much, that I don’t have a chance to pay attention to anything that might hold me back. I try my best and I think my confidence comes though my voice and its helping me learn quicker.

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I collectively interviewed Kerrina Thomas, Jelani Hayes, and Taylor Blackston, all of whom are juniors at Penn.

So how has this class taught you about the different styles of Arabic music?

Jelani: I thought it was really cool that Arab music has styles that are similar to American genres. I mean they have their own version of folk songs amongst other styles and it’s very interesting how these genres speak to their audiences.

Kerrina: Yeah and Hanna always gives us an opportunity to learn about the artist and genre before we start practicing and this adds to the overall effect of the piece and how I can learn and appreciate it.

Junior students at Penn:  Kerrina (left), Jelani, and Taylor (right)

I’ve noticed you guys hit really high notes? Is it starting to hurt?
Taylor: Yeah definitely. I mean we have a week in between classes but when we are singing in class, our vocal chords get stretched pretty well. It hurts a little I guess.

Good because it should. I’m just joking but this will actually give you guys a chance to broaden the scope of your singing voice.

Taylor: Absolutely. I think the Hanna has been really careful about our voices and that’s given us a chance to practice our singing and learn broadly about Arab music and culture.

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Lastly, I had a chance to converse with Yosef Goldman, a community member who is enrolled in both percussion and singing.

Why did you take the class?

I grew up listening to Umm Kulthoum, amongst other great Arab artists. My mother’s parents were Syrian and Yemenite Jews, and that was the the music they played in their home. The music has always been very close to my heart and this class is not only a great nostalgic experience but also an incredible opportunity for me to learn more Arab music. I have studied and sang a wide variety of Jewish music. Of course, Jewish music sounds different around the world, depending on its host culture. Jewish music from Arab lands sounds like any Arab music, utilizing the maqams and rhythmic structures. Middle Eastern influences can also be heard in some of the modes used in Eastern European synagogue music. I completed a masters of sacred music degree, studying primarily the music of Ashkenazi Jews (from Central and Eastern Europe). Lately I have been studying more the music of Jews from Arab lands. I’ve been singing with my band, the Epichorus, that it based in classical Arabic music, and I felt it’s time to get a deeper understanding of the music. I looked for Arab music classes in Philadelphia and discovered Al-Bustan. Hanna’s class is providing an incredible opportunity for me to explore the music more.

How did you come to know about the class?
I recently moved to Philadelphia with my wife. I just googled “Arab music in Philadelphia” and immediately I came across Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture. The website is very detailed and because of its popularity in the community, I got a lot of encouraging second opinions before I signed up for the class.

What do you think of the class so far?

I think it’s going very well. I’ve seen how it appeals to different people on different levels and I’m especially enjoying the class because of my background. Everybody in the class has a different perspective of Arab arts and culture, but what Hanna does really well is get everyone on the same level and then approach the music in a very detailed way. I love how his method of teaching the music is rooted in the musicality and cadence of the Arabic language. He has inspired me to start learning Arabic!

May I ask what is your profession?
Well just recently, I was ordained as a rabbi. I am a working as chaplain at the Eisenstein Medical Center in North Philly, and it is truly rewarding. Along with Al-Bustan’s contributions to the community, I am having a great time in Philadelphia.

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After bidding Mr. Goldman and everyone else goodnight, I reflected on the class and its impact. The heterophony of Arab music has rhythms that sway and sigh as the lyrics progress. I was impressed to see how well the students were able to adjust to the singing style. Hanna’s instruction is so detailed and sprinkled with humor that the students could just enjoy and sing with passion. Arab music is complex but it has an element of simplicity that many people can appreciate. This was most evident to me in the recent concert presented by Al-Bustan at the Trinity Center, featuring Tunisian vocalist Sonia M’barek. I invite you to visit the Al-Bustan website to checkout what they had to say about the concert at www.albustanseeds.org/music.

Muhammad Naqvi

Program Assistant, Al-Bustan
Class of 2015 – College of Liberal and Professional Arts
University of Pennsylvania
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