When one sings, his or her voice becomes an instrument. The singer has to practice and fine-tune it, much like a drummer has to practice the intricate beating patterns that build to the complex tempo of a musical piece.
Last semester, I enjoyed seeing singers and percussionists refinetheir skills. Their musical dexterity is astounding to observe, and most apparent in the instrumental class, which included an accordionist, a violinist, a cellist, a bouzouki player, and several percussionists. These instrumentalists syndicate their tunes into an amazing mixture of melodies, rhythms, and compositions. What surprised me at Monday night rehearsals was that even though each instrument had a completely different sound, they all mixed so naturally that I could only hear and appreciate the compositions as a whole. On one of those nights, after class, I had a chance to sit down with Fragkiskos Koufogiannis, a PhD candidate in Electrical Engineering at Penn School of Engineering, who told me about his involvement in the class.
F: Wait, so are you in the class?
Me: No no, I’m actually an intern at Al-Bustan. I help them out with administrative functions, taking photos, and conducting interviews like this one. Where to begin then? Would you mind if I asked where you are from?
F: I am from Greece. The country is very multicultural but it definitely has a distinctive Turkish influence. Since the Turks have a heavy Arab influence, I grew accustomed to Arab music and arts.
Me: Is that why you were interested in Al-Bustan?
F: Absolutely. To be perfectly honest, I am a little home sick. I’ve tried the Greek food around Philadelphia but…you know how you can’t get the same taste from restaurants as you can at home? That’s the same kind of problem I have had with feeling accustomed to Philly. Music is the closest thing to home right now for me and that’s why I am enjoying the class so much.
Me: I am glad to hear it. You guys play so passionately that sometimes I feel like it isn’t a class but that you guys are just practicing like a band. . . So does Greece have a lot of Middle Eastern influences?
F: Kind of… I mean the culture gets communicated from Turkey, Greece and the Arab world. A lot of the musical instruments in Greece have a Middle Eastern influence. The instruments have transformed over the ages and I’ve adopted the bouzouki(a long-necked stringed instrument of Greek origin that resembles a mandolin) as my choice of instrument. When I came to America two years ago , I was really homesick and the sound of the bouzouki brought me back home.
M: Yeah, I can relate to that. Going back to your earlier mention of food, it’s a bit harder to emulate the authentic tastes of “back home.” I find restaurants tend to market to a bigger crowd, so they have a fusion of American and foreign foods. In contrast, music has a universal quality, and as such it’s easier to communicate across borders.
M: How do you think Al-Bustan presents itself to the public, how does it market itself?
F: I was really surprised. I found that they don’t promote the classes by calling them “oriental music classes” or something that is greatly commercialized. They promote it the way it is, without any false pretenses or any misgivings. The classes have Arab faculty who are very talented and knowledgable about their respective fields. The fact that they have am engaging personality is a perk that is very hard to find.
M: That’s great to hear. Well this has been a pleasure. If you ever need any help with anything, please be sure to let me or others at Al-Bustan know.
Fragkiskos’s view of the music ensemble reflects many of the other participants’ appreciation of the class. I invite you to check out our current classes by following this link… and join us!
Program Assistant, Al-Bustan
Class of 2015 – College of Liberal and Professional Arts
University of Pennsylvania