Dancing, Debke, and Tarab at Greenfield School

The experts setting up before the presentation.

When Hazami asked me to help Hafez, Hanna, and Hicham with their presentation about Arab music at Greenfield School, I expected an engaging lecture; there is no way I would have guessed that by the end of the assembly that the students would literally be dancing and clapping in the auditorium. As their teacher pointed out, this extraordinary student engagement is made even more amazing by the fact that this presentation took place during the last period of the day on Halloween, when all the children have on their minds’ is trick-or-treating. Now I’m just wondering about the date of our next school presentation/debke experience.


The impetus for this whole talk is that Hafez–who is currently teaching Greenfield 6th graders Arabic drumming–wanted to give his students a little background in Arab music and culture, so that they could better appreciate what he is teaching them. So, Hafez did what any teacher would do in this situation: he recruited two virtuoso Arab musicians, who are also currently pursuing doctorates in anthropology of music and ethnomusicology, to accompany him in describing Arab music and culture, as well as performing some traditional Arab music. You know, the usual routine in this situation.


Hanna Khoury, Hicham Chami, Hafez, and
Hafez Kotain fielding questions from Greenfield students.

And in an hour and half Hafez Kotain, Hanna Khoury, and Hicham Chami covered so much information. They began with a primer on their instruments (the violin, qanun, and dumbek) and how they are used in Arab music. For the record, the Greenfield students liked the qanun the most; Hicham was extremely happy. Then they traced the history of modern Arab music as the cultural center moved from the Ottoman empire (Morocco was independent during this time), to Egypt and Umm Kulthum, to Lebanon and Fairuz, while also giving a brief overview of maqamat, or Arab scales. Throughout this talk they played examples of the different genres of music, from ‘Aziza to Longa Shahnaz. All of this was wonderful, especially the kids’ responsiveness, but nothing could prepare me for what happened during the finale.

The dabke finale that lit up the room.
To close the presentation, Hafez blew everyone away with a lively debke rhythm. The English language doesn’t have words to describe what Hafez did to the kids, though the Arabic word “tarab,” which roughly translates to “enchanting,” would work perfectly. All I know is that the kids were literally dancing in the aisles of the auditorium, and when the song ended, I heard an audible “woo!” from the students. As someone who went to Philadelphia Public School for thirteen years I can tell you that I never once saw students react to a presentation like that. The reason is pretty obvious: we never had a musician like Hafez come give a talk on Arab music and culture. I’ll be looking to the next time I get to help set up for one of these presentations, which, as I know now, will never be the “usual.”

Max Dugan
Al-Bustan Program Coordinator
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