“Yaa hawa, yaa hawa, yalli tayer bil hawa…”
The voices of over a hundred students chant the Fairuz hit, their vocals fundamentally in harmony before they are brought into total synchronization by Music Director Hanna Khoury. It is only a few minutes before Khoury’s feedback converts from guidelines to praise, a transition which signals the students’ readiness to sing along with an instrument. Everyone comes to a brief pause as Khoury takes out his violin, their excitement increases as he plays short warm-up notes; he articulates a sort of solfège to cue that they will resume singing the same verses once more, to which they echo his tune before merging the lyrics they sang earlier with the sound of the violin. The entire ensemble ultimately fleshes out into a (nearly) full-fledged performance.
The Arab Music Ensemble class meets Thursday evenings, and consists of University of Pennsylvania students and Philadelphia community members. It began when Khoury joined Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture in 2009 as an effort to make Arab music more accessible across various sites, ages and ethnicities. While the majority of students may not be speakers of Arabic, many possess musical inclinations in which they are fluent, as evidenced by their keen performance in class.
Following a call and response method, the class typically begins with Khoury easing his students into enunciating the letters and words of the song they are learning – lyric by lyric, until they complete an entire chorus. It is after he is confident of their ability to complete a segment of a song that he introduces his violin to the mix so that they may proceed singing with the musical notes. Khoury has noticed that, with every semester since he began teaching the class, the gap between native Arabs and non-Arabic speakers narrows so that even the latter feel comfortable performing as soloists.
Mark Leeper, a Modern Middle Eastern Studies senior at The University of Pennsylvania, says he noticed an improvement in his ability to recognize and read Arabic words since he began taking the class, which is appropriate given his intention to improve diction as a significant part of his academic studies and interest in learning Arabic language. He added that he is optimistic about his singing improving in addition to his confidence performing onstage.
“Anyone can speak/sing in Arabic,” Khoury reassures his students in between intervals, “It’s a great language and singing is a fun and interactive way to access the culture.”They return to singing Nassam Alayna-l Hawa from the beginning, hitting all the correct notes as their voices lower and raise according to the rhythm . They manage to successfully convey the song’s solemn and longing tone in a fervent fashion. Even when Khoury picks individual students to perform solo, others chime in, perhaps as an act of solidarity or out of what Khoury describes as the ecstasy or tarab one can experience listening to Arab music.
This class is one of several initiatives where Al-Bustan introduces Arab culture through singing. An after-school program at Moffet Elementary School teaches mostly Arab, Hispanic and African-American students songs in Arabic, French and English. Summer youth programs integrate singing with Arabic language learning, and ongoing partnerships with youth and professional choirs entail Khoury working with dedicated singers to capture the nuances of Arabic diction and training to sing in Arabic with renowned guest vocalists.
#iSingArabic shines light on these efforts and invites people of all ages and interests to share their Arabic singing talents. If you never sang in Arabic before, you can participate in one of Al-Bustan’s programs in Philadelphia, or check out one of their song tools and learn to sing Nassam Alayna on your own!
-Bushra Alfaraj, MS Student in Digital Media at Drexel University, Contributing Writer