Composing Arab Music at Al-Bustan’s Professional Development Course

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture’s week-long professional development course provided educators in the Philadelphia area with basic skills in order to teach Arabic culture to American children via the Arabic language and arts. As a summer intern at Al-Bustan who helped organize the course, I certainly enjoyed supporting the courses’ teacher-participants during the week. I would like to share with you one anecdote that summarizes the courses’ remarkable ability to provide quality Arabic language and culture teaching skills to educators during a short time frame.

In Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble’s resident cellist and music composer Kinan Abou-Afach’s workshop “Weaving Poetry into Music”, Arabic language teachers Hend and Christine learned a simplified technique of converting Arabic poetry into music. I had the opportunity to participate in this small classroom as a student-observer. Coming into the class, none of Kinan’s three students (myself included) had any musical background. By the end of the week, we set a classical Arabic couplet from the 7th century to a basic melody we each composed. Once we composed the short music pieces, we sang them before the class to the sound of Kinan’s cello. These end-of-class performances proved that with educated and patient instruction, workshop participants with no music background but strong Arabic language proficiency can effectively learn valuable Arabic music and culture at Al-Bustan.

At this point you may be wondering, “What’s the simplified process of converting Arabic poetry into music that he’s talking about?” I would like to preface my explanation by stating that the complete poetry-to-music conversion process for well-known Arabic songs like Fairouz’s Nassam ‘Alayna al-Hawa is a complex one that requires years of musical training. Kinan Abou-Afach’s week-long lesson taught Arabic language teachers without any musical background a universally accessible, simplified version of the process. First, you select an Arabic poem. Then, you think of a pleasing melody for the poem. The basic principle is simple but critical to creating a successful music-poem composition. Both Arabic poetry and Arabic music have related poetic and musical meter, respectively. The process involves creating a desirable match between the poem’s meter and musical melody, making linguistically sensible adjustments to the Arabic poem where the melody necessitates. The end product of Kinan’s composition process is a pretty Arabic poem set to music.

Now that you understand Kinan’s general process of converting Arabic poetry to music, I think that you would appreciate the poetic couplet we converted into music. Kinan chose Ali ibn Abi Talib’s (599 – 661 C.E.) following couplet for his students to convert to music,

إذا ما شئتَ أن تحيا حياة الحلوة المحيى
فلا تحسد و لا تبخل و لا تحرص على الدنيا.

If you want to live the sweet life,

Then do not envy [others], do not be skimpy/miserly [with your wealth], and do not bother yourself with the world’s corruptive qualities.

Kinan’s students Hind, Christine and I worked out the couplet’s Arabic meter and each set it to a pretty musical melody.

Thanks to Kinan’s talented musical pedagogy, Al-Bustan’s professional development course graduated three Arabic music composers by the end of a single week. All I have to say to Al-Bustan’s music program is a resonant masha’ allah! With Al-Bustan boasting such talented music educators like Kinan Abou Afach, many more teachers and students in the Philadelphia area will continue to experience the beauty of the Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern musical traditions long into the future.

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Muhammed Hansrod, Al-Bustan Summer Intern
Kenyon College, Class of 2017

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