Reflections on Music & Tales of Home

Marhaba, Al-Bustan Friends!
 Here’s a salute to “Music & Tales of Home,” the concert Al-Bustan presented on October 22, 2017, at the Trinity Center for Urban Life, a ridiculously sweet event that took place four walkable blocks from my own Philly home.22555741_10155815917624618_8829624845231114490_o

The concert felt like a summation of Al-Bustan’s (DIS)PLACED series, weaving together the written work of Ann de Forest in which she captured immigrants’ stories, the music of composers like Kinan Abou-Afach, Dave Tavani’s photo portraits of twelve featured immigrants and the presence of many of the immigrants themselves. 
Statuesque storyteller, Denise Valentine, bookended the concert with word pictures that took us to the heart of the human experience of feeling settled or finding ourselves made to move. We never know what events in our lives might shift and sweep us away from those places we call home, or how we might react to the shock of being transplanted.
 The presentation unfolded in fourteen parts—now a recitation by Denise, now a composition by one of the musicians performed by the group. You could feel the sway of moods as highlights of many immigrants’ experiences sewn together by Ann de Forest alternated with the musical pieces, now lyrical, now exuberant. The overall effect was exhilarating. 
As the music and storytelling unrolled, I realized that I was surrounded by friends of Ms. Valentine and actual subjects of the narratives she was presenting. For instance, I had already met Yasser Allaham who made his way to Jordan and the

 

n to the United States, escaping from war-torn Syria. Thanks to the unfolding (DIS)PLACED series already produced by Al-Bustan, I knew much of his story. And this past spring I had the pleasure of meeting him in Al-Bustan music classes at Penn. He plays the doumbek and knows all the lyrics to the Melhem Barakat songs we learned for last semester’s Arab Music Ensemble concert!)

I wish I could hear the entire production again. There was so much art in its construction! (Is there a CD in the offing? I hope so.) The ensemble included Hafez Kotain, mainstay percussionist at Al-Bustan, himself a Venezuelan-Syrian-American. And he could tell us that the other performer-composers, Kinan Azmeh (clarinet), Al-Bustan’s own Kinan Abou-Afach (cello) and Issam Rafea (oud) all have Syrian roots—connected to the High Conservatory in Damascus. If I have this right, these three last all knew one another there and the youthful looking Issam was actually a teacher of both of the Kinans. The invitation from Al-Bustan is always there, to include yourself in the experiences Hazami Sayed and her noble crew offer. I, as an immigrant to Philadelphia from Massachusetts, lo these forty years ago, a retired rabbi-librarian, can testify, it is a joyous experience.

-Sue Frank, Long-time Friend & Supporter of Al-Bustan

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Interview with Composer Kareem Roustom

Melding his Arab heritage with his training in western classical music, Kareem Roustom has composed contemporary music that draws on the traditional and contemporary to create a thoroughly unique sound. His work varies from an Emmy-nominated film score to a narrated chamber orchestra piece set to an Arab folk tale. This Saturday, as part of the Arab Music Concert Series, Al-Bustan will present the works of Roustom. He will introduce the program with excerpts from his film scores, followed by performances of his compositions by a chamber orchestra comprised of talented artists from Philadelphia and New York.

Though you may not be familiar with Kareem Roustom’s name, you have probably heard some of his compositions. He has written the scores for many acclaimed films including Budrus, Amreeka, and Encounter Point among others. The music in these three films is strikingly beautiful, enriching the story without upstaging it. “It is the job of the score to compliment the film in an unobtrusive way…the music has to be subtle and stay out of the way at times and it has to take charge of the emotional flow at other times,” Roustom explained via email. Roustom’s Emmy nomination for the score of The Mosque in Morgantown is a testament to his mastery of this balance. His prowess with elegantly weaving together narrative and music is equally evident in his chamber orchestra pieces.

His work Abu Jmeel’s Daughter is one such piece. Based on an Arab folktale of the same name the story is about Rida, who having been transformed from an ugly woman into a beauty by the djinn (genies), captivates Prince Alwan. They marry but the union is rocky because in exchange for her beauty, the djinn forbid Rida from speaking to her husband. Yet, the story ends happily when the djinn take pity on the couple and tell Alwan the phrase to release Rida from her oath of silence. Roustom was drawn to both the structure of the story and the darkness he found throughout. “The fact that there are djinns and magic also inspired my decision to use this tale, as I imagined it would allow for a type of musical language that I don’t often get to use when I compose music for film.” In addition to the musical cues that Roustom provides in his composition, a narrator guides the audience through the tale of Rida and Alwan. His connection to Arab culture is deeper than the narratives for which he composes music.

During the music writing process, Roustom engages many influences including his Syrian roots. “I think being aware of one’s roots is very important whether you are performing Mozart, playing the blues or performing North Indian Raga. This blending of styles and backgrounds is a natural extension of what I’ve been doing all my musical life.” His embracive approach to composition does not mean his work is incongruous with his understanding of the Arab classical music tradition. “Musical language has to evolve in order to survive. That doesn’t mean that everything gets thrown out every time there is a new wave of change, it just means that value and perspectives change.” It is this combination of an appreciation for the traditional while being open to new developments that makes Roustom’s music so intriguing.

Given that “Al-Bustan means “The Garden” in Arabic, Roustom’s botanical analogy for his own work seems apropos. “I try to think of my work very much like a tree. There are roots that keep the tree grounded and trunk that supports the branches that reach for heights in search of sunlight and nourishment.”