Expanding Horizons Through Arab Music at Penn

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Media Contact:Jeanne Leong | jleong@upenn.edu | 215-573-8151February 11, 2014

After hearing Arab music for the first time at a wedding a couple of years ago, University of Pennsylvania senior Idrees Syed was so enthralled with the sounds that he soon began taking drumming lessons in the Arab Music Ensemble percussion class at Penn.

“The sounds were just mesmerizing,” Syed says.

Taught by Arab musicians Hanna Khoury and Hafez Kotain from the Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, an arts and education organization in West Philadelphia, the class is offered through Penn’s Music Department and the Greenfield Intercultural Center.

Al-Bustan began partnering with the University in 2009 to offer Arab choir, percussion and instrumental music classes.

“What happens is the teacher does a simple rhythm and you need to look at your teacher and process which hand he’s using,” Syed says. “Whether it’s the right or the left, the position on the drum, the timing of the beats to create the rhythm.”

Growing up in Atlanta, Syed, whose ancestry is Indian, sees some similarities between the Arab music and the Indian cultural events he’s attended at which drummers performed. 

“The beats aren’t the same, but the feeling is the same,” says Syed. “It’s not just hitting the drum to make a sound, it’s to make people happy, to create the atmosphere where people will engage with each other. It’s a lot more than making a pleasant sound.”

A cognitive science major, Syed says the drumming instruction has helped him grow intellectually in ways that are different from a traditional college course.

“I learn about the different pathways of the brain and I take an exam and I show on a piece of paper what I’ve learned from the professor,” Syed says. “In this class the teacher goes through a beat or a rhythm or a technique, and then you can immediately practice it.”

Since all the songs are sung in Arabic, students in the choir class start out by learning diction.

As the choir instructor, Khoury provides song sheets for the students with the lyrics written in Arabic, along with the words written out phonetically in English.

“By the end of the semester, the students are beginning to get command of the patterns linguistically,” Khoury says. “But once we get it, I need to make sure that they are singing and bringing out the melodic line.”

After taking an Arab language class at Penn, junior Amy Cass’ interests expanded to include Arab culture and music. A semester of studying abroad in Jordan followed, and after returning to Penn, the international relations major from Laconia, N.H., joined the choir.

“In the Arabic alphabet,” explains Cass, “they have several letters that we don’t have in English, so they’re sounds that are not natural for English speakers to make.”

The Arab Music Ensemble class is partly a lesson in the history of some of the 22 countries in the Arab world. When the group was singing songs about Lebanon, they learned that some of the songs tell stories about how Lebanese families fled the country during the war in the 1970s and '80s. The lyrics include sharing memories of young children from their villages.

“It captures what the home and the village look like,” Khoury says. “And it evokes a lot of memories of people who were born there and then came here to this country.”

At the end of the semester, the Arab Music Ensemble brings the musicians and choir together to present a free concert. This year’s performance takes place at 6:30pm on April 10 in the Hall of Flags in Houston Hall.