BACKGROUND AND MAJOR THEMES This lesson is intended to precede “New Sounds from Arab Lands,” a March 2013 performance by Kinan Azmeh, Jasser Haj Youssef, Basel Rajoub, Feras Shahrestane, and Khaled Yassine. These musicians embody cultural fusion through artistic expression. The music itself, the instruments used during the performance, and the life histories of the performers themselves all speak to a rich conversation between roots and traditions that have brought these musicians together from Lebanon, Syria, and Tunisia, and musical heritage from outside this region that has become part of their lives and work.
While exploring these intersections, it is helpful to recognize that there is no clear or neat division between cultures of “The West” and “The Middle East.” Individuals, ideas, and cultures have consistently been shared between these shifting boundaries, and this historical fact has only become more pronounced in the contemporary media and cultural landscape. It is from this vantage point that we see the vibrant intermingling of improvisation and instrumentation that is apparent in the work of these musicians.
Below you will find brief biographical sketches of the musicians who will perform on Match 1st. Students may have heard the names of many of the cities and countries from which the artists originate (Syria, Aleppo, Tunisia) in the news as part of the ongoing political change across the Middle East and North Africa. While the lesson below aims to offer several entry points for students to consider the themes and larger contexts relevant to these performers and their work, the politics of this region is not a major focus. However, an included handout does provide a brief summary outline of the role the performer’s home countries have played in the “Arab Spring.”
New Sounds from the Arab Lands is led by the versatile clarinettist Kinan Azmeh. Born in Damascus, Kinan graduated from that city’s High Institute of Music and subsequently, from New York’s Juilliard Conservatory. He has appeared worldwide as a classical clarinettist as well as a new music improviser and jazz player. His compositions include works for orchestra, chamber groups, and solo clarinet as well as film scores, dance soundtracks, and electro-acoustic music.
Basel Rajoub, born in Aleppo, Syria, graduated from the Damascus High Institute of Music, where he studied European and Middle Eastern classical music as well as jazz. He performs widely as leader of the Basel Rajoub Quartet.
Jasser Haj Youssef, originally from Tunisia, currently lives in Paris, and performs both on violin and on the Baroque viola d’amore, whose resonant sympathetic strings are ideally suited to the modal melodic forms of Arabic music. Jasser is a consummate fusionist, as much at home in jazz as in classical music and Arab maqam.
Khaled Yassine is from Beirut and plays both Middle Eastern and Western percussion. He co-founded the Lebanese fusion band Fu Jan Shai, tours with Anouar Brahem, and is artistic director and producer of the Beirut-based CD label Edict Records.
Feras Shahrestane comes from the city of Al-Hasakeh, in northeast Syria, and studied qanun at the High Institute of Music in Damascus. He performs regularly as a qanun soloist with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra and the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra as well as in the bands Roubai Toueis and Woujouh.
PROCEDURE Listening Before giving students background on the featured musicians, begin by having them listen closely to the first 30 seconds of “Airports” by Kinan Azmeh.
This subtle and evocative instrumental piece begins slowly and gradually builds to include more instruments and ambient sounds (recordings from airport announcements).
Some possible questions to prompt student listening: What instruments do you hear? (This track includes Kinan Asmeh’s signature clarinet as well as strings and chimes. Asmeh explains in the NPR interview that he began playing the clarinet when his father wrote to Encyclopedia Britannica to ask for a good instrument for his left-handed son!)
What words would you use to describe this music? (Student answers will vary - perhaps, slow, mysterious, ominous, peaceful, etc...)
What kind of mood does it put you in? If this were the soundtrack to a particular place what kind of place with it be? If you close your eyes and listen, what kind of place do you imagine being?
After a few responses, let students know that the title of the piece is "Airports." Is that surprising? Why or why not? Listen to another half minute of the piece (they will hear airport noises coming in...). What kind of mood is this musician associating with an airport?
Interview Listen to minute 00:20-2:00 of NPR interview with Kinan Azmeh.
Some possible questions to prompt student listening: Where is Kinan from? (Damascus, Syria) What different places does Kinan move between? (New York and Damascus, Syria. University in the New York.) Why is the name of his group "dialogue"? (Kinan talks about being open to “the other”- people, places, and cultures that are often shown as being different from you and your own community, and that dialogue is constantly part of his life through the music he creates.)
If the teacher would like, listen to minute 3:15 - 5:00. Here Kinan explains that his piece “Airports” was inspired by his experiences being held by security in airports because of his Syrian heritage, and the people he meets from other countries that he says are also frequently stereotyped in airports.
Some possible questions for students to consider What are the goals of crossing boundaries and the obstacles Kinan faces? Kinan lives, works, and creates art by living between both the U.S. and Syria. He also experiences the effect of fear between these two places that has come about because of political conflict.
Looking Deeper at Context: Poetry
An essential value shared throughout the Middle East is the importance of word, whether it is the chanting of the Qu’ran, or the poetry of spiritual leaders. This can be heard in the music of the Middle East.
Although most of Kinan Azmeh’s music is instrumental and does not contain any words or lyrics, his compositions connect to the work of poets both historical and contemporary. Looking at two short excerpts from Arab and Syrian poets further connects to the themes of Azmeh’s life and work:
In the interview (min 5:50 - 6:45) Kinan Azmeh talks about an instrumental piece titled “Ibn Arabi.” Ibn al-Arabi was a philosopher theologian, writer, and poet of great spiritual and historical significance who lived in the pluralistic world of Andalucia (an area of southern Spain) in the 12th century. A towering figure in the development of mystical Islamic thought, one theme of Ibn Arabi’s poetry is longing and separation for home, one’s beloved, and the divine.
Read the following short excerpt to students from Ibn Arabi’s poem, “You Who Pasture the Stars” (translated by Professor Michael Sells).
They placed their howdahs* on long-stride camels, full moons within the curtains, and marbled figurines.
They beckoned goodbye, fingertips dyed henna. They set tears scattering, stoked a fire. They turned back toward Yemen, seeking Khawarnaq** then Sadir.**
*Carriages for riding on the backs of camels ** City names
Caravan travel and constant pursuit of separated lovers and friends is a consistent trope and metaphor in Ibn Arabi’s poetry. How might this resonate with an artist like Azmeh who has multiple homes and communities in different parts of the world?
In his interview Azmeh says he is drawn to Ibn Arabi because he was an advocate of “free expression.” This tradition lives on today in the work of Syrian poets who continue to express themselves in the face of government suppression. Hala Mohammad is one such poet. Born in the Syrian port of Latakia, Hala left for Paris in order to receive medical care for cancer. Living in exile, her poetry is both a response to the ongoing political crisis in her home country (see handout) as well as a way to reflect on her own longing and separation from her homeland. Like many poets in Syria, Hala has been the target of censorship, threats, and repression from the Syrian government, which does not tolerate free expression or dissent.
Read, project, or pass out the following short poem by Hala: You should see fragility I see that the role of human beings is to see this: to see not only what is powerful. I don't think there is anything more powerful than a smile Or more powerful than a butterfly
Ask students to consider what Hala means when she says “I don’t think there is anything more powerful than a smile.” What might this mean to someone living outside of her homeland among a community that is new to her? What might this mean to artists like Hala and Kinan who spend so much of their time crossing borders between different cultures, communities, and countries? Hala opens her poem by telling her reader that they should “see fragility.” In her work she talks about the power of making one’s self vulnerable as an outsider, and the power of offering kindness and hospitality to those living in separation from their homeland.
Ask students to consider what Hala means when she says “I don’t think there is anything more powerful... than a butterfly.” What might this mean for someone who is using art to fight back against a powerful government? A butterfly conjures ideas of beauty, nimbleness, and grace. The art of Hala and Kinan can be seen as embodying all of these attributes. They have used these qualities in their work to challenge fear and repression.
As a possible extensionhave students express their own understanding of the power of artists, writers, and musicians by creating their own lyrics to accompany one of Kinan’s instrumental pieces by responding to the prompt “I don’t think there is anything more powerful than __________”
Learn more about the life and work of Hala Mohammad in the 24 minute documentary “Waiting for Spring.” http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/artscape/2012/08/201282711412941304.html
Further Context: Map and Current Political Change Artists like Kinan and his fellow musicians express parts of their identity and history through their work. It may be helpful for students to briefly review some of the ongoing political change that is currently taking place in the homelands of these performers and consider how these events inform their goals of bringing together different cultures and communities. See appendix A and B: Map and Background Information.
Anticipation and Reflection Use Appendix C Anticipation and Reflection prompts for students to record their experiences of the March 1st performance.