Simon Shaheen will strum oud harmony

Thursday June 28, 2012

CHATHAM, N.Y. -- Arab music virtuoso Simon Shaheen teaches his audiences, opening their minds and ears to something deeper. He talks with those gathered to hear his work, which is considered among the most significant Arabic music and composition of the contemporary scene.

In 1994, Shaheen received a National Heritage Award from the White House. And his group, Qantara, was nominated for 11 Grammys in 2001 for its first album, "Blue Flame."

But when he performs, he thinks of his audience as guests sitting together in a living room.

"Many of the things I say on stage, they are the birth of the experience of the moment, and I use my instinct and my wit as a reflection of the moment," he said with a chuckle. "Any audience, when I play, they are my family in that performance -- and any venue that I play, I consider it my home -- and if I don't feel that way I don't think we are going to connect."

Judy Grunberg, president of Performance Space for the 21st Century, connected naturally with Shaheen when she saw him perform at Spencertown Aca demy in 2007.

"He was such a fabulous musician, so dedicated to sharing his musical heritage, I knew he'd be a perfect fit for our venue," she said in a written statement.

On Saturday, PS21 will host Shaheen, accompanied by Dafer Tawil on percussion at 7:30 p.m.

Shaheen's work merges traditional Arabic with jazz, Latin Am er ican, and Western classical styles.

"World Music" is a phrase often used to describe music that incorporates instruments and rhythms from more than one culture. It is a phrase Shaheen flatly rejects, because he said it is an oversimplification that demeans the individual music forms being layered.

"It does not mean anything -- it has no clarification," he said. "It does not show the beauty of the localism."

Shaheen's father, a music professor and a master oud player, was a powerful influence in his musical life and began teaching him oud and violin by age 5. Shaheen, now 57, said he felt a "natural attachment" to both.

The oud is a pear-shaped stringed instrument commonly used in North African and Middle Eastern music and considered to be the forerunner of plucked musical instruments.

"(Music) is a very powerful element in me," he remarked. "It gives me great satisfaction. I love doing it. It is my source of life and income. It is a full commitment."

While Shaheen did not set out to create a multi-cultural, richly layered sound, he did consciously study music from around the world. He said creating harmony with these various instruments and music forms is no small task.

"It requires somebody who understands the musical literature and culture as well as the composition from several cultures," he said. "I am about bringing originalities among musical cultures that really can work together and create a new genre."

Considering himself a "champion and guardian of Arab music," Shaheen spends half his time teaching at many schools and universities -- Julliard, Columbia, Princeton, Brown and Harvard, among others.

"It gives roundness to our mission in working toward bringing our music to the public," he said.

Later this summer at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, he will host the 15th annual Arabic Music Retreat, which draws people from Europe, the Middle East and South America, but he said most of the 80-odd people who plan to come to the retreat will be from the United States.

For professional or amateur musicians, novice or skilled music enthusiasts, Shaheen believes music itself gives people a way to talk, to meet and to connect.

"It helps people understand their own culture and other cultures," he said. "And the hope is, once they have this understanding, they will have more appreciation and knowledge, which definitely creates a harmonious mood."

Carrie Saldo can be reached at

What: Simon Shaheen plays the oud with Dafer Tawil on percussion

Where: PS21, 2980 Route 66, Chatham, N.Y.

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Admission: $30, or $18 for students



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