Simon Shaheen, third from left, and his Arabic music ensemble Saturday night at Roulette in Brooklyn.
Simon Shaheen joked that his Saturday night concert at Brooklyn’s Roulette theater was “something bigger than the United Nations,” and if not bigger in size, it was certainly that in terms of multinational cooperation.
The Palestianian oud (Arabic lute) and violin virtuoso and composer--and teacher at Berklee School of Music in Boston--brought seven of his students (the Qantara Berklee Ensemble, representing the Middle East, the U.S., Turkey, Poland and Brazil) to perform with two members of his Simon Shaheen & Qantara group (Bassam Saba on Arabic nay flute and percussionist Tareq Rantisi) in a program entitled Musical Gems of the Arab Cinema.
With his Qantara groups, Shaheen tends to blend Arabic music with jazz and western classical, but in accordance with this program’s title, the focus was on Arabic, particularly Arabic cinematic, though he began with his own new composition “Samai Jiharkah,” which demonstrated the complexity of the Arabic music form. As he explained, the piece had four parts with a repeated refrain and a rhythmic mode of 10 beats per measure—with accents on the one, six and seven counts. Instructing the audience to clap it out in order to get the hang of it, he needed to gently prod them with “Don’t be embarrassed—just do it!”—which they did with surprising accuracy.
Then again, complicated as Arabic music can be to the uninitiated, it’s beauty is still immediate and accessible. Ever the teacher, Shaheen explained to those in need that two of the concert’s songs were written by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, the great Egyptian singer, composer and oud player, and a pioneer in Arabic film song composition. His song “Ya Msafer Wahdak” from Mamnuu’ Al Hubb (Love is Forbidden) was given a mesmerizing recital by Shaheen’s student Nadia Raies.
Oudist Amal Ghulam also sang a song, her own composition, with minimal accompaniment and melody, yet it was still such a high point that Shaheen was beaming throughout. He later said it was his honor to be in the presence of “these musicians” who were his students.
But the teacher was hardly outdone, dazzling on the "Metric Taqasim" oud showpiece in conjunction with fellow co-writer Rantisi on the riqq Arabic tambourine. The concert ended on a jubilant ensemble note with Shaheen’s composition “Arboresque.”
Simon Shaheen's Qantara Berklee Ensemble performs his composition "Arboresque"