With a collection of musicians from seven different countries including Morocco, Syria and Israel, one would expect the Arabesque Music Ensemble to be performing an eclectic blend of culture and tradition. But, they’re not about reinventing the wheel, but rather about preserving the original.
Tonight, Arabesque takes the stage at Rackham Auditorium to keep Arab history alive. Performing music from the legendary Arab songstress Umm Kulthum, composed by three Egyptians, Arabesque differs from other ensembles in its commitment to staying true to the original work.
However, their ambition was met with difficulty since the original performers committed the music to their memory and were urged by Kulthum to “let their hearts guide them.” Because the music was never notated on paper, and those who worked with The Three Musketeers – the name given to the three composers – are no longer performing because of old age, the live compositions were virtually lost in the Arab world.
While Umm Kulthum has influenced such pop icons as Bob Dylan, Nico, Bono and Led Zeppelin, never before has a group taken on the task of performing her original work in its entirety.
“Everybody is trying to come up with new ways to come up with this music, but no one is trying to recreate this music the way that is was in the ’20s , except this ensemble,” said Hicham Chami, founder of Arabesque. The musicians today attempt to stay as loyal to every note and vowel as The Three Musketeers intended. The group had to sit down and listen to tapes of the music, rewind and notate over and over again before they could start to play music. What would take two or three days to learn musically took two or three months because of the process and accuracy they wanted to ensure before attempting to recreate these masterpieces.
“If that doesn’t make you mad and angry,” Chami paused. “It does make me mad and angry; it is one of the finest pieces that this composer has ever created and no one took the time to notate it.”
Layering Middle Eastern instruments like the qunan, buzuq and riqq with Western instruments like the cello, flute and viola over a rich dialogue of vocals, Arabesque builds a repertoire of highs and lows that pull the listener along with a crisp percussion section.
As each song progresses, the compositions that once lasted up to two hours build with the rhythm of a climbing emotional catharsis. Through the repetition of key lines that translate to “sing for me; I’ll give you anything” and “why do you make me suffer so?”, Arabesque quietly changes the meaning of the lines each time they are sung.
Each following verse is more passionate than the last, creating a universal language of love, loss and longing that the music of The Three Musketeers once emphasized. One doesn’t need a deep understanding of the Arabic language to understand the musical language that reaches out of each of the musicians and touches the core of listeners all around the world.
“I believe this is going to be the next big revolution in Arabic music, and I hope that it is coming soon,” Chami said. As an artist, I cannot allow such great music to be forgotten.”
However, the music of Arabesque stretches past simply being a re-creation of the past. Arabesque strives to do what many great artists can only hope to accomplish in their lifetime. They hope to make a change. Arabesque is on the road to bridging the Arab and Western worlds through their music.
“Once we step on stage, yes, we are musicians, but we are also ambassadors,” Chami said. “We offer a positive image of the Arabic world.”
Chami recalled his recent performance in which he estimated that 90 percent of the audience had been looking at an Arab face for the first time. Additionally, the group will be teaching a workshop to youth people before the performance, giving exposure to the music and promoting understanding. Through his art, Chami and Arabesque build a bridge between the two worlds, uniting them on a common front of the humanity found in their music.