While listening to the Duke University performance by Simon Shaheen and the Near Eastern Music Ensemble recently, I felt my mind do an arabesque. Like the graceful flow of limbs akimbo that I love in ballet, my mind pulled together fragments of the Arabian music I've heard over the years.
Suddenly the elaborate sequences of notes coalesced around a central structure and I witnessed the beauty of the underlying form. This was not the ever-popular belly dance music that was my first introduction to music from the Middle East. This was as classical as the oriental flavored ballet of Najinsky.
At first my ears were feasting on the exotic flavor of instruments like the oud (lute), ney (flute), qanun (zither), and riqq (tambourine). Next I settled in to enjoy the more subtle impact of acoustic instruments. The chamber music format of six instrumentalists and a vocalist meant that each flavor could be picked out but the overall blend was equally delicious. Simon Shaheen's introduction to each piece helped me drop the preference for harmony and instead hear the tremendous variety of ornamentation on the melody and rhythm. That's where the spontaneity and improvisation of this music constantly doubled up and tickled the ears.
The program was dedicated to two Egyptian artists, Muhammad Abdul Wahhab and Um Kulthum, who are considered the greatest names in modern Arabic music. Of course, I wouldn't have known this if it weren't for the excellent program notes, which I eagerly devoured at intermission. That's one reason I love the world music series or the foreign film section in the video store. It's a chance to see a culture through it's own eyes.
When Simon Shaheen opened the second set with his solo composition on oud it would have been easy to just be awed by the sheer dexterity of nimble fingers adroitly plucking the strings. Yet Shaheen also had a wonderful connection with the audience--warm, brilliant, with a touch of humor. Then I heard echoes of Medieval lute ballads and classical Spanish guitar. The world of music was getting smaller as I connected more pieces.
By recognizing this music as the highest classical standard in its genre, I became aware of an aspect of classically Western chamber music I never heard before. The intention of this music was not the spiritual bliss of the Sufi dervishes nor the passionate foreplay of elaborately costumed contorting abdomens. The successfully accomplished intention here was to reveal the inherent aesthetic pleasure of classical form. By the end of this concert I resonated with a culture I usually find dissonant because it mirrored and revealed an aspect of my own. A truly enriching and rapturous experience.