A Love Of Arabic Music Brings Western Massachusetts Ensemble To Life

Dec 12, 2018

The startup of the Pioneer Valley Arabic Music Ensemble was mentioned in an announcement a few months ago in a western Massachusetts newspaper. No audition was necessary — just an interest, an instrument and a willingness to be directed. 

Arabic music is traditionally played in a small ensemble, or a takht. A group might include a singer, someone on percussion, and musicians on traditional Middle Eastern instruments, like the oud, the qanun and the nay.

Those instruments, plus two accordions, a couple of guitars, an upright bass, violins, flutes, and several singers, are part of this burgeoning ensemble of 20 musicians whose first performance is Thursday night, December 13, in Florence, Massachusetts.

Much of the work thus far has taken place in a living room-turned-music space, with couches and chairs pushed up against the walls.

“Actually, I didn’t expect to have this big a group,” said musician Layth Sidiq, who this fall drove from Boston every other week to direct the group with varying musical skill.

Musician Layth Sidiq rehearses with members of the Pioneer Valley Arabic Music Ensemble.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

Sidiq, 26, is a young and much-in-demand world music violinist. He was born in Iraq and raised in Jordan, and came to the U.S. to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He now teaches at Tufts and leads other Arabic music ensembles.

This fall, Sidiq has flown to Switzerland, Spain, San Antonio and elsewhere to perform. So why was he also driving to western Massachusetts every two weeks?

It's not about the money, Sidiq said. He feels a responsibility.

“[It’s] about understanding the melodies, lyrics, their meaning, the cultural background of the song; for [the group to have] a kind of rounded experience about what Arab music really is and where it comes from,” Sidiq said.

Several of the musicians have studied with Sidiq before, in Boston or at summer workshops closer to home, including Sharon Arslanian. Her instrument is the nay, a wooden flute that comes in varying sizes. After six or so years of playing, she still calls herself a beginner. 

Arslanian is first a dancer and spent a career teaching modern dance at the college level. She said she first fell in love with Arabic music when she was a dance major at school in California, and went in search of something more than modern dance and ballet. Belly dancing, all the rage in the '70s was also a way to make some money.

“I was just a natural at it, and that led me in to working in nightclubs, so that's how I got started, hearing the music,” Arslanian said.

Decades later, Arslanian was the one who asked Sidiq to turn this group of teachers and home health care aids, engineers and electricians into a cohesive ensemble, and offered her rambling old home to stage rehearsals.

Syonara Tomoum takes the lead on Arabic pronunciation with fellow singers in the Pioneer Valley Arabic Music Ensemble.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

During the two hours with Sidiq, singers spend at least some time upstairs, plodding with good humor through multiple attempts at learning words in a new language.

Syonara Toumoum, an Arabic teacher and the only native speaker among them, went over the phrasing, some songs in dialects that are foreign even to her.  

The ensemble has several musicians who also play Klezmer, a style of Jewish music that originated in Eastern Europe.

Peggy Davis plays flute in a Klezmer band and said the history of Jewish musicians from places like Romania going to Istanbul and learning Arabic music, makes all of this somehow familiar.

“I love hearing the connections in music,” Davis said.

Music's ability to travel across borders has not gone unobserved in this crowd, said Toumoum, who is originally from Egypt.

“Usually, Arabs will not sit with Jews, for example, because of the problems in the Middle East and the politics,” she said. But at rehearsals, "You think that you're all one family, and you start to think, what's in common more than what's making us fight all the time?" 

Only a few musicians in the ensemble really own the complexities of the Arabic music scale's half-flats and half-sharps. But the biggest challenge at this point was getting everyone to slow down.

Rachel Andres, a retired doctor, plays the qanun in the Pionner Valley Arabic Music Ensemble.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

During rehearsal, Sidiq asked if any of them had ever ridden a camel before. Everyone laughed. For a camel to stop and sit down, he said, it really takes a while. He said that’s what they need to think about as they come to the end of a final measure.

“It really needs to feel like that. Lazy,” he said, using his voice to mimic the meter. “Da-da-da-da-daaaaa. Yep? OK, next piece.”

At another rehearsal, Sidiq told the group a story about how, as a child, when he first studied classical music and learned Western scales, he was taught to play every note. That made sense to most musicians in the room.

Then Sidiq told them that when he began playing Arabic music in an ensemble, he was told, "Put down your bow! Don't play every note!"

When the group heard that, Arslanian said most of them drew a huge sigh of relief.

“[Arabic music] is a different kind of music,” she said. “It’s based on one melody that everybody's playing. It's not on harmony.”

To play it well, these musicians will need to learn how to weave in and out of that melody. Though they may naturally master another characteristic of Arabic music known as tarab, which refers to the state of ecstasy one can experience when listening, or playing.

It measures itself not in technical perfection, but in feeling.