Music transcends the East-West divide

Conductor Thomas Lloyd leads the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble at Haverford. (Emily Ganser)

Suddenly, the yawning gulf between American and Arab music is closed with a voice.

In a sweet, light tenor, the formidable Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife sings a passage to Philadelphia's Prometheus Chamber Orchestra during a rehearsal Sunday at Haverford College, translating his music into something that doesn't require either side to understand English or Arabic.

The musicians are preparing for Saturday's Haverford concert by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, the Philadelphia organization promoting Arabic culture. It will feature the U.S. premiere of Khalife's hour-long Chants of the East.

"You get musicians together and things become much simpler," said conductor Thomas Lloyd, a Haverford College professor of music. "Because music is such a part of being human, you can't deny the humanity of somebody you're making music with."

The piece by legendary composer and oud virtuoso Khalife will feature 130 musicians on stage, the core being the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, plus the Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges and Keystone State Boychoir. And yes, they'll sing Arabic texts from the medieval Sufi poet Mansur al-Hallaj. Fortunately, Lloyd is no stranger to Arabic culture, having taken his choirs to Turkey.

Both sides of the musical equation are being met more than halfway, says Al-Bustan music director Hanna Khoury, a longtime Philadelphian and a respected violinist in the music community. Americans will hear quotations from The Pines of Rome and Carmen that Arab listeners might not recognize. Likewise, Americans won't know the popular tunes and folk songs woven into the piece, but Arabs will. "They're going to start clapping, singing with the choir," says Khoury. "We grew up singing these songs."

One wonders how such musical mixtures can work, especially since Arab music is full of microtones in often-ornate vocal writing. But that's Western thinking for you. "The line between folk, pop, and classical Arabic is much more fluid," said Lloyd. "Here, we have opera singers cross over to pop - kind of - but [in the Arab world] there's more continuity between different kinds of music."

Lebanese singer Abeer Nehme is a particularly shining example. A Mideast recording star, she has a soprano that, at Sunday's rehearsal, easily went from Arabic pop to what Westerners would call coloratura singing. She's more eclectic than most. "Every time I travel, I try to be closer to the music of the people I meet," she says, adding that she's making a documentary about her musical travels titled Ethnopholia.

The Sufi texts in Khalife's Chants of the East have deep emotional underpinnings. Unlike some special-occasion pieces with texts written in message-driven strokes, piece's words speak of being "adrift in the massive sea, where my pathways are led astray . . . O night! I follow you like a drunken Sufi."

Anything more direct wouldn't be Al-Bustan's style, which is scrupulously nonpolitical and nondenominational. Lebanese-born executive director Hazami Sayed explains that the organization, begun in 2002, has multiple functions: summer camps for Arab American children to learn about their heritage; affirming their cultural legitimacy to Arab adults; and offering a different kind of public relations to Americans who only know the Arab community from the news media. Previous projects have included residencies with the much-traveled Khalife teaching Arabic music in area colleges. Chants of the East is among its most ambitious endeavors yet.

Though Sayed doesn't like to dwell on the generations-long tensions between the two worlds, the group has encountered occasional static, such as when its events are scheduled too close for some people's comfort to 9/11 commemorations. Khalife himself makes no secret of his disappointment with post-World War II American policies concerning "the Palestinian question."

"But the American people, they're genuine about their feelings and their understanding of our cause," he said through an English interpreter. "It's the relationship between human beings that we're about. We're looking for only empathy and justice."

Chants was originally written to be performed with a large orchestra. Knowing the capability of his forces and sensing what the music meant to convey, Lloyd favored reduced orchestral forces, to allow for the agility needed to encompass Khalife's diverse influences.

American musicians have a deserved reputation for working through most any musical problem. But in this case, notes and rests can't be taken too literally. Conductor Lloyd tells his musicians to learn how the music goes, "but what we need to do is not stop there. . . . We can't get too rigid. . . . Rhythmically, there's a lot of freedom that has to be allowed to happen."

Then when Khalife sings to them, the music somehow loses any hint of exaggeration. To Westerners, grandeur and subtlety might seem to be a contradiction. That's perhaps why Vena Johnson, violinist with the Prometheus orchestra, doesn't describe Chants of the East as big, but as "epic."

"It's more than the music itself," she said, "but the process of working together and sharing it with the audience."

Nehme was thrilled to hear American children singing in Arabic - "and beautifully, in their own way."

Still, for her and Khalife to step outside their native culture, where they're beloved, and into America, where they're hardly known at all, can't be easy.

"I don't care," she said, "I'll stand on the stage, and everybody will know me then. Every musician has his own ego, but you have to start somewhere in a country that doesn't know you. You always have to step forward and be open to new people.

"I'm saying, 'Hey, I'm here!' "



Chants of the East

8 p.m. Saturday in Marshall Auditorium at Haverford College, Haverford.

Tickets: $20.

Information: 267-809-3668 or