Palestinian virtuoso brings Arabic music to the West

Since coming to the U.S. in 1980, Palestinian performer Simon Shaheen has been on a quest to educate Western audiences about Arabic music.

He encountered a culture that often perceived the style as something only heard in the background of belly dancing and firebreathing routines.

"Or they thought the music of the cabaret in the main (American) cities was the sound of Arabic music, when it was a mishmash of musicians from different countries playing folkloric songs from Armenia, Turkey and Greece," Shaheen says.

Shaheen has spent his adulthood trying to introduce Americans to authentic Arabic compositions - which mainly encompass the eastern basin of the Mediterranean that includes Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt.

"It has a system that uses microtonalities. We've got sounds the Western ear will have difficulty to hear. But the minute you introduce this ear to it, they find it fascinating," he says.

The two main tools at his disposal are the violin and the oud (pronounced ood), a Middle Eastern predecessor of the lute and guitar.

The instrument is dissimilar in that it is fretless and has 11 strings. Ten of the strings are grouped in unison pairs (like a modern 12-string guitar) while the lowest is a single string.

"When people ask me, 'What do you like more: the oud or the violin?' I tell them I see them both as extensions of my arms. The oud is the left arm, and the violin is the right arm. It is impossible to say which one I prefer because they both are dear," he says.

Past Event

Simon Shaheen & Dr. A.J. Racy with the Near Eastern Music Ensemble

  • Saturday, October 21, 2006, 7:30 p.m.
  • Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive, KU campus, Lawrence
  • All ages / $24 - $29


Shaheen and his Near Eastern Music Ensemble will join Dr. A.J. Racy for a performance Saturday at Kansas University's Lied Center. Racy is a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, and a master of many traditional Lebanese instruments such as the nay (a reed-flute) and the buzuq (a long-necked lute).

"I have had the pleasure of hearing both Shaheen and Racy perform in New York City," says Karen Christilles, associate director of the Lied Center.

"They are incredible musicians - each a master in their own right. And while they have performed together in the past, on occasion they tour with their own ensembles, so the opportunity to bring them both together for this concert is a rare event. ... It is certainly a treat to hear these instruments played live, but you get beyond the exotic nature of the instruments and just marvel at performers' technical and artistic abilities."

Living the experience

Shaheen was born in 1955 in the village of Tarshiha, Galilee (which is part of Israel). His father, Hikmat Shaheen, was a music professor, and most of his immediate family were musicians.


Special to the Journal-World

Simon Shaheen's mastery of the violin and oud (a Middle Eastern precursor to the lute) have earned him international acclaim.

At the age of 4, he was introduced to Arabic music by his father and cousin. Then he moved to the port city of Haifa at age 5 to join the conservatory for Western classical music, where he started taking violin lessons.

"The best advice came from my father, who told me, 'Live the experience of music.' It taught me how to be authentic, sincere and work extremely hard to create or capture the essence of music," he recalls.

After graduating from the Academy of Music in Jerusalem in 1978, Shaheen moved to New York to complete his graduate degrees at the Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University.

His list of accomplishments thereafter is diverse and impressive. Highlights include performances at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and to an audience of a half million for Quincy Jones' "We Are The Future" concert in Rome.

Along the way, he helped score music for the films "Malcolm X" and "The Sheltering Sky."

In 2000, Shaheen had the honor of becoming one of the first Arabs to appear on the Grammy Awards.

Audio clips

Simon Shaheen

"Sting wanted to sing a song called 'Desert Rose.' He was looking for a special arrangement because he had the Algerian singer Cheb Mami, and he wanted to have this flavor of North African/Arabic sound," Shaheen says.

The collaboration went well. So when Shaheen decided to do a cover of The Police's tune "Tea in the Sahara" for his 2001 album "Blue Flame," Sting agreed to appear on it.

Regrettably, record industry politics involving Sting's ex-manager obstructed the proposed session, and Shaheen was forced to supplant Sting's vocal with solo violin.

"It's unfortunate that the victim of this situation was my version of 'Tea in the Sahara.' It would have been beautiful with Sting," Shaheen says.


Special to the Journal-World

Simon Shaheen, left, and Dr. A.J. Racy perform a live duet with oud and buzuq.

After 9/11

It would have been very easy for Shaheen himself to be the victim of a national situation. The current political climate in the U.S. hasn't exactly made it easy for Arabic culture to flourish here.

Yet during his recent years of performances, workshops and lectures, Shaheen has encountered little resistance or hostility.

"Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, I don't think the perception and willingness of the American people changed as much as certain changes in the media. They started to ask questions: 'What is Islam? What is Arabic food? What is Koran?' It was as if it was the beginning of introducing this culture. It wasn't the beginning at all."

Shaheen believes that Westerners are more interested than ever in embracing his Arabic sounds.

"Many American people like to understand other cultures, whether it's music, food or behavior," Shaheen says. "They have the open mind for it."


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