Al-Bustan’s Arab music concert series builds bridges across communities and cultures - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Hanna Khoury (left) with Marcel Khalife, “the Bob Dylan of the Middle East” | Photo by Dana Scherer |

Philadelphia can often seem like a place removed from the rest of the world. Despite the immense diversity of religions, ethnicities, and cultures that inhabit this city’s neighborhoods and workplaces, it is rarely understood as a particularly international place, and remains among the most racially bifurcated cities in the American Northeast.

Art, literature, or music from other lands are only offered in rare opportunities connected to the city’s major institutions of prestige – area-focused university departments, special wings at major galleries, and concert halls that typically present classical or avant-garde music.

But look a little below the surface and you’ll see a near-utopian mix of artists and organizations dedicated to sharing the cultural wealth of other worlds. To these organizations, the act of celebrating the uniqueness of ethnolinguistic regions of the world means making those regions relevant to others. They convey the nuance of places like Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey by showing just how accessible they are.

Few organizations do this as well as Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, whose Arab Music Concert Series brings celebrated instrumentalists and performers of many traditions to the Trinity Center for Urban Life for moving and educational performances every month. Al-Bustan’s Music Program, of which the Concert Series is a part, is but one crucial component of an all-encompassing organization dedicated to celebrating all aspects of Arab culture.

The organization’s name, which translates as “The Garden” in Arabic, says a lot about the growth of their programmatic reach and the sheer variety of opportunities offered. Al-Bustan planted their seeds in 2002 with their still-running summer day camp for youth. They have since created educational programs on Arab arts and culture in several Philadelphia K-12 schools.

Their music program grew out of these educational efforts, but it took the introduction of violinist/Music Director Hanna Khoury and percussionist Hafez Kotain through Executive Director Hazami Sayed in 2009 for their public performances to really take off.

“When I met Hanna in 2009, I was very eager to bring him on board. He brought an incredible talent on the violin and understanding of [Western] classical repertoire,” recounts Sayed, whose West Philly home serves as Al-Bustan’s cozy and understated headquarters. Khoury’s mixed disciplinary background matched Al-Bustan’s intercultural aims, and his experience helped nurture the growth of the Music Program into two community ensembles and a series of K-12 programs. It also nurtured the presentation of the multiple concerts that were eventually consecrated as the Arab Music Concert Series in 2011.

Khoury and Kotain, both accomplished and virtuosic musicians in their own right (Khoury has been featured on records by artists as disparate as Yossou N’Dour and Shakira), exemplify the sheer talent and variety exhibited in the Concert Series. They are founding members of Al-Bustan’s Resident Takht Ensemble, the backing group for most of the featured artists.

“The takht is the ensemble that typically used to perform the classical repertoire pre-1932. This is basically the ensemble that we would compare to a chamber orchestra,” explains Khoury.

Their blending of musical traditions is reflected in the instruments typically featured: violin and cello sit comfortably alongside Middle Eastern mainstays like the oud (similar to a lute), qanun (a large, plucked zither), and riq (a tambourine-like frame drum typically played with fingertips). The ensemble members’ resumes are replete with prestigious distinctions and international collaborations, but the real proof of their excellence is in the execution. Visit Al-Bustan’s YouTube page, and you will see countless examples of their proficiency and expressive power at work. They can be understated and searing in the same section, and neither solo nor group melody can break the fierce gallop of each composition.

“It’s not easy to find a very high caliber of musicianship [on these instruments], and for this to work, you really need to have the best ensemble possible,” says Khoury. This concentration of talent allows for the concert series to function in the way it does, although Khoury notes the difficulty in representing the entirety of the Arab world – a world with extreme internal diversity.

“You have about 22 countries that range from North Africa all the way to the Persian Gulf, and then you have the Levant…the music has a lot of commonalities but it’s still very different. The dialect is different, the poetry they sing is different, and there are many stylistic issues that are different across the Middle East,” he adds.

Concert Series performances typically involve the Takht Ensemble re-creating works from featured artists’ latest recordings, but they also occasionally require the creation and premiere of new works. Cellist Kinan Abou-afach is responsible for most of the actual arranging, although the works are developed collaboratively.

And just who are the artists that the Concert Series features? They are instrumentalists, singers, composers, poets, and other artists with esteemed international reputations and followings. Some of them, like Moroccan singer Karima Skalli, work within the traditional forms in which they have been trained. Others, like UNESCO Artist for Peace Marcel Khalife (referred to as the “Bob Dylan of the Middle East”), compose wildly popular original material that transcends the lines between classical and contemporary.

Saturday’s performance, titled “Revisiting Hybridity: (Western) Harmony and (Arab) Heterophony” features Jason Vieaux, whose own work places him outside of the realm of most Al-Bustan collaborators. A virtuoso classical guitarist who recently co-founded the Curtis Institute’s guitar program, Vieaux’s nearly 11 albums (his latest, Play, comes out January 28 on Azica Records) traverse Spanish, Latin American, and jazz repertoires. His collaboration with Khoury and the Takht ensemble is rooted in a June performance with Khoury and Kotain (facilitated by LiveConnections) at World Café Live.

“Kantigas”, an original piece by Vieaux’s Curtis Institute colleague David Ludwig, channels Ladino songs (music of the Sephardic Jews of Spain prior to their 1492 expulsion) into 6 ethereal movements that emphasize the connectedness of Arabic and Spanish traditions during that era.

“It was a great success, and the audience really dug what we were doing,” says Vieaux of the reception to “Kantigas” and the justification for another collaboration with Al-Bustan.

“Kantigas” will be among the works performed on Saturday, in addition to compositions by Khalife and Abou-Afach. Ultimately, the concert program hints at the kind of trends being embraced by composers all over the world – looking to other cultures to inform compositional structure and innovation as they work to make old forms relevant for other listeners.

“Composers of any genre, whether it’s classical, jazz, or even rock n’ roll…any kind of musician that writes music in the current era is hoping to communicate with people here and now,” explains Vieaux. “Combining elements of classical music with other types of music, as long as it’s of quality, can help give [classical] a shot in the arm,”

Still, despite the profile of these artists or the high-mindeness of this sort of collaboration, the organization’s youth-focused educational efforts permeate everything that they do. Their office bookshelves hold volumes of original educational curricula that transpose Arabic scales to Western notation. It is impossible to overstate just how innovative these practices are, and how much power they place in the transformative power of music. Featured artists’ works are often studied by Al-Bustan’s students in advance of performances, and artists often get to work with students in special workshops.

“When Marcel Khalife came, we had about 100 children from five different public schools in the city who had been learning his poetry and music. In a sense, it was a model that education is first, and the performance is an offset of that,” explains Khoury.

That educational component has to be present in Al-Bustan’s work, and it is more necessary now than ever. For Al-Bustan’s musicians, many of whom come from countries routinely demonized by the West as anti-American or culturally depraved, the capacity to build bridges through art is a crucial part of how they see themselves.

And if the ebullient reaction to the LiveConnections performance was any indication, we can expect that Saturday’s performance will be informative and transcendent in equal measure.

Jason Vieaux performs at Al-Bustan’s Music Series this Saturday, November 2, at the Trinity Center for Urban Life, 22nd and Spruce Streets. Tickets to the all-ages event are $30, student tickets are $15, and they can be found with more information here.

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