March 10, 2017

Breathing Out: A Conversation with Simon Shaheen

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All music is world music. Few know this more genuinely, more instinctively, than Palestinian-born musician Simon Shaheen. Not only because he has worked with such diverse musical champions as Bill Laswell, Quincy Jones, and Muhammad Abdul Wahhab (the Stravinsky of the Arab world), but also because through his cross-cultural visions he has embodied transcend barriers as a plane soars from one continent to another.


As a virtuoso of both the violin and the lute-like oud, the latter a cornerstone of many Arabic soundscapes, one might think he would approach these instruments differently, that their voices — torn by a colonially articulated divide — would sing from exclusive worlds. But in his hands, guided by the vastness of his experience, they are an extension of something that cannot be distinguished by the baggage of association.


“Whether I am playing the violin or the oud, it’s the moment of the performance that counts. I don’t see any differences as far as expression or physical and musical relationship are concerned. Once you’ve passed a certain point in terms of professionalism and technical abilities, the instrument becomes an extension of your own voice, and limits cease to be. From an early age, I’ve been living with both instruments. So much so that, on occasions when I can play only one, I’m always looking for the other.”


Such words are signs of Shaheen’s honesty, which through limitless comfort exhales significance with every note he produces. Shaheen paints himself not as a pinnacle of some geographically determinable hub of musicianship, but rather as a constant traveler whose pathways are his scores. Such a life requires a special kinship with humanity over materiality, and with the generative spirit that moves anyone to appreciate creation.


“Since I’ve started teaching at Berklee College of Music, I’ve become more aware of the phenomenology of world music, and of the responsibility I and others have in purveying it. But it’s difficult to put into words. If I asked you to define world music, what would you say? Some might define it as music from ‘distant’ parts of the world, as all other music outside of Western classical music. It’s more fluid than that.”


Indeed, fluidity is paramount in Shaheen’s music, for it is the very life force circulating throughout its bounding muscles. On Friday, March 10, at Bailey Hall, this relationship will be clear in a way Ithaca concertgoers rarely experience when he presents his latest project, Zafir, which will find him in the company of Moroccan singer Nidal Ibourk, flamenco dancer Auxi Fernandez, flamenco guitarist and singer Juan Pérez Rodríguez, and members of Shaheen’s fusion ensemble, Qantara.


“At Cornell, I will be presenting a mixture of musical styles, including some of my own compositions, selections from traditional Arabic music, and two selections highlighting the latter’s influences on flamenco. The similarities are startling. If you listen to authentic flamenco, you will hear Arabic inflections in the singing, rhythms, and spontaneity of performance. The nature of the program permits such merging of aspects. The word ‘Zafir’ is Arabic for ‘breath’ or ‘wind,’ and here we’ve chosen to articulate this breath from East to West, bridging styles across various cultures.”


It might seem a formidable task to cohere this mélange of influences on a single stage, but under Shaheen’s direction the feeling is nothing if not organic. All of which points back to his formative years as a budding artist.


“I started playing the oud when I was three years old. My father was a respected educator, oud player, and composer. He had a child-sized instrument made especially for me (now on display at the Arab American National Museum in Michigan). Just being the child of my father and being present at his workshops, I never took lessons or anything like that. I wasn’t interested. I felt it spontaneously, even as a little kid. Life experiences were my lessons. This is what cultivated my musicality and introduced me to the cream of the crop of Arabic music from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.”


Perhaps it was because of this training that Shaheen’s musical loves settled into the cushions of bygone eras. Their continued relevance is obvious in his passion for them.


“I’ve always been inspired by musicians from the 1930s to the 1950s. There are, of course, crucial momentums and changes going on today, but these are not for me to judge, and I can choose to live in that era. It was a fantastic time for Arabic music, particularly in Egypt and Lebanon, and was for me also the climax of jazz. Western classical music is a different story, where composers like Debussy and Satie, perceived in their own way, continue to move me.”


As someone with a wide foundation of knowledge on which to build his musical structures, Shaheen might seem like a musician with a creative agenda, but his humility and deference to the sonic spirits that move him disclose an open-ended soul whose physical body is but the beginning of what defines his presence as a performer.


“When people come hear me play, they leave with their own impression. However they choose to reflect on it, I don’t interfere with that process. What we do try is to present something that satisfies our own musicality, our own perception and understanding. We therefore expect that this energy will reach the audience and that they will feel very much in tune with us. When somebody tells me they were moved or lived a moment where music came out of their very heart and soul: that’s the beginning and the end of it.”


And I invite anyone who thinks the walls are closing in to find that beginning this Friday, when sounds such as you’ve never heard open fresh doors of perception. Shaheen brings musical truth. And while Arabic music will always nourish the roots of his music, let us not ignore the branches from which he invites us to swing. If we look — and listen — closely enough, we might just remember that, in an increasingly divisive world, the same sunlight shines through every fragile leaf.

Tyran Grillo is a graduate student at Cornell University. He can be reached at [email protected]