Ojalá Que la Música Nos Una: The National Arab Orchestra in Miami
JOHN HENRY DALE
In an era where Arabic and Muslim culture in the US often finds itself on the defensive, the NAO has, against the odds, managed to grow into a full time endeavor for its founder and musical director Michael Ibrahim. I got a chance to talk to Ibrahim this week to learn a bit more about the NAO and its upcoming concert.
MR: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the NAO ?
I’ve been doing this about 9 years now, and it grew from like five white kids at University of Michigan to this non-profit we have now. I used to play weddings and just stopped this year and now I do this full time.
Arab culture has taken a big hit in the last half century; classical Arab music, traditional Arab music, high art Arab music, all of that stuff kind of went by the wayside, and it’s a dying art form. So I went with the resources [I had]. When I first started, I remember people saying, ‘oh it’s not gonna work, nobody’s going to come, nobody’s going to care, nobody’s going to want to watch,’ and then all of a sudden, here we are. We’re filling up halls.
For me, this is just one small sliver of the Arab contribution to cultural life around the world. You have many instruments that can trace their roots back to Arab instruments. There’s a lot of crossover between Arab culture and western culture, in fact more so when we go back in history.
MR: There is a deep shared history between Arabic and Latin culture originating in Spain, specifically the Andalusian region, but from my own observations there does not seem to be a large Arab or Middle Eastern population here in Miami. Can you talk a little bit about that shared cultural history as it relates to Miami?
The theme of this concert itself is something that can relate directly to Miami because you have a lot of the population from Latin American roots. So it’s really cool to see two communities be able to celebrate their shared heritage. There’s a sizable Middle Eastern population in Miami; it’s just hidden. You know, it’s decent, you have churches out there, orthodox churches that are of Arab heritage. That means that in order to have a church you have to have a group of people with enough money to buy a building, build it and pay a priest. So there is a population there. But what’s also nice about this whole thing is that it’s an opportunity to change the narrative and an opportunity to bring things to light. Even though we know there are historical facts and tons of academic studies that show the connections, but to actually demonstrate it and put it into live motion is far, far more effective than simply reading a book.
MR: So how have rehearsals worked for this ? Do you have western notation sheet music that you distribute to the guest players in advance ?
I haven’t had any rehearsals yet. Everything will get put together starting Thursday. I only rehearse two days before a concert. And yeah, western notation Arab music is something that came in after World War I and started to be used. So again, all these things are just examples of how there’s so much cross-bleeding between cultures. I mean the violin replaced the spike fiddle (rebab). And then in the mid-1900’s you start to see instruments like synthesizers, keyboards, electric guitar, saxophone, accordion. Then you start to see orchestral instruments. You start to see an evolution in the Arab world during that time. It’s an indication there’s so much people don’t know about what the Arab world was like. I mean people think that it was always this sandy gloomy place. But there’s an actual society and culture there and if you look back even way before – I’m talking pre-Islamic period, early Christian period – even during the early Islamic period there was a time where the Middle East was a place of innovation and question. There’s always borrowing happening between the east and the west.
MR: Can you talk a little bit about how and why Arabic music sounds the way it does – is because it uses different musical scales ?
We don’t have scales, we have modes and they’re based off a tradition and theory that’s been established over centuries. We have a thing called microtones, which non-Arabs will think ‘Oh this is out of tune,’ and it’s not. That’s what makes it distinctive. Music at its core, there’s always a melody, there’s always a structure, there’s always some kind of rhythm, and if there’s a singer, there’s always some collaboration between the performer and the singer.
In terms of using microtones in western music notation if I want to lower it a quarter step, I’ll just write a flat sign with a slash over the stem. If I want to raise it a quarter step, I’ll just do the sharp symbol without one of the lines. But the term quarter tone is a little bit misleading because that tone shifts. An E half-flat in one key tunes differently in another mode. So in one mode the dominant would the fourth, in another mode it would be the third, in another one, the fifth. So you want to think of each maqam* as a bunch of the modes mashed together, with the first tetrachord of the maqam being the one that’s called for.
MR: What is your connection to the guest musicians and how did this concert come together with this specific group of people?
I don’t have any connections, this is the first time I’m going to be meeting them and working with them This was all put together by MDC. They contacted us and were interested in a program, so we got to talking and we thought that doing a program with the orchestra and doing music that’s relatable to the local community would be most beneficial. So then they brought in Jose and Niurca and everything just took off from there.
MR: Thanks so much for your time, Michael. Any parting thoughts?
Come on out. It’s going to be an amazing evening.
To learn more about the event and the NAO go to : http://mdclivearts.org/shows/
*In Arabic music, a maqam (plural maqamat) is a set of notes with traditions that define relationships between them, habitual patterns, and their melodic development.