In Arabic classical music, the most valued and complex expression of musical artistry lies not in mastery of a set repertoire, but rather in the taqasim – a form of spontaneous melodic improvisation within the rules of a maqam, or melodic mode. These rules, codified in their current form in the mid-17th century, allow for musicians to create the tradition anew during each performance, surprising and delighting audiences with their creativity. While the theory governing taqasim improvisation is complex and requires years of study, listening to Arabic classical music is no sterile cerebral exercise. Rather, listeners should approach the music with open ears and an open heart, hoping to reach a state of tarab – ecstasy or sublime emotion.
Simon Shaheen is the finest exponent of the Arabic classical musical tradition working in the U.S., and one of the finest in the world. But even this fails to do justice to Shaheen’s place in the musical world. Shaheen has deep musical roots, but he is also a sublime crosser of borders. A Palestinian educated in Israel and the U.S., fluent in five languages, and sporting a résumé of collaborations with world-class musicians from the jazz, Western classical and Arabic musical worlds, Shaheen has also been an innovator, crafting a unique, cosmopolitan musical language where jazz and taqasim, 'ud and symphony orchestra, happily coexist. In a way, though, this globe-trotting, multilingual multi-instrumentalist is doing what Arabic improvisers have always done: Shaheen draws from an impressively deep musical toolbox to create, each evening, music that is always new, always surprising, and may just move you to experience tarab.
Michael O'Brien, ACM-Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Ethnomusicology at Luther, focuses on the intersection of Latin American popular music and cultural politics. He has been conducting field research in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for more than 10 years, including studies of contemporary tango and folk music, schools of popular music, and most recently the Carnival tradition of murga porteña. O'Brien holds masters and doctoral degrees in ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin, and bachelor's degrees in English and music education from Lawrence University.