Simon Shaheen brings riveting Arab Spring-themed show to Vancouver audience

Simon Shaheed is an accomplished oud player and violinist. Photos courtesy of publicist.

If the Arab Revolution had a soundtrack, it would be "The Call: Songs for Liberation" by Palestinian musician and composer, New York-based Simon Shaheen.

Shaheen brings his Arab Spring-themed show to Vancouver this Saturday at the Chan Centre of the University of British Columbia.

This is the third time Shaheen will play Vancouver -- he also visited the city in 1997 and 2002.  He was also been back just a month ago to fulfill a number of  engagements, and said that Vancouver resembles a sort of "Garden of Eden.”

“The city is so beautiful. Geographically, its location is incredible and so clean.[…] It's amazing,” he said. 

The world-famous oud  (a forerunner of the European lute) player, composer and violinist was born into a  musical family in Tarshiha, a small village in Galilee , (Israel).

 “It's so beautiful to grow up into a musical family, because it shifts the genetic inheritance and decides the future if you will,” Shaheen joked, during a phone interview from Boston, where he teaches at Berklee College of Music.

 His father, an oud virtuoso, started to teach Shaheen to play this instrument at the tender age of three. A year and a half later he entered the Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem to study violin and Western classical music.

 Shaheen enjoys performing and writing  Arabic music “as pure as possible” and the same goes for classical. But, he adds, “the marriage between both is  just fantastic, rich in both musically [and ]culturally.”

Having grown up  in Tarshiha, a cultural hub in the region,  Shaheen embraced along with Arabic and classical music, other types of music from India, Lebanon and  Eastern Europe. He would further his musical enlightenment, however,   after  he arrived in New York in 1980 to complete graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University.

It was in the multicultural metropolis of New York that Shaheen found a  “a fantastic fertile ground to perform an meet some many fantastic artists from around the world.”

In 1992, Shaheen launched his group Qantara whose members were of different ethnic and musical backgrounds the latter, such as jazz, Latin and pop.

“This was a really fantastic project and it had proved to work," he said of Qantara's global success. "It worked and became, in New York, a kind of a cornerstone in designing the marriage of musical styles from around the world.”

As a performer, Shaheen has stepped on the stages of the world’s greatest venues: Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Centre, Cairo’s Opera House and Belgium’s Le Palais des Arts. In  2004, he appeared at Quincy Jones’ “We Are The Future,” a fundraising concert in Rome in front of half million people.

The Call: Songs for Liberation

Soon after the Arab Revolution started, Shaheen began to rescue old songs from  the 1950s and early 1960’s in 2011  by Arabic popular musicians  such as  Muhammad Abd Al Wahhab, Riyad al-Sinbati and the  Rahbani Brothers, among others to create the performance.

The songs celebrated  Arabs’ freedom and independence from European colonialism at that time.“Many artists [then]  were part of this movement that celebrated this freedom against colonialists,” he said.

 These were anthems that served  the people to express their  “ aching for freedom, and independence,” and the lyrics remained as relevant as if they  “were written yesterday and coincided with the Arab Spring beautifully[…] and this political awakening, if you will.”

 Along with these epic musical tunes,  Shaheen  includes  in his repertoire tracks he wrote himself including  "Waving Sands" (from his highly acclaimed, multi-Grammy nominated 2001 album with Qantara) "Blue Flame," and “ Iraq”,  based on a  short  Iraqi folk  song  he developed into a complete, longer piece, and  "The Call" -- the show’s title song.

 “The Call”,  Shaheen explains, was inspired three years ago when he came across a statue of  a veiled woman  from the head down to her feet, while walking around the Metropolitan Museum in New York with the museum’s director after a performance.  Shaheen thought she was probably a dancer,  given the very  artistic position in which it was modelled. 

“I thought if I played  the violin for this statue, perhaps  it would come  to life and start to move, and the whole idea resembled the Arab world who came back to life by going down to the streets and [look]  for freedom, and dignity and pride, “ Shaheen explained.

The show  will feature a guest dancer Cassandra Shore and singers Jaji Youssef and Mayssa Karaa.

 Shaheen’s ideals for  freedom, equality and dignity have accompanied him through his life and career music.  He underlined, however,  that this is a process that won’t change the situation overnight. 

 “I believe that the most important result  of those movements in the last few years in the Arab world is that people went down the  streets and […] they broke their own fear,  if you will -- fear from fascism, fear from totalitarian regimes and they wanted to regain their own freedom and to live in pride.”

As for the political significance of his concert,  Shaheen firmly stressed that he didn’t believe in music serving political means.

“But I believe in the music that serves  the social phenomenon. I believe in music serving artistic quest,” Shaheen said. “I won’t call this political.”

As for his Saturday show, he promises: “This is going to be a very fantastic experience [...] I think the performance is going to be  superb  and I know that  we are going to have a fantastic audience. No doubt.”

Simon Shaheen's The Call: Songs for Liberation  will be held on April 27, at 8:00, (approx 120 min. with intermission) at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, UBC. For more information on tickets, click here.


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