You performed at the American Task Force on Palestine gala last week. What did you play there?
We played instrumentals and two songs with Moroccan singer Nidal Ibourk, who lives in Chicago. "Iraq," an instrumental I composed four years ago, is based on a short Iraqi folk theme. We also performed a song whose title translates as "The Land Speaks Arabic."
Have you visited Occupy Wall Street yet? How does it compare to the popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya?
I can certainly draw similarities from what I've seen on TV and the fact that people are camping there. It's so obvious that the occupiers themselves recognize it. I'd like to go there and participate. Maybe I'll do a performance. I haven't been down there yet because this semester I've been teaching at Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory in Boston. And with all my travel, projects, and performances, it's a nightmare.
I hope this doesn't sound condescending, but I suspect a lot of Westerners have trouble enjoying Arabic music because of its perceived sameness. They only hear the swelling strings, melodramatic vocals, and "habibi habibi habibi." Not to mention the belly dancers.
I've been in the United States for 30 years, and I've seen a huge growth in appreciation of Arabic music. I think I was part of it. I remember when I first came here and we didn't have any audience. Americans generally viewed Middle Eastern music as cabaret with belly dancers, and those were the venues in which it was mainly heard, unfortunately. But my colleagues and I worked very hard to reach out to performing-arts centers, universities, and even elementary schools; we offered residencies, workshops, and lectures in addition to performances. Nobody can deny that Arabic music contains fabulous poetry, but I started the Near Eastern Music Ensemble in order to concentrate on instrumental music. People here didn't know there even was instrumental Arabic repertoire. Arabic music has made fantastic strides outside the Middle East since the late '70s and early '80s. I can feel it during my performances.
What Arab music speaks most strongly to the current situation in Palestine?
We are including a song Fairuz sang for Palestine at the beginning of the '60s. In Palestine we have a strong folkloric repertoire; indeed, folklore is the repertoire. Much of it doesn't need a political statement to reflect what's going on. Palestine's poetry is very powerful and speaks of the land, olive trees, hills, the nature of the people, and intricate details of village or rural life. Dances like the dabke are important, too, of course. Folklore, music, dance, embroidery, and theater all speak for Palestine.
Simon Shaheen performs at Roulette on Saturday night as part of "Songs for the People: Voices of the Arab Renaissance."