STORY WRITTEN BY MONICA THOMPSON FRAGALE
For Digital First Media
Bryn Mawr College’s Performing Arts Series will feature a marriage of Arab and Western performing arts in “Words Adorned: Andalusian Poetry and Music” from Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture.
The program will be held Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. at the college’s McPherson Auditorium. It is part of a multimedia project by Al-Bustan – a Philadelphia-based organization dedicated to “presenting and teaching Arab culture through the arts and language,” according to the Al-Bustan Web site – that also features videos, podcasts, talks by scholars, and other events around the region.
“This body of work bridges the cultural and musical divide,” said Hanna Khoury, the music director and violinist for the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble. “The goal is to appeal to both audiences.”
“Words Adorned” features compositions by renowned Arab-American composers Kareem Roustom and Kinan Abou-afach as performed by the Takht Ensemble, Palestinian vocalist Dalal Abu Amneh, and The Crossing, a Philadelphia-based choir.
The curator of the Performing Arts Series, Lisa Kraus, described the program in a press release as an “invigorating cross-genre collaboration program celebrating the Arabic cultural arts, in all their diversity, and sharing them with wider audiences.”
The compositions by Roustom and Abou-afach are about 20 minutes each and set to a form of poetry known as muwashsha, prevalent during the Andalusian period of Arab/Islamic rule, from the 8th to 15th centuries, in the southern region of Spain. Khoury explained that during that time, music and melodies were passed through the generations by those who memorized it.
“Sometimes you’ll find melodies in the Arab world where you can’t even trace the origins,” he said.
Taking those melodies – set to octaves with 24 intervals – and combining them with Western music, which has octaves with 12 intervals, is why the composers were chosen for the “Words Adorned” performance, according to Khoury.
“These are two mediums that would not necessarily come together,” he said. “That’s why we needed the expertise of composers like Kareem and Kinan. They understand the musical technicalities of the Western musical world and the Arab musical world.”
In a description of his composition, titled “Of Nights and Solace: A Fantasy on Andalusian Poetry,” Abou-afach describes how poets in the pre-Islamic era held places of honor in Arab culture. “Poets were the ‘rockstars’ and tribes used to celebrate having a poet among them, for the power of words that they possess, and the entertainment value that they provide,” he said on the Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture Web site. “When looking into the classical poetry from pre-Islamic era until Islam’s Golden Age, it is fascinating how much passion can be skillfully embedded in a single verse of poetry.