Musical Performance: Tunisian Vocalist Sonia M'Barek in a Concert of Andalusian Muwashahat

Fri, March 23, 2012 7:00 pm at CUNY Graduate Center - Proshansky Auditorium

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Presented in association with Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center of The Graduate Center, City University of New York, the Tunisian Network for a Successful Society (TUNESS), and the Tunisian Community Center.

Venue: Proshanky Auditorium, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, between 34th and 35th.


Tunisian Vocalist Sonia M'Barek in a Concert of Andalusian Muwashahat, with Al-Bustan resident takht ensemble, led by Music Director Hanna Khoury


Hanna Khoury- violin
Kinan Idnawi- oud
Kinan Abou-afach- cello
Hicham Chami- qanun
Jarrell Jackson- bass
Hafez El Ali Kotain- percussion
with singers from Keystone State Boychoir

Tunisian vocalist Sonia M’Barek can sing a centuries-old song from Andalusia, and just as nimbly reframe the words of radical 20th-century poets. She hears the ties of mode and rhythm linking Tunisia’s prized classical traditions, Egyptian cabaret music, and Ottoman court pieces, evoking the diverse musical variations around the Mediterranean with a sultry, supple voice.

Defying tradition while savoring it, M’Barek dug deep into the history and musical potential of ma'luf, Tunisia’s music heritage with roots in the Arab culture of southern Spain. With a unique approach to her nation’s music, M’Barek will perform at the CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue, between 34th and 35th in Manhattan) on March 23, 2012, in a concert sponsored by Alwan for the Arts, New York’s Arab culture hub.

Though M’Barek has performed with notable Arab and other musicians in New York in recent years, this will be a rare opportunity to hear her unfolding the repertoire that has brought her unflagging respect throughout the Arab world and on European stages. She will be supported by a quintet of master players with strong backgrounds in both Arab and Western Classical music, musicians able to match M’Barek’s own trademark versatility and flair. Listen to samples of her perform here, here, and here.

This concert is made possible with the generous support of our sponsors and funders:

Al Kerr Accounting Services
Dr. M. Padukone
Le Poisson Wines
New York City Department of Cultural Affairs
Munir and Hayat Barakat


M'Barek is a rare musician: A woman specializing in a predominantly male genre, a highly contemporary musician drawing on songs first crafted in the 15th century, a performer who breaks down boundaries between classical tradition and popular song, between nations and eras.

M’Barek was first inspired to sing by her grandmother, who would leap into stunning renditions of Tunisian folk songs or Umm Kulthum hits. “She had no formal training, but had a very beautiful voice,” M’Barek recalls. “She made music part of her life and passed that down to me.”

The young M’Barek took this inheritance and made the most of it, beginning her education at the Tunis Conservatory at eight years old, and her performing career at nine. At the Conservatory, she first encountered ma'luf, a style of music with roots in Al-Andalus, the medieval Muslim state the once dominated much of Southwestern Europe that allowed the cross-pollination of European, Arab, and Jewish culture. After the Spanish Re-conquest in 1492, Muslims and Jews fled across the Mediterranean, planting the seeds for a new flourishing music across North Africa. In what is now Tunisia, the music evolved over centuries and under diverse influences into a body of classical works.

Traditionally sung as a call and response between a male soloist and all-male chorus, M’Barek, under the guidance of leading ma'luf expert Tahar Gharsa, delved into the extensive history of the genre. Over the course of years, she explored works, finding pieces and approaches suited to a female voice and reimagining the usual accompaniment of a large orchestra and choir.

“My approach was to look at entire repertoire and find the ranges that would fit my voice,” M’Barek explains. “I then went into the underpinning maqam [mode] of the tradition. I would improvise and play with it, to mesh with my vocal range. As I engaged with the repertoire in more depth, I was able to open new places in my own range as well.”

Yet M’Barek is not simply an innovator of one tradition; she is a broad thinker, able to clue into and emphasize the shared sonic and poetic ties that bind musical forms from Tunisia and Spain to Turkey and Egypt. Elements of popular cabaret forms, like raqs sharqi (so-called “belly dance” music), and moments from Turkish classical music weave together in M’Barek’s work, and 10th-century Arabic poetry might follow songs with words by Spanish great Lorca or Turkish romantic socialist poet, Nâzım Hikmet (known in the West for poems like “I Come and Stand at Every Door”).

“Once you know the grammar and understand the tenets of a musical language, you can open to other traditions like Western classical or jazz,” M’Barek muses. “Music becomes a way of speaking to other traditions, not only those in the Arab world, but in the West as well. I’ve incorporated many Western concepts into my performance and delivery, into my stage presence.”

This flexibility and openness serve to bring new life to a genre burdened with a long, complicated role in Tunisia’s identity at this crucial moment in the country’s history. “This is a very evolutionary period in Tunisia, after dark and oppressive decades of dictatorship and corruption,” reflects M’Barek. “I hope that the space opens up so that we can revolutionize our creative endeavors, whether we’re talking about Arab classical musicians or young rappers. Music and art by their nature are meant to create new things, including to present tradition in more creative, new ways.”

M’Barek will be joined on March 23 by violinist Hanna Khoury (a Pew Fellow who’s played with Fairuz, Youssou N’Dour, and Mandy Patinkin); percussionist Hafez El Ali Kotain (fluent in Arab and Latin rhythms); master cellist and oud player Kinan Abou-afach; Kinan Idnawi (an oud player for both Marcel Khalife and the Qatar Philharmonic); and Hicham Chami (a skilled qanun player and music scholar who founded the Arabesque Music Ensemble).

About the Musicians:

Sonia M'Barek was born in Sfax, Tunisia. From 1977-1986 she attended the National Conservatory of Music in Tunis, graduating with a diploma in Arabic music. In 1992, she published her first solo album, Liberté. She pays homage to the Tunisian lute player Ali Sriti in collaboration with Anouar Brahem in the album Tarab (1993-1994). In 1997, she released her second solo album Tawchih, and in 1999, Takht. She has performed in musical theater (Asker Ellil, Eté 61, Taht Essour, and Didon), and film soundtracks (The Dance of Fire and Abulkacem Echebbi). She has performed in the United States several times since 2005, including the Mahrajan al Fann Arab Arts Festival at Symphony Space in New York City, with Simon Shaheen, and as part of Mr. Shaheen's 2009 "Aswat" concert tour at NYC's Town Hall and other venues across the country. Since 1997 she has given several workshops on Arabic music singing in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Hanna Khoury is Al-Bustan's Music Director. He is a recipient of the prestigious 2010 Pew Fellowship in the Arts. Khoury is a Palestinian violinist trained in the classical traditions of Arab and Western music. Khoury graduated Magna Cum-Laude with departmental honors from UCLA with Bachelors in Economics and Music Performance, and obtained his Masters degree in Music from Temple University. Khoury has led nationwide tours performing traditional Arab music in major venues and universities, and has recorded two traditional Arab music albums: Al Fursan Al-Talatha and The Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of People. He is a violinist and Arab music adviser with Intercultural Journeys, frequently performing with cellist Ohad Bar David. Khoury collaborated and performed with major artists including Lebanese superstar Fairuz, Iraqi singer Kazem Al-Saher, Grammy winner Youssou N’Dour, Algerian singer Cheb Khaled, and Tony Award winner Mandy Patinkin.

Hafez El Ali Kotain, an accomplished master percussionist, is fluent in both Arab and Latin rhythms — a fluency he honed in his native countries of Syria and Venezuela. He began studying the dumbek in Syria at the age of seven, first performed on stage at age nine, and went on to study with master Syrian percussionist Hady Jazan, winning the national percussion competitions in Syria for five consecutive years. In Venezuela he studied percussion at the TMV Institute for Music in Valencia, where he also taught a variety of percussion styles blending Arab and Latino music to youth. Kotain has toured with Syrian singer George Wassouf in Canada and the US; and has performed in Philadelphia with acclaimed artist Sting and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Kotain has worked with Al-Bustan over the past three years and has led the Al-Bustan Percussion Ensemble since May 2009.
Kinan Abou-afach is a Syrian-born cellist. He began his musical studies at the age of seven and received his first degree in cello and oud performance in the music preparatory program of the Arabic Institute of Music in Damascus. He completed a Bachelors degree in cello performance with a minor in oud performance from the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus. He has performed as a soloist with various orchestras in the Arab region and participated in master-classes with Francoise Baduell, Federico Romano, Yo-Yo Ma, and members of Alban Berg Quartet. Abou-afach moved to Chicago in 2000 to obtain his master’s degree at the DePaul University School of Music. He studied under Stephen Balderston, assistant principal of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s cello section, and was a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago for several years.

Kinan Idnawi
joined the High Music Institute in Damascus, Syria in 2003 where he studied oud with Azerbaijani expert Askar Ali Akbar and graduated in 2008. Idnawi has since accompanied Marcel Khalife in his Al-Mayadeen Ensemble in Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Austria, and Lebanon, and has played with the Qatar Philharmonic, under the direction of world renowned Maestro Lorin Maazel, for its inaugural concert in October 2008. He toured with the Qatar Philharmonic in 2009, and performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, Theater des Champs-Elysees in Paris, La Scala in Milan, and Teatro Massimo in Palermo, where he played the Arabian Concerto composed by Marcel Khalife. In 2009, he won first place in the International Oud Competition in Beirut, Lebanon.

A native of Philadelphia, Jerrell Jackson, began playing the bass at the age of ten. While attending Temple University Boyer College of Music, Jackson became an active musician in the Philadelphia area. He has served on faculty at the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and was recently appointed Double Bass Teaching Artist for Play On, Philly! an El Sistema inspired music outreach program. He currently studies double bass with Joseph Conyers, Assistant Principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 2010, Jackson became a member of an international baroque orchestra that meets annually in the West Bank Territories to perform concerts throughout the region, where he also teaches young students at the Al- Kamandjati School in Ramallah. Along with classical music Jackson, has an interest in Arab music. In 2009, he became a member of Al-Bustan's Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble, led by Music Director Hanna Khoury, with whom he had the opportunity to share the stage with acclaimed Arab musicians Simon Shaheen and Marcel Khalife.

Hicham Chami is a Moroccan-born qanun performer based in Florida. He graduated from the National Conservatory of Music and Dance in Rabat, Morocco, with diplomas in qanun performance and instruction and Western music theory. After earning his business school degree in Casablanca, he relocated to Chicago and completed his MBA at DePaul University’s Kellstadt School of Business. Chami is the founder and executive director of the Arabesque Music Ensemble, which has toured the U.S. and Canada and produced two critically-acclaimed CDs, including The Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of a People, which was named a top-ten world music recording by the Boston Globe. Chami conducts workshops and master classes for students and adults in a variety of settings. In 2010 he began graduate studies in the PhD program in Ethnomusicology at University of Florida.

Founded in 2001, Keystone State Boychoir (KSB) has enjoyed unprecedented success for an ensemble so young. Today KSB is counted among the finest community-based boychoir programs in the world. Under the direction of Music Director Joseph P. Fitzmartin and Associate Music Director Steven M. Fisher, KSB consists of more than 150 young men between the ages of eight and eighteen who sing an enthralling repertoire from the classical to the contemporary. KSB has sung with the region’s most distinguished ensembles, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, for which it serves as its official boychoir.

Last updated: 2012-03-23 14:17:51

Sonia M'Barek
Sonia M'Barek
Jarrell Jackson
Jarrell Jackson
Hanna Khoury
Hanna Khoury
Kinan Abou-afach
Kinan Abou-afach
Hafez El Ali Kotain
Hafez El Ali Kotain
Kinan Idnawi
Kinan Idnawi
Hicham Chami
Hicham Chami

CUNY Graduate Center - Proshansky Auditorium

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