Musical Performance: Tunisian Vocalist Sonia M'Barek in Concert with 'Oud Accompanist Kinan Idnawi and the Alwan Ensemble

Thu, October 3, 2013 8:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts

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Tunisian Vocalist Sonia M'Barek in Concert with 'Oud Accompanist Kinan Idnawi and the Alwan Arab Music Ensemble

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. Accompanied by renowned Syrian 'Oudist, Kinan Idnawi, and the Alwan Ensemble, this concert in Alwan's intimate loft space promises to resonate into a rare evening of unforgettable musical synergy.

Performing with the Alwan Ensemble:

Tareq Abboushi, buzuq, vocals
Taoufiq Ben Amor, percussion, vocals
Amir ElSaffar
, santur, vocals
Johnny Farraj
, riqq, vocals
Zafer Tawil, qanun, violin, vocals
George Ziadeh, oud, vocals

Tickets: $25 General (*Buy now) | $20 for Students, Members and Seniors (*Buy now) available at the door or online.

(*A small online fee is applied - use printout as your ticket)

Doors open at 7:30 pm

To listen to Sonia M'Barek, Click here


Sonia 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.”

Kinan Idnawi joined the High Music Institute in Damascus, Syria in 2003 where he studied oudwith 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.

The Alwan Arab Music Ensemble delivers a joyful and transporting feast of well-loved popular songs from the greater Arab World, built around mesmerizing textures of rhythmic and improvisational intensity.

These masters of a broad range of Arab musical idioms display their seasoned sensibilities and impressive technique across a diverse array of musical selections, evoking ambiances of Cairo, Baghdad, al-Quds and Aleppo, but as importantly that of contemporary New York.


Alwan's music program is made possible, in part, with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in Partnership with the City Council.

Last updated: 2014-01-06 14:26:57

Sonia M'Barek
Sonia M'Barek
Sonia M'Barek
Sonia M'Barek
Sonia M'Barek
Sonia M'Barek

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