Winter Jazzfest Brooklyn Half-Marathon
Composer Portrait: Caroline Shaw with Attacca Quartet and So Percussion

Faraj Abyad and his Orchestra at Symphony Space

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by Kat Pongrace

Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the trance and ecstasy that Egyptian singer Faraj Abyad and his Orchestra wrought upon the audience last Saturday at Symphony Space. Presented in collaboration with the World Music Institute, Faraj performed classics from the Golden Age of Arab Music. Directed by the violinist Layth Sidiq, the orchestra was comprised of nine musicians playing a mix of traditional Arab instruments like the Oud, a short-necked lute-type instrument; the Qanun, a stringed instrument; and the Ney, an end-blown flute, as well as more familiar western instruments like the violin, cello, and tambourine. 

Tight-suited in black, Faraj performed Tarab songs from Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Taraab music, which doesn't directly translate to English, is mostly noted for its extreme sentimentality, full of love and intense longing. One of Tarab's best known exponents, Umm Kalthum, was the most celebrated Egyptian singer of the 20th century. Known as the “Star of the East,” and “The Fourth Pyramid of Egypt,” Kalthum's career spanned two world wars, two revolutions in Egypt, and the social and cultural turmoil of the 1960s; one of her songs “Wallahi Zaman, Ya Silahi” (“It’s Been a Long Time, O Weapon of Mine”) was adopted as the Egyptian National Anthem from 1960 to 1979. 

"Enta Omri," an Arabic term of endearment meaning ‘You Are My Life,’ began with gentle plucking by the string section leading into Ney and Quanrun solos, accompanied by the percussive beat of the tambourine. Faraj employed a style of singing known as Mawwal, characterized by prolonged vowels, setting the emotional stakes high. 

“All I saw before my eyes saw you is a lifetime wasted / you are my life, you are my life / with your light my life’s dawn began.”

The audience was ripe to participate, clapping and singing along at the slightest encouragement from Faraj. It probably didn't hurt that the event featured an Arak bar with spins on classic Levantine cocktails, to put everyone in the right frame of mind.

IMG_1999One of the most impressive songs was "La Tahsabi", an original composition by Faraj setting an Egyptian poem by Abdel Aziz Gouwaida. Faraj handed out translations of the poem in Arabic and English: 

Don’t think that words, oh my love

Are a language used by the world of those in love

Because silence is also a language of love

And with it, the one in love expresses his longing

Between you and me are seas, houses, and obstacles

But my feelings travel across horizons

It was a perfect merging of classical Taarab with modern composition, bringing the allure of the exotic genre into the 21st century. 

Overall, Faraj Abyad and his orchestra offered a satisfying survey of Arab music—a world often misunderstood and mischaracterized in the Western mind and media. The show offered a unique view of the variety and beauty that these songs have to offer, one that easily translates even without an understanding of Arabic.