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Ethnomusicology professor Ken Habib lowered his hands and looked over his glasses at the ensemble before him, a potpourri of ages, ethnicities and levels of music experience.
“Make it like honey dripping from the cone,” Habib said. “We’re getting the pitches and rhythms. It needs to be music, though.”
He stretched out his hands once more. The musicians readied themselves. He flicked his wrists to count off the pick-up to an Arabic song in 10/8 time and the ensemble jumped in. Some sounds rang familiar to ears trained for Euro-American music; others carved exotic melodies with foreign tones.
Habib founded the Arab Music Ensemble nine years ago.
“It actually surpassed my expectations from the very beginning,” he said. “People just gravitated toward it. I think there was a void that was filled. It seemed like people had been waiting for something.”
The ensemble, unique in that it doesn’t require an audition, now boasts 28 members — only four of whom had prior experience with music of the larger Middle East.
“In a nutshell,” Habib said, “if somebody says they’d like to be in the group, I say, ‘Okay. You’re in the group.”
But it’s a double-sided coin.
“The other side of that is, how do I maintain quality?” he said. “Because that’s crucial too. I made a commitment at the very beginning that I couldn’t let quality suffer. I didn’t get into music to make bad music.”
Habib meets with his ensemble members one-on-one to accustom them to the challenges of Arabic music, including new instruments, difficult language pronunciation and a scale that uses 24 notes rather than 12.
Music of the larger Middle East uses notes that don’t exist in Euro-American music, which gives its artists a larger musical workspace.
The group’s repertoire includes pieces from the larger Middle East including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq. The vocalists sing in Armenian, Greek and Turkish in addition to Arabic. Dancers accompany the ensemble’s performances.
Arabic music opens up a unique and challenging world to its musicians — but these complexities come with rewards.
“When students get it — when the light goes on, when they actually get it and it’s not just words — that’s really why we’re in the business,” he said.
Psychology senior Lauren Vukicevich hadn’t touched an oud before this past summer. When she attended an Arab Music Ensemble concert as part of a music class requirement, she was hooked.
She told Habib she wanted in and he gave her an oud on the spot.
“As much as you read about different cultures, and even hearing the music through speakers, it’s so different than experiencing learning the music with other people,” Vukicevich said. “People who are learning it, people who are native to that kind of music and know it really well and people who are new.”
Cal Poly students make up only about half of the music ensemble — the other half comprises community members.
Helene Shalhoub, a community member, sang for iconic Lebanese singer Fairuz before coming to the U.S. 35 years ago. The Arab Music Ensemble, which performs Fairuz’s music, was the first of its kind Shalhoub had heard of in San Luis Obispo County.
“It’s a melting pot here,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that would love to hear their homeland, or a piece of that at least.”
Shalhoub jumped at the opportunity to become a part of that, helping with Arabic translation and pronunciation and bringing food from the repertoire’s regional origins to rehearsals.
“These poets that wrote the poems that we’re singing, they were eating that food when they were composing,” she said. “It’s so important because it’s all correlated. It’s all interconnected. So when you understand the culture, the poetry and the food and the traditions, it all comes together into a beautiful piece of music.”
Even without Shalhoub’s help translating, the music speaks to its performers and listeners, she said.
“If I listen to a German opera, I do understand what they’re saying from their body language, from the theme,” she said. And of Arabic music: “This music goes straight to your heart. It gives us chills sometimes. It’s amazing.”
The ensemble has performed up and down the state, from the Claremont colleges to Davis. In Spring 2014, it traveled with Polyphonics, Cal Poly’s mixed chamber ensemble, to Carnegie Hall in New York City. But Habib’s goals don’t stop there: He hopes to sell out Harman Hall at the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center and someday to tour overseas in an effort to expose as many people as possible to music of the larger Middle East.
“It’s educational in nature,” he said, “in the deepest sense of the word.”
The Arab Music Ensemble will hold its spring concert May 23 at 8 p.m. in Spanos Theatre.