Under red and yellow lights, the Arab Music Ensemble brought life to the Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre Saturday evening.
The Ensemble incorporated student musicians, dancers and singers in addition to renowned guest performers, percussionist Faisal Zedan, violinist Adel Eskander and qanun player Ishmael.
The evening was one of both a relaxed, yet upbeat, atmosphere.
Incorporating instruments not usually seen, like the oud, buzuq, bouzuki and qanun, the ensemble brought a rich cultural and different musical experience to audience members.
“It takes me to a different place,” San Luis Obispo resident Lynette Bayless said. “The instruments make me feel like I’m in a different culture.”
The unique and distinct sound of the Middle Eastern string instrument, the qanun, was a particular stand-out for audience members.
“People see the guitar and the similarities to the bouzouki, but this instrument (the qanun) is very Middle Eastern,” audience member Anfal Awwad said.
For those unfamiliar with the qanun, director of the Arab Music Ensemble Ken Habib described it as “a piano without the box, legs, pedals and keys.”
The qanun is different from the other instruments played — like the buzuq, a long-necked lute — because its whole notes are split into nine “commas,” as opposed to quarter or half notes.
“It’s very complicated,” Awwad said. “It’s not that simple and it’s beautiful to make it a solo — that was one of my favorite parts.”
With each new number during the first set, the director would explain to the audience how Middle Eastern music works.
“The audience dynamic is not one of Western European classical music,” Habib said.
Comments, feedback and enthusiastic hollers from the audience were encouraged.
“Ya salam,” meaning “oh peace,” was commonly shouted out in response to the musicians as a means of expressing their amusement.
Another commonly expressed phrase was “Ya aini,” meaning “oh my eye!” and can be translated to convey amusement by a performance.
According to Awwad, these words are said because, “you just love it so much, you can’t stay quiet. A clap isn’t good enough.”
These frequent phrases of praise were tossed onto the stage of Spanos Theatre during the two-hour ensemble.
Audience members would begin clapping to accompany the upbeat rhythm of the drums and singing to communicate a sense of unity.
“It’s fun, it’s got a lot of energy,” audience member and sixth-time attendee Kourosch Bagheri said.
Bringing more of this energy to stage were the dancers who shuffled on stage in bright velvet tops of rosy pinks and turquoise.
“The dancing was very vibrant,” Bagheri said.
Bayless also said the dancing and costumes, in addition to the music, made the ensemble different from anything she has ever seen.
“It gave me a better understanding of their culture … It’s good to experience different cultures, and how else can we do that in San Luis Obispo?” Bayless said.
Other audience members thought the Arab Music Ensemble fulfilled its role of sharing Middle-Eastern culture with the community.
“It’s hard in the United States to see Middle Eastern instruments played, so it’s nice to see a nice collection of Middle Eastern and Arabic instruments,” Awwad said.
Part of the Middle Eastern culture of music is that it is focused more on melody rather than harmony, which Western music is most classified as, according to Habib.
“It’s about melody and how people converse through melody,” he said.
What is interesting to note about melody in Middle Eastern music is that it works with a mode, analogous to a scale. Normally, music is played according to this scale, but in the Arab Music Ensemble the guest performers didn’t play to a scale, but rather improvised on it.
“His (Adel Eskander’s) idea of demonstrating mode was immediately improvising around those pitches,” music professor emeritus Clifton Swanson said.
Improvisation played a key role in the evening’s set of numbers, as several improvised songs were played.
“It’s interesting that there’s such a strong structural dimension to the rhythmic and pitch patterns,” Swanson said. “They have such strong control over that that it gives a basis for improvisation.”
For those without a music background, the general pattern of music could be described as, “revolving around the same pitches and spinning out the same pitches,” according to Swanson.
Overall, the complexity of the music did not overshadow the joy and relaxation felt by the audience members that night.
Clapping and shouting “Ya aini!” until the final number, the Arab Music Ensemble created a warm and welcoming environment with its dynamic levels of audience interaction and improvisation.