Arab Music to Enchant and Enlighten: Presented by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, International House Philadelphia and Crossroads Music

Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz, for GPA -- “They say when you break bread together, you make a new friend,” Tanya Steinberg, Executive Director of International House Philadelphia (IHP) began. “Here at I-House, we say the same extends to sharing in Art together.” On Sunday, March 4, Global Philadelphia Association had the great fortune of being a part of such sharing at Le Souk, an evening of food, conversation, and cultural exchange featuring Al-Bustan Resident Takht Ensemble and sponsored by Crossroads Music and International House Philadelphia.

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture has grown tremendously in its decade of existence. It provides weekly Arab arts instruction in five local public schools. Its yearly summer camp is a nationally recognized model for Arab cultural and language curricula. It is now partnered with the University of Pennsylvania, allowing it a channel through which to reach new communities. Through this partnership, for example, Al-Bustan offers weekly meetings of the newly minted Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble that are open to the public and through which Penn students can even earn course credit.

Above all, Al-Bustan is a leading innovator in interactive programming. Listening to Al-Bustan Executive Director Hazami Sayed dream up programming to sustain and grow the organization through the next ten years, one realizes that Al-Bustan is not only spreading seeds of cultural education. It is instead actively and interactively engaging audiences to help till the soil in which those seeds will be planted.

Following dinner, our small group moved into the stunning 300-seat Ibrahim Theater, which was filled nearly to capacity. We eagerly awaited Al-Bustan’s Resident Takht Ensemble led by Music Director Hanna Khoury and featuring Khoury on violin, Kinan Abou-afach on cello, Kinan Idnawi on oud, and Hafez El Ali Kotain on percussion. The musicians were joined for three songs by vocalist Farah Siraj, a vocal prodigy whose first album was funded by His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Even in its concert, which would otherwise be a very passive experience, we in the audience were invited into the conversation. Music director and master violinist Hanna Khoury contextualized every song. He discussed Arab music modes, composition, instruments, and he did this all in a language that was accessible and entertaining to the audience. He informed us of the various regions whose tones and textures infused the music: Syria, Israel, Turkey, Venezuela, Andalucía, Jordan, and so many more lands that these great musicians had touched through their extensive years of travel and study.

Mr. Khoury noted several times that Arab music aims to help listeners transcend the worldly realm and enter into an ecstatic, elevated state. While I – in natural cynicism – wondered with every passing second, “Am I elevated?” I realized only after the fact that I was. Not elevated necessarily in the way a Sufi might be after round and rounds of whirling, but elevated the way any student might be whose minds is suddenly opened unto a new, beautiful world that was before only an abstract figment of imagination. I was elevated not only through the enchantment of the music, but through the education provided by a naturally gifted teacher, Mr. Khoury.

On this evening, Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, Crossroads Music, and I-House provided their guests an opportunity to enter new lands, break bread, and share art together. The art we shared was melodic, certainly, but through Al-Bustan’s skillful and inviting pedagogy, it also became an art of relationship, of learning about one another and building bridges towards cultural understanding.

To continue walking this bridge, please support all the organizations in Philadelphia that are helping to construsct it. Al-Bustan continues its Concert Series in March with a week of events featuring Tunisian vocalist, Sonia M’Barek. Crossroads Music boasts an impressive lineup of Spring concerts featuring Cuban, Sicilian, Hindustani, Irish musicians, and more. And as always, International House of Philadelphia offers a thorough array of thought-provoking arts and cultural programming. See the full IHP calendar for detailed information about the variety of events upcoming at I-House.