A blog by the staff and participants of Al-Bustan, which is dedicated to teaching and presenting Arab culture through the arts and language. This provides a forum for us to regularly share the happenings and reflections on all things Al-Bustan-related.
On April 23rd, Egyptian composer/pianist Fathy Salama came to the Penn Museum to share his
music and his thoughts as a lead-up to his concert this Sunday. The dimly-lit
room and Ancient Egyptian artifacts were the perfect backdrop for a man and his
music so enigmatic and worldly. His engagement in the Sphinx Gallery featured
samples of his music, improvisation with several guest musicians, and his opinion
on the current state of music in Egypt.
Fathy gets ready for the event!
was educated in classical music but heavily influenced by Egyptian greats, like
Umm Kulthum and Mohammad Abdel Wahab, as well as Western classics like the Beatles and
the Rolling Stones. For a while he was a member of the commercial scene,
composing for Arab musicians in the 80s and writing music for movies and
soundtracks, but he left what he felt was a static environment in order to create
his own ensemble, Sharkiat, and produce the type of music he wanted to. For a
while, he was able to make a profit from this music only in Europe, but he has
now grown to more popularity in Egypt and the Arab world. And that isn’t to
slight his international fame: Fathy is the only Arab artist to have won a
Grammy, for his 2004 collaboration album with Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour.
gave fascinating insight into the intricacies of Arabic music. He described an
emphasis in Arabic music on melody and rhythm rather than harmony, and
described the complex tetrachords that make up the Arabic maqamat, or
musical modal system. Likening it to how a normal piano can play one half step
(the black key) in between white keys, he explained an even further division of
those notes in the Arabic system that pianos are not capable of playing, which therefore must be
produced on string instruments. And indeed, his improvised piece with Hanna
Khoury, Al-Bustan's musical director and violinist, and Hicham Chami,
the guest qanun (what’s a qanun? See here!)
player, could be recognized even by an untrained ear as an unusually complex piece of
music. I can't say I could identify the tetrachords, but I certainly enjoyed what I was listening to!
The ensemble performs
Also interesting was his perspective on Egyptian music today. Fathy spoke about the new pop music emerging from his homeland post-revolution; he criticized the simplification of Arabic traditions into machine-fed chords and rhythms that could be paired with catchy lyrics to produce something that everyone will listen to. He had more respect for pop music that built off of the Western style and added an Egyptian touch; at least these artists, he remarked, did something themselves! He wasn’t optimistic about the prospects for music, saying that the next generation of Egyptians lacks a true appreciation of classical Arabic music and its intricacies and suggesting that this will get much worse before it gets better. His views were bleak and his criticism harsh, but there are few more qualified than he to share them both.
provided a little-heard voice from the Egyptian music scene as well as a great
personal story, regardless of ethnicity or profession, of self-determination and
commitment to one’s own vision. I would recommend him to any jazz lover who
wants to expand his horizons beyond the traditional; his music promises not to