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Zafir: World of the East

simon shaheen performs

Simon Shaheen performs as part of the Zafir program on April 15, 2016 in Ann Arbor. Photo by Patrick Ryan.

The language of lyric, the spirituality of song: music embodies how a people live and feel, how they dance. As the Arabic World remains mysterious and misunderstood in the West, I encourage you to pause, be present, and immerse yourself in Zafir: the winds carrying the music of the Arabic World. Through his band Qantara (Arabic for arch), Simon Shaheen reveals the gateway to a new musical blending of cultures. Shaheen seamlessly infuses classical Arabic music with hints of Jazz, Western Classical, and Flamenco music, a blend that transcends the boundaries of both geography and genre.

Satisfying for the soul

“I want to create a world music exceptionally satisfying to the ear and for the soul,” says Shaheen. “This is why I selected members for Qantara who are virtuosos in their musical forms.”

Shaheen himself is a violin and oud virtuoso (the oud is a traditional Arabic instrument and the predecessor of the western lute). He is accompanied by guitarist, pianist, and vocalist Juan Pérez. The vocalist Nidal Ibourk provides a backdrop of classical Arabic vocal tones. These three combine their acoustic talent with the visual talents of Auxi Fernandez, a flamenco dancer. Fernandez and Rodríguez cultivate the essence of the flamenco tradition from Andalusia (southern Spain). Their cante jondo, or deep song, style is the most serious of the three styles of flamenco music. However, this duo’s tunes are lightened with sparks of Spanish folk music and punctuated with falsetas (short, instrumental measures between sung verses to accompany dance). The quartet’s combined talents as Qantara are represented in Zafir.

Shaheen, born in Palestine to a family of skilled musicians, emphasizes the influence traditional Arabic styles had on him as a child. Umm Kalthoum “used to come on the air on the first Thursday of each month,” Shaheen recalls. “I always remembered much of any new song she sang. The next morning I would…hum different parts for my father, and he would note them.”

World of the East

“Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the audience of Elvis…You have Umm Kulthum,” says Virginia Danielson of Harvard Magazine. For many, Umm Kalthoum was the international sensation from the 1920’s to the 1970’s. The Egyptian-born actress, singer, and songwriter remains idolized across the Arabic World, given the nickname Kawkab al-Sharq, or World of the East. Her sensual and powerful contralto voice combines a sense of beauty with her own poetic lyrics, unfolding as a revelation of reality and experience to her audience. Her most captivating quality is the spontaneous creativity she exhibits in performance. As crowds listened to her improvise the same songs, they claimed to feel unique emotions each time: her emotions. This interpersonal relationship felt by her audience remains a defining quality of her distinct style and success as an artist, even after her death in 1975.

Umm Kalthoum’s style of improvisation is easy to spot in Shaheen. His album Taqasim: The Art of Improvisation in Arabic Music, underscores his talents as a collaborator and member of Qantara.

Qantara exists at the cultural interface between Flamenco and Arabic tradition, with emphasis on the longstanding legacy of Umm Kalthoum. “If it [Arabic culture] is kept as a kind of puzzle…then definitely there will be hate and fear,” says Shaheen.

From Spain to Arabia, and everything in between, Qantara acts as an archway welcoming audiences into a surprisingly palatable and unusual world. What better way to understand cultures than through music, the language we use when words fail. As such, I invite you to uncover an artfully crafted performance that bridges and collides worlds of tradition together, right here in Ann Arbor in the Michigan Theater.

See Zafir: Musical Winds from North Africa to Andalucía on April 15, 2016 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

“Bridges.” Interview by Marty Lipp. RootsWorld 2001: n. pag. Roots World. Web. 5 Jan. 2016.<>.
Campbell, Kay H. “Biography.” Official Website of Simon Shaheen. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Jan. 2016.
Campbell, Kay H. “Simon Shaheen.” Aramco World May-June 1996: n. pag. Aramco World. Web. 5 Jan. 2016.
Danielson, Virginia. “Umm Kulthum Ibrahim.” Harvard Magazine. Harvard Magazine Inc., 01 July 1997. Web. 05 Jan. 2016.