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Playlist: Music of Andalusia

On April 15, 2016, Simon Shaheen brings to life the Arab music of Al-Andalus and blends it with the ubiquitous art of flamenco in Zafir, a program of instrumental and vocal music and dance that renews a relationship with music from a thousand years ago. Zafir explores the commonalities of music born in the cultural centers of Iraq and Syria that blew like the wind (zafir) across the waters of the Mediterranean to Al-Andalus. There it blended with elements of Spanish music and was brought back across the seas to North Africa, where it flourished in the cities of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

simon shaheen

Photo: Simon Shaheen performs on oud. Courtesy of the artist.

To offer a small taste of the music inspiring Zafir, we have compiled a playlist of music from Andalusia, the Middle East, and North Africa. While the performance will blend these three regions and show off the similarities, we’ll separate the three musical styles out here, so that you can hear how these styles have evolved and changed. Take a listen below!


People might think that dance is the essence of flamenco, but in truth, the heart of flamenco is the song (cante). The Arab roots of flamenco run deep, and although much of the history is obscured, it is clear that flamenco grew out of the unique culture in Andalusia. Scholars believe the word flamenco is derived from colloquial Arabic felag mangu, meaning “fugitive peasant.” The word was first used in the 14th century to refer to Andalusian Gypsies, who were called gitanos or flamencos. Soon, the term flamenco came to be applied to their music.

We’ve compiled a playlist of top flamenco musicians in the past century, which includes Camarón de la Isla, Tomatito, Paco de Lucía, La Niña de los Peines, and Carmen Linares.

Israel, Palestine, Egypt

Simon Shaheen, who will be playing in Zafir, is a virtuosic Palestinian-American violinist and ‘oud player who grew up in Israel. Until the early 1990s, Arab music from this region did not have wide distribution, so the focus was on international stars such as Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, and Farid al-Atrash.

The playlist we’ve created includes the musicians listed above.


Oud. Courtesy of TIMEA.

Sonia M’barek, the vocalist performing for Zafir, is one of Tunisia’s most renowned singers. Her music centers on malouf, a Tunisian style of music that is based on an old Arabic type of poetry called qasidah. It features violins, drums, ‘oud, flutes, and a solo vocalist. The most important structural element of malouf, is the nuba, which was introduced to North Africa by Andalusian Muslims who were forced to leave Spain in the 14th Century.

Here is a playlist of top Tunisian musicians in the past century, which includes El Azifet, Hedi Jouini, Ali Riahi, and Anouar Brahem.

What will you listen for at the performance? Which musical thread interests you most? Share your comments below.

Zafir is at Michigan Theater on April 15, 2016.



What makes music sacred?

on left apollo's fire on right simon shaheen
Photo: On left, Apollo’s Fire, who perform Bach’s St. John Passion on March 15, 2016. On right, Simon Shaheen, who performs in Zafir on April 15, 2016. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Many people have a “sacred” song—one that especially resonates with or inspires. But what is the meaning of “sacred,” and what about music resonates so deeply? To try to get a sense of the answers to these questions, I asked surveyed a group of University of Michigan students about music that they consider sacred.

For some, a work calls to mind their religious origin and helps them seek a connection with a greater power. Hitomi, recent LSA music graduate, describes her sacred song: “The very first song that came to mind was Ave Maria. I feel that the lyrics evoke spirituality. It’s also a commonly known [religious] piece, so that’s why I associate the melody with connecting with spiritual existence. I experience a sense of serenity and calmness when I listen to Ave Maria. It’s like I’m getting cleansed from all of the negative feelings I might have at the moment.”

For others, like Abigail, a viola performance major, the “sacred” quality of music has to do with the context in which a piece was written. When asked about musical works that are sacred for her, Abigail explains: “Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is sacred to me; it’s very emotionally volatile. It’s especially dear to me because it was the last symphony Tchaikovsky wrote before he died, and there’s been so much discussion over what the symphony meant and whether it was a “suicide note.” I feel like the symphony is so emotionally intense that Tchaikovsky definitely had to have been going through something big in his life, but as far as I know, nobody’s really sure exactly what that was. I kind of like the mystery though — it leaves a lot more room for imagination.”

Monica, trumpet player in the Michigan Marching Band, holds a special affinity with the lyrics of her sacred song, Sara Bareilles’s Uncharted. Monica explains, “[The song] is about what to do when confronted with the unknown, when you are afraid of which direction to go in next, and about taking risks for yourself rather than follow what everyone else is doing. My favorite line is ‘compare where you are to where you want to be and you’ll get nowhere.’ [Uncharted is a song] of introspection, agency, and assurance. It suggests that ‘gold’ is not extra valuable just because everyone else seems to want it. Something ‘uncharted’ can be more valuable because you have the opportunity to make it mean as much as you want it to for yourself.”

Some songs are sacred because when we listen to them, they call to mind memories. Penny Stamps School of Art student and acoustic guitar enthusiast Hayden tells the story of her sacred song: “The Moon Song by Karen O made me cry the first time I heard it.” Hayden continues, “I was watching the movie Her on a long flight home from Ireland. I made it my mission to find out what the song [in the movie] was, and to learn it. I don’t really use my ukulele—you’ll usually find me jamming on guitar—but I picked it up so I could learn the Moon Song. [The song is] not even in my vocal range, but it gives me the warm fuzzies whenever I play it. I think that I like it so much because it brought me a dose of joy when I was sad to be a leaving a place where I wanted to stay, and on a mode of transportation that scares me to death. [The song] has that same dose of joy every time I plunk it out on my ukulele.”

Ryan, bassoon player in the Akropolis String Quartet, recalls the childhood memory tied to his sacred song, I Believe I Can Fly by R. Kelly. He says, “This might be a strange choice, especially because I will admit to knowing very few of the lyrics (just the famous chorus), and I haven’t listened to the studio recording of it in years. But, I associate that song with my deep childhood love of the movie Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. That movie taught me, in equal importance, the necessity of hard work and joy in the pursuit of my dreams (at the time, a career as a basketball player, but eventually music…). Since, the song has become a mental soundtrack much of the work I’ve put forth in life, and I have probably song the chorus out loud in front of people more than anything else I’ve ever heard. Sometimes I sing it in jest, sometimes I sing it sincerely—in private of course.”

Music can be sacred for many reasons. From Bach’s St. John’s Passion performed by Apollo’s Fire to the music of Andalucia in Simon Shaheen’s Zafir performance, there are many definitions of the sacred to explore through UMS performance in the upcoming season.

What’s your “sacred” music? What makes it sacred for you?

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.