Islamic Worlds Festival: The Language of Music

Sep 19, 2016

It’s been said music is the language of the heart, something able to break down barriers between people with different politics, cultures or beliefs. WVTF/Radio IQ’s Robbie Harris visited a rehearsal of a unique ensemble learning to play Arabic music, in Blacksburg. It will debut at the Islamic Worlds Festival at Virginia Tech later this month.

Around fifteen people are practicing on a Saturday morning at Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center, training their ears and adapting their voices to sounds not often heard around here. Some are students, some faculty; some locals. Marsha Hertel lives in Blacksburg.

“Oh it’s fun. It’s challenging though.  The vocabulary the words the rhythms are different than we normally do and some of the tonality is different, the quarter tones, so there’s a lot that’s different.”

“You learn the language you learn the music so you’re learning part of the culture,” says Dan Dunlop, who owns Rocket Music in town. “I mean we’re singing folk songs that have been passed down in varying forms and we have people who know a little bit about the culture who interject with the language, so you’re learning the whole range but by engaging in the music.”

Mohammed Seyam is a PhD student in computer engineering from Egypt. He’s familiar with this music, he grew up with it, but he says, he never explored it as deeply as he is now here at Virginia Tech, playing with this ensemble.

“So it was good for me to present this kind of - my culture, my art-and the other side is that I didn’t have that chance before to actually study my music. I was just listening to songs and I know artists, it was good for me to present my culture my art but I didn’t have chance to study my music before, I was just listening to songs,” he says.

Seyam says while he can offer some pronunciation or translation tips, it is he who is learning about the music from Anne Elise Thomas, the leader of this ensemble who teaches a course called Understanding Arabic Music.  

“And learning about theories and the history of my own music, ethnomusicology, that’s how Anne Elise describes it, was very new for me, an yeah, it adds to my experience. And it helps me even to more music.”
Professor Thomas grew up in Blacksburg and studied music at the College of William and Mary. There she met a teacher who was putting together a Middle Eastern music ensemble. She soon traded her harpsichord for the Arabic instrument called a qanun. She joined the group playing in clubs in Northern Virginia .

“And the qanun, when you look at it, kind of resembles the inside of a Harpsichord and even the mechanism is similar, although on the qanun you’re playing it with picks on your fingers whereas the harpsichord has the picks internally.”

But beyond the mechanical, Thomas’s exploration of Arabic music exposed her something that’s key to Arabic music, and which she emphasizes to her students.  It’s called, Tarab.

“Tarab is an Arabic word that evokes a specifically musical kind of elation or enchantment. It’s a feeling that’s experienced communally and it comes about through the interactions between a musician and the audience. So with Arabic music, you’re really going for this transcendental, emotional experience.  And that’s actually the name of this ensemble:  Itraab is the act of making Tarab, the act of making musical enchantment.”

The Arabic Music Ensemble Itraab will make its debut at the Islamic Worlds Festival at Virginia Tech., Saturday evening, April 11th at 6:30.