The Islamic observance of Ramadan began on the evening of Saturday, June 28, and goes on for a month. During that time, Muslims all over the world, including those here in Michigan, will fast until sundown and then feast with family and friends. Non-Muslims generally know little about Ramadan, and many don’t care. But this is a big month for a large population of the world.
To tie in, we decided to speak to some Middle Eastern musicians in metro Detroit, a celebration of the eclectic art and musical diversity that Arab-Americans have to offer. Fadi Yousif is a club DJ who goes by the name DJ Chrome, Michael Ibrahim directs the National Arab Orchestra, and Laith Al-Saadi plays the blues. All are very different people, playing very different music.
Ibrahim is a fascinating guy, and he’s very keen that religion not be the focus of our interview. While he is a Muslim, he points out bluntly that music has its own culture in the Arab world.
“It’s a huge misunderstanding,” he says. “The misconception is that religion is dominating the whole thing, and it isn’t. Music is separate. There’s religious music just as there is in the West. People are going out to concerts, watching music, and they’re participating in a cultural life. This notion that religion is the main focus in Arab culture is not true. It’s a big part, just like religion is a big part in any society. Early Christian societies — their towns were based on where the church was. In Greek culture, the town center would be the church.”
Ibrahim adds that, while Middle Eastern music continues to evolve, it only tends to look forward and seldom mines its impressive past.
As far as Ramadan goes, Ibrahim says that, yes, there are chants and songs that are a part of the celebration, much the same as a Greek Orthodox church will have chants at Christmas and Easter, but that sound is distinct from other kinds of music made by artists from the Middle East. “The Muslim religion has its musical repertoire just like any other religion,” he says. “It’s the same thing.”
Ibrahim’s parents came to the United States from Syria, and he was born here. He now directs and performs in the National Arab Orchestra, a relatively new innovation. Besides the addition of a few Arab instruments, an Arab orchestra is much like a Western one in format. “An Arab orchestra has a violin section, cello, bass, five percussionists, electric guitar, the oud, which is the Arab guitar, and the qanun, which is the Arab harp,” Ibrahim says. “Then we have a community choir which usually sings with the orchestra. Then you have your vocalists, because Arab music is heavily based on the vocal repertoire.”
Perhaps the most thrilling fact that comes out of our conversation with Ibrahim is the fact that there are words in the Arab language for both the joy and ecstasy achieved through listening to music. Don’t you wish there were English words for those concepts?
“A big difference between coming to an Arab music concert versus a Western concert is it speaks to its ethos,” Ibrahim says. “Western music is more cerebral and thought-provoking. Arab music is more emotive, which is indicative of the culture. Arabs are emotional people, and they emote through the music, which goes into the concept of tarab, which is the state of joy you feel when you listen to music. When a person goes to an Arab music concert, they’re not expected to stay quiet and just listen and think about it, as you would if you go to see the DSO, where you’ll listen to a piece of music and they’ll ask you how it makes you feel. No, with Arab music if you feel something, you can clap along, you can shout out, sing along — it’s participatory. It’s a cycle: The musician will perform, the audience will react, which, in turn, makes the musician more excited, and he performs even more. The audience reacts even more, and it keeps going and going in that state of tarab, until it turns into an even higher state of musical ecstasy called saltanah.”
Fadi Yousif performs electronic music under the name DJ Chrome. He was born in Kuwait and moved to the United States in 1984 when he was 2. He’s not a Muslim; he’s Armenian Orthodox, but he’s able to offer some interesting insight into the Michigan life of a Middle Eastern musician, and his own sound.
“It’s an open-format genre,” he says. “We play all kinds of music between rock, hip-hop, house music, dance — pretty much any top 40 kind of music. Even country mixed in, to get a better musical experience rather than one genre played all night long. I play anywhere from three to four tracks at a time, and I rotate tracks between 60 seconds to a minute-and-a-half. The amount of tracks that are played throughout the night are a lot more.”
Yousif says that, naturally, Middle Eastern culture finds its way into his set. “Of course, because it gives me a different ear to music,” he says. “I have experiences with different instruments from my culture. I use a lot of instrumentals as well.”
Here’s the good news — Yousif says that he has never encountered any misconceptions about Middle Eastern musicians while working as a musician. “I haven’t had any,” he says. “People look at you as a DJ; there’s no difference about it.”
That’s great, although Laith Al-Saadi, a blues musician whose father came here from Iraq, offers a different perspective. “Just because of my name, I have people all the time coming up to me saying that they were expecting to hear Arabic music,” he says. “As an Arab-American, where I feel like I’m pretty much an American, I think people have an expectation that I’m going to be playing extremely ethnic music.”
Al-Saadi’s music, though heavily based in traditional blues, does have a vibe of ethnic eclecticism about it. He allows Middle Eastern music, as well as music from other cultures, to influence his sound. “I think everything — it does make its way into my sound,” he says. “Particularly in the improvisational areas, I really like the sound of a lot of Middle Eastern scales. I do try to incorporate elements of that, if it’s just an inflection or, you know … I listen to quite a bit of it. I wouldn’t say I listen to it a ton, but I grew up on [Lebanese singer] Fairuz. I don’t listen to Arabic music more than I listen to Indian music, but I certainly enjoy Middle Eastern music.”
So here you have a DJ, an orchestra director, and a blues guitarist. They really have nothing in common other than the fact that they’re musicians and they share a Middle Eastern heritage. The link is admittedly tenuous. But what they can offer many Americans is a certain amount of enlightenment. Middle Eastern music isn’t all religious chanting. The culture offers as much as the West in terms of talent and variety, and these shining examples are right here in metro Detroit.
What they certainly have in common is a desire to make their audience happy, to achieve that tarab, and ultimately saltanah. “As long as everyone has a smile on their face, I’m happy,” says Yousif. “It’s not about the music playing that we like — I know every DJ has their club hits. But you have to make sure everybody’s having a good time and that it moves them. As a DJ, not only have you got to be good at playing music, but you have to pay attention to the people who come out to see you, to make sure that the song you’re playing appeals to everybody and not just one group of people.”
Ibrahim is keen to get as many people involved with the orchestra as possible. “We recently had a concert where we featured kids from the Detroit public schools as part of our grant from the Knight Foundation,” he says. “We had those students sing in Arabic with the orchestra, which was cool. People went nuts. They couldn’t believe that they saw non-Arabs singing with the Arab orchestra. We have very skilled musicians that perform with us; it’s a very good group, comparable with anything that comes out of the Middle East.”
Intelligent, talented musicians with their arms and minds wide open — that’s the real sound of the Middle East.