The Eternal Blue Flame

Simon Shaheen Simon Shaheen

Cityfolk Presents Simon Shaheen At Dayton Art Institute

By J.T. Ryder

Simon Shaheen

Born in the village of Tarshiha in the Galilee province of Palestine, Simon Shaheen’s world was immersed in music. He has been quoted as saying that learning to play on the oud from his father, a professor of music and a master ‘oud player, was “…the most powerful influence in my musical life.” The young Shaheen began playing the oud (a pear shaped string instrument) at the age of 5, and by age 6, he was studying at the Conservatory for Western Classical Music in Jerusalem. Shaheen graduated from Jerusalem’s Academy of Music in 1978, taught Arab music, composition and theory before he left for New York two years later to finish his studies at the Manhattan School of music and ultimately Columbia University.

Shaheen has championed the perpetuation of traditional Arabic music through the creation of the Near Eastern Music Ensemble as well as conducting workshops, lecturing and demonstrating the elements, history, and instrumentation of Arab music. He went on to establish Qantara (Arabic for ‘arch’) that brings together elements of jazz fusion with the melodies and meters of his
native music.

Shaheen recently spoke to DCP from his home in New York in advance of his Thursday, October 21 performance at the Dayton Art Institute courtesy of Cityfolk.

Considering how Arabic music and culture spread internationally throughout history, how do you discern what falls into the category of traditional Arabic music?

It’s based very much on the microtonality. Microtonality is the idea of thirty unique sounds which the Western ear is not used to. The best way that I am able to describe those sounds, or intervals, is like having an extra key on a piano, like a red key, between every white and black key and when you press it, it produces a sound that is new to the Western ear. So, this quality of microtonality is very unique and defines Arabic music. The second thing is the type of rhythms that you find in Arabic music. It’s very much cyclic, very much in cycles: it has a very special timbre and sound. And the third thing, you just look at the instruments. You hear the ‘oud and the oud is very much the center of the Arabic instrumental ensemble. It has a very unique sound and if you put all these things together, you get very melodic music. Arabic music is known for its very rich melodies. These are very specific traits that you will find in Arabic music. The real way to identify this traditional music is the idea of embellishment or ornamentation, which we don’t find much of in classical Western music. [SHAHEEN]

You said Arabic music was like a note that speaks between the notes. It also strikes me that Arabic music seems to match and meld seamlessly with European melodies and Afro-centric rhythms. It’s almost like a Rosetta Stone of music.

(Laughing) Arabic music was very much their music and it integrated very well in the West, during the 8th, 9th, 10th and subsequent centuries when the Arabic culture spread out. And then there were many artists of music that came to Seville, Spain to study this ‘new’ music and they studied then at what was called the The First Conservatory of Music…this was the first school of music that existed at that time. The fact that they took with them their music and culture and the literature, it definitely influenced European culture. It’s no accident that you see the influences on Western melody structure. Even the influence on the instruments, like the oud, which is a very early instrument, and then you see the lute and out of the lute, you have all of the variations on that.  [SHAHEEN]

At the moment, are you focusing more on your group or are you going to release another solo album?

I am almost done with two albums. One is going to be with the group, which is a total of six musicians. It’s not necessarily that the whole group plays on every track. It will be very eclectic and it will have some improvisational compositions. It will be the type of music that bridges jazz and Arabic rhythms and melodies. I have always wanted to do a completely improvisational album on the ‘oud. Improvisation is a very important and powerful aspect of Arabic music so I wanted to demonstrate a few expressive improvisations on the oud. I’ve also noticed that in the Arab world a lot of the music is being supplanted and I think it is time to record this essential element. [SHAHEEN]

Cityfolk, in collaboration with the University of Dayton’s World Rhythms Arts Series as well as the Dayton Arab American Forum, will present Simon Shaheen Thursday, October 21 at 8 p.m. in the Renaissance Auditorium of the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park N. General admission tickets are $20. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit online at or call the Cityfolk Box Office at (937) 496-3863 or stop by their offices located at
126 N. Main St., Suite 220, during regular business hours.

Reach DCP freelance writer J.T. Ryder at

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