Simon Shaheen

1994 NEA National Heritage Fellow
Simon Shaheen
Photo by Alan Govenar

Music up and hot….

Simon Shaheen: I was born in Tarshiha. This is the name of the village. My father was a musician, composer, educator, oud player. I was surrounded by a family of musicians. The most important thing is that I grew up in this kind of environment. It influenced me a great deal. I was exposed at early childhood to the best of traditional Arab music, and my father, with his diversity and versatility in music, of course exposed me to music from different parts of the world, including Western classical and Indian music, Persian, and many others. So I grew up in this environment of multifaceted musical scene. At the age of three, I started to play on the oud and at the age of five and a half, I joined the Conservatory for Classical music in the city of Haifa, where I learned on the violin. I grew up with this duality of playing on the oud and the violin and this duality kept haunting me throughout my life, because, you know, I compose in Arabic styles and Western styles, and do many things in various traditions.

Jo Reed: That was violinist, oud player, and 1994 National Heritage Fellow, Simon Shaheen. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works, I'm your host Josephine Reed.

Simon Shaheen is one of the great Arab musicians of his generation. Taking his background in both arab and western music as his starting point, Shaheen dazzles listeners with his extraordinary blending of the two. A Palestinian, born in a small village in Galileean village, Shaheen studied violin in Haifa and music and arab literature Tel Aviv before emigrating to the United States. Here, he completed a masters in Music performance and another in music education. His goal: to bring arab music to western ears, to move it from the cabaret to the concert hall. A creative force who moves effortlessly from traditional Arabic sounds to jazz and Western classical styles, Simon Shaheen brings them together with melodic ingenuity, and unparalleled musicality. Earning international recognition as a virtuoso on both the violin and the oud. I spoke with Simon Shaheen recently and began our conversation by asking him to describe one of his instruments.

Simon Shaheen: The oud is the predecessor of the Western European lute. It has a kind of half pear-shaped structure, with the top that we call in Arabic the face. It has an open fingerboard, as opposed to the fingerboards on the guitars or the lute, that has frets, and with the fact that we have this open fingerboard allows us to perform a quality in Arab music that we call microtonality. Microtonality is the one great aspect or component that defines Arabic music. Microtones are the sounds that Western ear might have difficulty listening to it, because it's not trained to hear it. And the oud has also five double strings and one bass. We use the plectrum, that is made of an animal horn to strum on the strings. And I would say it has this round, warm, very well projected sound.

Jo Reed: Okay, now here's a question. I was really intrigued by something you said and that is for the Western ear we might not be trained to hear it. Do you think different cultures are taught to hear differently?

Simon Shaheen: It's a matter of exposing the ear to it. I don't think it's a cultural thing. For example, you know, in 1996, I started something called the Arabic Music Retreat in Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Simon Shaheen: And prior to that, I have been touring and performing and doing residencies and workshops about Arabic music, because the main purpose was to move Arab music from the cabaret scene to the concert halls and the performing art centers and the universities, and in a way, I succeeded. So now we have a trend of Arabic music all over the United States, just by the mere practice of participation at the music retreat, and the exposure. I remember playing to 12 people in 1981 in New York at the Alternative Museum, a concert that was produced by the World Music Institute. And the same thing last year, we performed with the World Music Institute at town hall and it was filled. We had half of that amount of people outside who couldn't enter. So I think it shows a progress of the exposure to Arab music and the interest by American musicians and American listeners as well to Arab music. So it's not difficult to expose them to Arab music. Of course, it requires training and commitment to learn the music performance and listening to microtone as well.

Jo Reed: Arab music uses melodic modes called maqams. Can you explain what that is? It's different than a scale.

Simon Shaheen: Yes. The maqam is a system, just look at it as a scale of eight notes and try to approach it as if we play eight notes on the piano. We can get major scale or minor scale. These are the only two options. But imagine that we invent another key that is red between the white and the black key on the piano. If you press on it, it gives you the middle sound, the mid-sound that is between the white and the black. So this would be considered a new sound that doesn't exist on the piano, but hypothetically, if we have it, it will create the microtone, or if you want to be more general, quarter tone.

Music up and hot…

Simon Shaheen: So the mere fact that we have those microtones in our scales, then it opens the possibility for infinite amount of melodies, abundant amount of melodies, that defines Arab music, if you will. This is why our music is melodically oriented. It moves horizontally, as opposed to the system that exists in Western classical music, which is based on harmony. Since melodically, it's restricted, as I said before, restricted to minor and major scales, then what enriches this music is the structure that we called harmony. It gives it this richness and emotional expression, while in Arabic music, this emotional expression doesn't need any harmony. It comes out from the richness of the melody itself.

Jo Reed: I listened to an excerpt of a concert you and Michel Merhej-- am I saying his name correctly?

Simon Shaheen: Yeah, yeah, Merhej.

Jo Reed: Merhej. He plays the riqq. It sounded like you two were having a musical conversation back and forth.

Simon Shaheen: I think you're referring to improvisation, duet improvisation?

Jo Reed: Yes.

Simon Shaheen: Yes, the word is riqq, which means the Arabic tambourine, and in many of our concerts, I always leave some time like 10 minutes for an improvisation and sometimes we do it as what we call a metric improvisation on the oud and the riqq, which is the tambourine. It's an improvisation. I choose the maqam or the Arabic scale at the moment before we start playing, and I choose the metric or the rhythmic mode, the rhythmic pattern at the same time. I just look at Michel and I tell him, "Blah-blah-blah," and he knows. In certain sections of the improvisation, I create what you call the call and response, meaning that I start to play a phrase maybe of four measures and he responds to me with four measures. And we go down in the measures, two, one, half a measure. It becomes very kind of interesting and exciting. It shows the understanding, the language that we understand very well, based on of course the practice, the knowledge and the amount of repertoire we have in our mind. So we read each other very well as we play.

Jo Reed: Duality seems to play a big part in your life. You grew up listening to Western music, playing the violin; and listening to Arabic music, playing the oud. You come to the United States to go to graduate school; you study performing art and music education.

Simon Shaheen: Correct. I attended Manhattan School of Music, performance on the violin. And then last year of my Manhattan school, it was the same year I started Columbia University, music education. And I graduated there in 1985. So besides being a performer and studying performance, it was important to do the music education, because it has been, and still big part of my musical trip, if you will. Big part of my career is about education, is about educating Arab musicians, American musicians. It's about bringing Arab music and Arab culture as an experience to universities, colleges, even schools, like what I did three months ago in Seattle when I was hosted by the University of Washington, to perform there. But together with the performance, we organized workshops. It was kind of residency, that included going to schools, elementary, middle and high schools and do programs about Arab music and Arab culture. So this is a big part of it, and music education is definitely one big aspect of my career.

Jo Reed: You also began to combine traditional Arab music with both jazz and classical influences. What led you to do that?

Simon Shaheen: I was doing this when I was a little kid, back home in Palestine. I started this conversation by talking about the multifaceted musical traditions that I was exposed to, so being exposed to Western classical music, Arabic traditional music, and music of West Africa, I was very much in love with South American music, especially Brazilian music. Of course, without saying Indian, Persian, Turkish, Eastern European music, I really grew up in this environment, knowing all these musics. So coming to America in 1980 wasn't a big surprise for me. In fact, I was one of those who really promoted the idea of the cross-cultural music attempts. In 1992, '93, I started a group called Qantara, which means "arches" or "arch." This group was made of musicians from various nationalities, including France, Lebanon, Egypt, America, Venezuela. Those musicians were involved heavily in American jazz or European jazz. But at the same time, they have the ability and the openness to learn about other traditions, including Arabic music. Since they were very sensitive to this, and willing to do it, those were the musicians who I started to work with, and little by little, we developed a repertoire which I composed very much. We came up with really fantastic recording title, "Blue Flame." That, in a way or another, started to define the idea of cross cultural music and what we call in New York fusion music.

Jo Reed: Well, in fact, we're going to hear a cut from "Blue Flame." And Simon, I want you to make the choice about what we should listen to. "Dance Mediterranea."

Simon Shaheen: I think "Dance Mediterranea" will be a great example of me playing on the violin, showing both the versatility of playing, and also the Arabic maqam infused with the Western rhythms and orchestration if you will. In a way, that is kind of natural, where the instruments, they meet and they feel organically blending together very well. And it's a matter of, again, knowing the music, understanding orchestration and bringing the best of the sonorities of the instruments.

Jo Reed: Okay, here's "Dance Mediterranea."

Up and hot…

Jo Reed: Bravo. How was it listening to that again?

Simon Shaheen: Each time I listen to it, I get surprised.

Jo Reed: That's wonderful.

Simon Shaheen: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this, Simon: when we heard you playing the violin, just so extraordinarily, what's different for you? What do you express in the violin that you don't express in the oud, and vice versa?

Simon Shaheen: This is a very tough question, Jo. How could I answer this?

Jo Reed: I don't know.

Simon Shaheen: Ah. You know, the oud is string but plucked instrument. So you want to think about the right hand with the plectrum picking on the strings and producing sound. So you can think of the, I don't know, the mandolin, the guitar, classical flamenco. So this is one sound, right? On the violin, you have the bow and its continuous sound. So each definitely has its own characteristics and its own way of expressions. Now those expressions, are they different? I wouldn't go that far. I wouldn't say that they are different, but the means in which you can create this emotional drive and expression are different, but the result should be in a way similar.

Jo Reed: You also have another ensemble, the Near Eastern Music Ensemble.

Simon Shaheen: Yeah, that's correct. Nineteen eighty-two, '83, early '83, this is when I formed this group together and I was lucky to meet with musicians from various parts of the Middle East who lived in New York and out of New York. So I brought them together and in order to reach out, in order to perform on high quality and perform our music, the traditional Arabic music at its best, it was necessarily not only perform as a solo or talk about the music, but create an ensemble that can bring the extensive repertoire we have in Arab traditional music, including both vocal and instrumental. So therefore, the sound of the ensemble, which was made of seven musicians, including one singer, was necessary in order to cover all facets of Arab music. And this way, we started to carry this ensemble and go perform in museums, performing art centers. Whenever we had residencies at universities, the ensemble always has been involved and still. And this was one way of exposing Americans to Arab music, so this was necessary and a must in order to perform the complete sound in Arab music.

Jo Reed: You said part of your mission, and you indeed have succeeded, was moving Arab music from the cabaret into the concert halls. And indeed, you've played in many notable concert halls, including the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. What was that like for you when you went to Carnegie Hall and played?

Simon Shaheen: It was beautiful. It was great. Not only that you're performing in one of the greatest music halls in the world, but it gives prestige, it gives the ensemble, the music we perform, a great exposure. And performing in such a hall, it's an experience. You are performing in a hall that has almost one of the greatest acoustics in the world. You're performing in a hall where some of the greatest audiences come to listen to this music and it is history in the making. So this was a great step in I would say the right direction.

Jo Reed: Meanwhile, you also became an American citizen, which paradoxically allowed you to then travel to Arab countries and play your music there.

Simon Shaheen: That's true. I lived under Israel and from our village, Tarshiha, to Beirut where my aunt lived, and many other relatives, it's exactly one hour and a half drive with the car. And, you know, it took me a long voyage, if you will, to come to New York and obtain the citizenship and obtain my American passport, in order to finally travel to Beirut and meet with my relatives and people that I knew. Otherwise it would have been impossible to do. And also, the importance of such a thing is to visit in the Arab countries, to visit the countries that my tradition and my culture and my background is part of it, to see and to be part of Arab music in the making, a part of the artistic scene, the live scene. So this was very important and I remember when I was four and five years old, when I was performing on the oud and on the violin, I remember people were saying to my father, in front of me, "Imagine that this kid could have been in Beirut or Cairo performing," and it has been ringing in my ear constantly, that when I went to visit in Beirut the first time, which I would say, the beginning of the ‘90s, it was a dream that came through. It was really fantastic to be a part of this scene. And now it's normal that I go to the Arab countries on a tour annually, performing. Last year I was the first musicians to perform public in Saudi Arabia, because public performances are not allowed by people coming from the outside. So this was a breakthrough and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

Jo Reed: You also began the annual Arab Festival of the Arts, which is a two-day festival in New York City. When and how did that happen?

Simon Shaheen: We started it in 1994. This was the first time. Again, all these activities, including the Arab Arts Festival in New York, was a part of the many, many events or projects that together, it brought visibility and put Arab music and tradition on the map. It allowed the Americans to come and participate and celebrate Arab tradition, Arab music really at its best. I'm not saying this with arrogance. With utmost humility, but it was, because I can judge it and I have the ability to judge it. We really created fantastic projects and programs. So this was a part of the scene that really pushed Arab music and tradition to the mainstream -- not necessarily the very big mainstream. We still fall in the cracks, but it created more exposure.

Jo Reed: In that same year, you received the National Heritage Fellowship award from the NEA of all places.

Simon Shaheen: It was good to receive it. It was another one element that probably gave another push to our music, to my work, to the ensembles I work with, to the projects throughout America. The recognition is important. I was thrilled to have it and I think perhaps this was part of recognizing the many projects, music projects we work on. Throughout the years, I have been adding increments on top of each other in order to create the larger scene. You know, what will happen, I don't know, but this is my duty and I keep doing it.

Jo Reed: Great. Simon, thank you so much for taking the time.

Simon Shaheen: You are welcome.

Jo Reed: That was violinist, oud player and 1994 national heritage fellow, Simon Shaheen.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts of "Dance Mediterreanea," "Olive Harvest" and "Waving Sands," performed by Simon Shaheen and Qantera, composed by Simon Shaheen, from the CD, Blue Flame.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the itunes link on our podcast page.

Next week, he started singing t the age of 30, and since then, he's performed with some of the country's great companies. Meet Morris Robinson.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.

Don't forget, Friday September 23, the 2011 National Heritage Fellows perform live at the NEA NATIONAL HERITAGE CONCERT
it's at 8:00 PM The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland. But if you can't make it, don't worry -- we're webcasting it live! For more information about this free concert and the live webcast. Go to and click on National Heritage Fellowships. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


The 1994 NEA National Heritage Fellow, violinist, and oud player discusses his merging of Arab and western musical traditions.