A Star Orchestra of Our Own

Sami Asmar

A division has long existed between large Western-style orchestras and ethnic ensembles of all types. Western Orchestral musicians are  rigorously, classically trained and precisely follow a conductor while they read from common music sheets that preserve the details of the compositions. Members of smaller ethnic ensembles, on the other hand are often centered around one star instrumentalist or vocalist. They may have varying levels of musical training, but they are linked by a common musical or ethnic background, and are often given to  improvisation.

The barrier was breached eight years ago when  Nabil Azzam decided to create the first full orchestra specializing in world music, thus building on the best of both worlds. MESTO, the Multi-Ethnic Star Orchestra, has already changed the landscape of music. It was formed for the purpose of fusing the traditions of “world” musical genres and the Western classical tradition, but it ended up fostering new forms of musical expression not previously imagined by its audiences or even by its members. 

In the West, music of other cultures is called “ethnic,” a word that typically stirs up images of colorful costumes, folk dances or exotic spices. MESTO is indeed spicing up Western musical structures with modes and rhythms from around the world that ease listeners into exposure to other cultures they might not experience otherwise.  Through music, knowledge of entire civilizations outside our borders becomes accessible.

The most flavorful spice in this orchestra is its founder and director, Maestro Nabil Azzam. He is multi-talented as well as multi-cultural, having been born and raised in the Galilee, before moving to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in music at UCLA. With a dissertation on the “godfather” of modern Arab music – the late Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab of Egypt – Dr. Azzam is an expert on the theory and practice of traditional Arab music, and having received his early musical training in the Western classical style, he has become accomplished in both classical European and Middle Eastern musical styles. Azzam, who has taught at several universities, has brilliantly arranged the majority of the nearly 200 compositions in MESTO’s repertoire and composed several of them, such as “The Crescent,” which appears on MESTO’s first CD.

The virtuoso violinist is extremely lively, and spending time with him, one never has a dull moment. In the first few minutes of a person’s first meeting with him, Azzam would tell stories about the time he spent with the legendary Wahhab, play examples on the violin or the oud, discuss politics, tell a joke and give a referral to a good car mechanic; he is talented at making complete strangers feel like old friends. With a combination of broad knowledge and musical skills, he manages to educate people at the same time as entertaining them with his heart-felt, enchanting music. Both elements were essential to forming the orchestra and maintaining it cohesively, attracting a large number of talented musicians to audition for every unfilled position.

Members of MESTO play all the instruments of a philharmonic orchestra, strings, wind, brass, and percussion, but dispersed between them are a handful of traditional instruments from the eastern Mediterranean. These include the qanun played by Armenian-American artist Lilit Khojayan, the oud played by Lebanese-American musician Fahd Shaaban, and a suite of Middle Eastern percussion instruments such as the darbuka and daff. These and other instruments played by guest artists allow the orchestra to perform works from the Arab World, Turkey, Greece and Armenia, as well as Sephardic and Eastern European styles. 

When Azzam trains the mostly-American orchestra members in Arab music, he explores the challenging practice of modal or maqam music, which incorporates microtones not heard in Western scales. A maqam with notes separated by three-quarters of a tone (unlike the half or full tone distance in the major and minor scales) cannot be played on many Western instruments.  It can, however, be played on fretless instruments such as the violin and cello, or on specially designed instruments such as those of the takht, the classical Arab ensemble. Azzam calls these microtones “red notes” to heighten the musicians’ awareness of them in a given piece. Special ear training opens up a whole new world of music to the members, and some of them have indeed acquired the taste for maqam music. 

After five years of performing in the U.S., MESTO was invited to play at the prestigious Jerash festival in Jordan. This was followed by an invitation to perform in Egypt at the annual conference on Arab music, with extensive coverage in the Arab press. The novelty of Americans playing the compositions of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab in his home country attracted large audiences who were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the performances. Overseas tours allowed the orchestra to meet and collaborate with well-known Arab singers. 

MESTO has performed with at least one singer in every concert; singers who varied from local talent to international stars flown in from the Middle East. A historical chapter was added this year when Karima Skalli, considered by many to be the next diva of Arab song, rehearsed and performed with the orchestra. Skalli, a native of the Moroccan city of Fez was discovered at the age of 9, when she sang Um Kulthum songs at family gatherings. She later developed her repertoire to include the work of other great singers such as Asmahan, the late Syrian Druze princess and her famous brother Farid al-Atrash, with whose work Skalli has become closely associated, as she performed in festivals from Lebanon’s Beiteddine to Cairo’s Arab Music Festival.

In her elegant and gentle style, Karima sought musical training to enhance her incredible talent and took her Moroccan/Andalusian heritage to Aleppo, Beirut and Cairo to continue learning music of varying backgrounds, showing a disciplined and professional approach that earned her tremendous respect. Skalli dazzled California audiences with her interpretations of several Asmahan and Um Kulthum classics arranged by Azzam for MESTO, and surprised the orchestra by performing a solo Sufi vocal improvisation as a result of having been moved by audience adoration.

One of Karima’s mentors accompanied her for her collaboration with MESTO: Father Elie Kresrouani, professor of ethnomusicology in Lebanon and the doctorate research director at the Paris IV Sorbonne University. He captured the experience of witnessing MESTO in action, and noted that  “The baton is not only in Maestro Azzam’s hand, it is in is his soul and being, in his expressions and in the rhythm of his breaths, all which lead to inspiration that passes the chemistry of joy. The musicians read the heartbeat of the melodies from the maestro’s face, not from the motionless paper on the music stands.”

This article appears in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 15, no. 60, 2009

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