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Grinnell Singers to perform with Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble

The Grinnell Singers will perform an Arabic piece alongside the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble on Sunday 2 p.m. in Sebring-Lewis Hall. photo by Sarina Lincoln

by Jackson Schulte

The Grinnell Singers will perform an Arabic piece alongside the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble on Sunday 2 p.m. in Sebring-Lewis Hall. photo by Sarina Lincoln

On Sunday, Feb. 25, the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble will perform in collaboration with Grinnell Singers in Sebring-Lewis Hall. The concert will be the first of its kind in the world and is an opportunity that Professor John Rommereim, music, and the Grinnell Singers are not taking for granted.

The relationship between Grinnell and Al-Bustan was forged when Rommereim heard a piece they commissioned last year online and reached out to their director.

“Over the space of almost a year, we worked it out to bring the players [to campus],” Rommereim said. “I have an interest in Andalusia, a period in medieval Spain where the three Abrahamic religions were at least cohabitating. So, I was also especially drawn to this project because of that.” 

Last semester, through the connection with Al-Bustan, Grinnell Singers had the opportunity to work with composer Kareem Roustom on a piece called “Embroidered Verses.”

The core of this weekend’s concert will be two new works composed for choir and Takht ensemble, the Arabic-based orchestra which includes violin, cello, qanun and an oud. The latter two instruments are the main instruments in the ensemble. The qanun is a string instrument normally played laid on a flat surface, and the oud is, Rommereim says, “sort of like a loot but with no pick and no frets.”

If this sounds like an extremely unique musical opportunity for a group of college singers in Iowa, it’s because it is.

“It’s a really special opportunity to be inside this ensemble that’s in a different tradition than everyone in this choir. It’s sort of a journey, even though we’re not leaving town. We’re the only choir to do this music since it was premiered,” Rommereim said. “It’s truly unique, [Grinnell] is the only place in the world that we’re doing this particular music.”

Learning how to sing in Arabic comes with its challenges.

“Tackling the crazy rhythms and time signatures has probably been the most challenging thing about singing in Arabic,” said Grinnell singer Ahon Gooptu ’21 in an email to The S&B. “But once we overcame that and learned what the lyrics mean, singing the music in (sometimes six- or seven-part) harmony with the rest of the choir has been so rewarding.”

The ensemble comes to campus on Friday, which also means several-hour rehearsals on Friday and Saturday.

“It’s a bit of a marathon for the choir,” Rommereim said. “We’re doing two rehearsals both days: afternoon, evening and morning, afternoon.”

With a project that is nearly a year in the making, you won’t want to miss it. The Al-Bustan and Grinnell Singers will play their collaborative performance on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Sebring-Lewis Hall in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts. 

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