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The Scarlet & Black

Violinest draws on varied influences

The Simon Shaheen Quartet played a beautiful and varied concert last Tuesday, April 12, in Sebring-Lewis Hall. The group fused jazz and traditional Arabic music to create songs that were at once soothing and haunting.

Virtuoso oud player Simon Shaheen opens Tuesday's performance with a composition of his own entitled "Blue Flame" in Sebring-Lewis Hall. Photograph taken by Sophie Fajardo.

The quartet consists of Simon Shaheen, who played oud and violin, saxophonist and flautist William Drewes, bassist Walid Zairi and percussionist Dafer Tawil. Seven of the pieces they played were Shaheen’s own compositions, and one, “Sama’i Nawa Athar,” was a traditional song by Jamil ‘Uways.

The unusual 10/8 meter of “Sama’i Nawa Athar” mirrored the fresh and unfamiliar sounds of the group’s own music. In “Al-Qantara” (“The Arch”), Shaheen incorporated flamenco rhythms, and “Blue Flame” exhibited Middle Eastern melodies, percussion rooted in African traditions and American-style jazz improvisation. The musicians played intently, with Shaheen delivering brief descriptions of the music between songs. Zairi described the sound of the quartet’s music as “organic, earthy.”

The quartet combined jazz instruments with the oud, a string instrument of Arabian origin related to the lute, of which Shaheen is a master player. He learned the art from his father, himself a professor of music and master oudist, while growing up in Palestine.

Since moving to New York in 1980, he has founded the “Near Eastern Music Ensemble,” written theatrical pieces, served on the Presidential Committee at the Kennedy Center, produced “Mahrajan al-Fan,” an Annual Arab Festival of Arts and toured and recorded with his band, Qantara, in addition to extensive work with schools and universities. “Blue Flame,” which was produced with Qantara, was nominated for 11 Grammys.

The other members of the Quartet come from a variety of places but similar musical backgrounds. Tawil, also Palestinian, moved from Jerusalem to New York to study with Shaheen. An oudist in addition to playing percussion, he has played with Arabic music ensembles, at the Grammys with Sting’s Desert Rose, in jazz groups and with Djs.
Zairi, born in Tunisia, studied oud there before moving to Boston and picking up the double bass. He studied at Berklee College of Music before playing with Shaheen, along with many other projects. “I play a lot of Senegalese music right now,” he said.

William Drewes, an American, has played with jazz legends including Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, Tony Bennett and Tononho Horta, and is a member of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. He also records with Shaheen in the group Qantara.

The Simon Shaheen Quartet’s excellent musicianship and stylistic fusion made for a fantastic concert that paired jazz improvisation with sonic textures that conjured images of the desert. After playing at Grinnell, the group will continue a tour of the Midwest in Illinois.

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