Zafir with Simon Shaheen resonates in Lawrence Memorial Chapel

As part of both the World Music and Dance Concert Series, Lawrence University welcomed Simon Shaheen and his current project Zafir to the Lawrence Memorial Chapel last Friday, April 1 at 8 p.m. Shaheen, an oudist, violinist and composer, created this project with the intent of electrifying traditional Arab music and bringing out its similarities with Flamenco music. He accomplished this goal by means of new and old compositions, improvisation, folk-based lyrics and dance.

Without much knowledge of either culture or its music, it may be difficult to recognize the similarities between the two, but detailed program notes and well-stated explanations from Shaheen before nearly every song educated the audience, thus enabling a better interaction with the performance. Zafir, I learned, is the name Shaheen gave to the wind that blew from Africa to Europe nearly six hundred years ago, spreading the creativity in their art and culture to each other. With the help of both Arab and Spanish artists, Shaheen put on a show with not only a diverse set of arts but a diverse set of influences as well.

The instrumentation of Zafir featured a wonderful array of sounds and origins. While some were more familiar to a majority of the ears in the audience—piano, guitar, flute, violin and cello, with the latter two being in special Arabic tunings—others featured are rarely seen in Western music. These were the oud, which is a lute-like instrument; an Arabic flute; a qanun, which is a zither-like instrument; and various percussion from around the world.

What was distinctly beautiful about this concert was that Shaheen and his collaborators did not just perform music steeped in many traditions due to their instrumentation; they also paid strong attention to the nuances of each style and thoughtfully fused them together with each other. The mix of Arabic with Spanish and new with old was remarkable. No matter the age of the piece, the ensemble brought it to the current moment with their performance without disregarding the rich traditions of the music.

The blending of the new and old was perhaps my favorite aspect of the performance. Never at any moment did I feel like Shaheen and the others were merely playing traditional music because they brought it to life with an effort to show its relevance today. On the other hand, it was clear the new material was heavily influenced by its preceding music in the style. Because of this fact, the new and old were hard to discern from each other, giving the entire concert a timeless feel that dripped with both nostalgia and innovation.

Shaheen’s virtuosic performances with the rest of his talented ensemble undoubtedly left most of the audience stunned, but it is safe to say that all of the audience left thinking about how Auxi Fernandez, the guest Flamenco dancer, interacted with the gifted band. Fernandez was nothing short of graceful, powerful and exhilarating, not only reacting visually with dance, but also providing her own sonic layer by means of snapping and clicking her shoes. Her injection of Flamenco culture into mostly Arabic music quite explicitly displayed the similarities between Arabic and Hispanic arts, with the goal of a heightened state of emotion being one of the major parallels.

This concert—like many others that are a part of the World Music Series—went beyond my expectations and left me intrigued by music I probably would never have heard were it not for this series. It is easy to remain in a bubble of American music, but it is vital—especially as a musician—to explore the world of music out there. Do not shy away from music because you are unfamiliar with it: you never know what might resonate with you.

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