Thursday, April 19, 2018

More Music

14.More Music (18 April 2018)
A church’s Palm Sunday parade, complete with children and
adults waving palm branches, guitar accompaniment, singing…
“Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” in Arabic…
(25 Mar. 2018 – Burj Hammoud)
            Something that has always fascinated me about Middle Easterners, and about Lebanese in particular (that context with which I’m most familiar) is how everybody seems to know all sorts of Arabic songs. Let one person start singing or humming a line from an Arabic popular (or folk) song, and everybody joins in, singing along, clapping (helpful if you don’t know the words), and getting up and dancing (cue the dabké dancers!). Television shows from this region, featuring hosts/guests/contestants often have an on-stage band of Arabic instruments, and laced through the program are musical snippets or complete songs. If a soloist is singing the song, those on stage and those in the audience heartily sing along. It doesn’t fit the TV genres in the U.S., where there is a very hard line between stage and audience, and between the role-players on stage.
New talents in a student worship band at an Armenian
Evangelical high school. The guitarist just won an award at a
festival in Gyumri, Armenia (16 May 2017 – Ashrafieh, Beirut)
            Music seems to be an integral part of life here. There is a type of music all around, and people use their voices to “musically” ply their trades. A man pushing his “tabla" (rolling table) or pickup truck, calling out from one block to the next what he’s selling. Another pickup (aptly named) truck calling out for people to bring out their scrap metal for “recycling”. A fellow on a motor scooter squeezing his bulb horn as he goes, selling the local equivalent of a soft pretzel, called “kaak” (a large purse-shaped sesame bread, filled with sumac and thyme). The music of church bells or the five daily calls to prayer from the minarets. The Lebanese singer Fairuz filling the morning airwaves in just about every taxi, service car, or bus rumbling through the city streets. As noisy a city as is Beirut, there is still discernable music throughout the day and into the night, with the pounding from clubs wafting through the darkness.
            But I wish it were more. I’ve always wish for more music.
Beirut International Jazz Day 2017 – Ali Jreidi Quartet, with
Shahan on bass! This year’s event features a group led by one of
my students from the 1990s (29 Apr. 2017 – Downtown Beirut)
            When so many other things came and went, music was the “constant” in my life, beginning with music lessons I received in public elementary school in the U.S., then onward to things like pit orchestras, playing oboe, alto sax, cymbals, even the sousaphone (sort of) in marching band, entering a high school “battle of the bands”. In my first attempt at a higher education I switched my major from sociology (I had no idea what sociology was) to music, and then realized that where I was studying (sorry, Muhlenberg) was no place for someone seriously pursuing music. So, off to music school I went, and that pursuit continues to this day. Consult my complete résumé (as yet unpublished) for all the gory details.
            So far, since moving back to Beirut – it’s been 14+ months – I have played with church musicians in a variety of settings. I’m conducting two choirs. I’ve worked up a number of choral arrangements for said groups. I’m mulling over the digitizing and updating of the Union’s hymnal (hold on; did I just hear someone say “hymnal”…?) and puzzling over what to do with the youth songbook/ lyric slides/ accompaniment tracks in use here. Four weeks ago I presented a public lecture on Bach’s Johannespassion. And this is all supposed to be just one third of my work responsibilities.
Warmups before the concert: the emcee of Haigazian’s event
sings his opening speech to the tune of “My Way”
(14 Apr. 2018 – NEST Auditorium, Hamra, Beirut)
            But I don’t just wish for more music; I wish for better music.
            A few nights ago was the performance of a student musical event I directed (about which I’ve previously written), bringing Haigazian University students together for a pretty good and varied program, if I do say so myself. After months of work with them, and me bugging them about general musicianship issues (e.g., tune up before you start your performance); or about musical details that would improve their performance (e.g., make sure to not to pronounce “t” or “d” when it is “th”, as is the habit among Armenians, or as “z”, as many Arabs do); or about stage presentation (e.g., the soloist always bows first, accompanist second); these 18 students rose to the occasion, and exceeded expectations – their own and the audience’s. But not mine. By the last week I knew they could do it!
            Note: most of them were Armenians. Partly that’s a function of the university that was on stage, but partly it is precisely because who they are. Cultural expression is fundamental to the identity of this particular group called “Armenians”. Though it has diluted considerably with the westward leaching of the community from this region, music especially is still practiced in homes here and performed on church and school stages. And, like in Arabic culture, I find a lot of young (and old) Armenians here able to recognize and join in singing Armenian music after hearing the first few notes. Even though I probably know much more 20th century American music than they (I’m not limiting myself to rock), but I rejoice to see how much Armenian music is part of their lives, and by extension, my world here. And I desire more of it for my life.
A sample of the election posters covering the city. Some declare
the tie between their party and the country, some criticize the
current status quo, some look like a fashion shoot, some are
relying on magic charms or the “evil eye” to win, some just
scream in frustration. A number of Armenians are among
the candidates. (Mar.-Apr. 2018 – Beirut)
            Continuity is the challenge. Just as the number of people who read Armenian literature (or any literature for that matter) is plummeting, and both young and old use their English keyboards to hatchet their connection to the Armenian alphabet, so it is with all of cultural expression. We Armenians have overdrawn and misspent our cultural reserve account. And we will need to aggressively reinvest in that account (in people, really) if we’re going to have any hope for flourishing in the years to come. As human life becomes more fully mechanized, the urgency increases for every culture to produce music and artwork and literature and history and more, in order to remain human, to remain culturally viable, and to retain the spark of God’s image within us – albeit alongside our great need for God’s redemption.
LebCat 13: There is obviously an agreement with the owner
for keeping the seat warm. Hmm…  is there a possible future
in politics for this cat? (11 Mar. 2018 – Burj Hammoud)
            Does it really matter? Some think and act as if the Middle East is “finished”, and preach that it’s a waste to invest anything more here, financial, cultural, human, or any sort. But it’s not. There is life and creative output around us, despite the uncertainty and misery emanating from policies and weapons aimed from distant lands at this region. Certainly, what happens here politically (May 6 is parliamentary election day) is partly driven by local calculations, but it is more a reaction to the “weather” outside.
            As helicopters swirl overhead and huge election banners cover every available vertical surface, we need to help each other focus on things deeper and higher and more lasting. That’s part of why God put us here. For my part, I’m going to keep thinking, keep writing, keep making music, and I’m going to help others to do so as well. It’s what matters.   [LNB]