San Luis Obispo

Exploring Arab Music on the Central Coast

Kenneth Habib, founder and director of Cal Poly's Arab Music Ensemble, plays a lute-like Middle Eastern instrument called the oud. | Bob Lawson

San Luis Obispo is one of the last places in Southern California where one would expect to find a Middle Eastern music and dance ensemble. And Kenneth Habib, founder and director of Cal Poly's Arab Music Ensemble, is the first to admit it.

After all, the ethnomusicologist acknowledged, San Luis Obispo has a significantly smaller Arabic-speaking community than, say, Los Angeles, known for its sizable Middle Eastern population. (That city's Persian community contains the largest number of Iranians outside of Iran, earning it the nickname "Tehrangeles.")

"In a way, it is a perfect spot for (the ensemble) for that reason," said Habib, explaining that it speaks to a community-wide hunger for diversity and cultural awareness. "People recognize the need for it."

Indeed, Central Coast residents have embraced the Arab Music Ensemble, which performs classic and contemporary music and dance from the Eastern Mediterranean region. The ensemble, comprised of roughly 40 dancers, instrumentalists and vocalists, features a mix of students, faculty members and community members.

The Arab Music Ensemble will perform Nov. 16 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo, kicking off a season that includes an appearance at New York City's famed Carnegie Hall. "I joke sometimes, 'Hey, you guys sound great. Next stop, Carnegie Hall,'" the associate music professor said with a smile. "So here we go."
Dancers perform with Cal Poly's Arab Music Ensemble, led by Kenneth Habib. | Dan Williams

By his own admission, Habib took a "long and circuitous" path to his chosen field.

"I always loved music and I always knew that I wanted to do music full-time but ... I just didn't really have the guts to do it, to just plant my feet," said the Detroit-born Habib, who grew up in the Los Angeles area. After graduating from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in communications, he worked as a technical writer in Saudi Arabia.

One concert in particular encouraged him to attempt a musical career. In 1981, he saw legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz perform at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium.

"I remember just being stunned and thinking, 'Wow, this is really different but there's something in this that's really cool,'" recalled Habib, whose grandparents immigrated to the United States from Lebanon. "That concert was an 'ah ha' moment for me. It really was."

Eventually he returned to school, earning a master's degree in music composition and a doctorate in ethnomusicology at UC Santa Barbara. (His two areas of specialization are the music of the Middle East and American popular music.)

Naturally, Habib did his doctoral dissertation on Fairuz, whose popularity in the Arab world is rivaled only by the late Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. "Combine Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald and Michael Jackson" and you'd come close to matching Fairuz's fame and influence, explained Habib, who's currently writing a book on her.

It was at UC Santa Barbara that Habib first pursued his passion for performing and composing Middle Eastern music.
Dancers perform with the Middle East Ensemble at UC Santa Barbara. | Courtesy of Middle East Ensemble
"Whenever he walked by my office, I would joke with him and say, 'With the last name of Habib, you really should learn Arab music," recalled UC Santa Barbara music professor Scott Marcus, who taught Habib how to play the oud, a lute-like instrument. He also encouraged the graduate student to join the Middle East Ensemble, which he founded in 1989.

According to Marcus, two things led to the ensemble's creation. Community members interested in Middle Eastern music "put a note in my mailbox asking me if I would be their leader," he said. At the same time, he invited his students to play Middle Eastern music for class credit.

Their first collective performance, held on Nov. 16, 1989, at the university's MultiCultural Center, was "a huge, huge success," he recalled, drawing so many spectators that some were forced to watch through windows. The following quarter, Marcus officially formed the Middle East Ensemble.

Over the years, the group has performed for audiences across the nation and the world, representing the United States at the 1999 Sharq Taronalari (Melodies of the East) International Music Festival in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and traveling to Egypt in 2010 for a series of concerts sponsored by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.

The ensemble, which features a 40-member orchestra, 15 or so chorus members and eight to 10 dancers, will next perform Nov. 23 at UC Santa Barbara's Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall as part of its 25th anniversary season. (Marcus's UC Santa Barbara sitar group, the Music of India Ensemble, is also celebrating 25 years.)

Every performance "becomes a celebration of the tremendous diversity of music cultures and dance cultures in the Middle East," said Marcus, who earned his doctorate in ethnomusicology at UCLA under professor Ali Jihad Racy. "Not only are we celebrating this music for non-Middle Easterners and teaching them (about those cultures) but we find a way for Middle Eastern communities to celebrate their own traditions."

"To have a place where we celebrate being Middle Eastern is very powerful for the communities themselves," he added, noting that portraying the region in a positive light has "clear political ramifications" as well. "It's affirmation in such a powerful way."

Drummers perform as part of the Middle East Ensemble. | Courtesy of Middle East Ensemble

Habib agreed that such ensembles serve an ambassadorial role in the community.

"Speaking for myself only, I would argue that as soon as you decide that you're going to be playing music of another culture, you are involved in a representation of that culture," said Habib, who oversaw and played in a variety of ensembles - Balinese and Javanese gamelan, West African drumming, sitar and so on - during his time at UC Santa Barbara and Pomona College, where he spent a year as a visiting professor.

Since 2003, he's led an Arab music ensemble at the Middlebury College Arabic School, where he serves as associate director. (Although associated with Middlebury College in Vermont, the language school is based on the campus of Mills College in Oakland.)

Habib created the Arab Music Ensemble in the fall of 2006, his first quarter at Cal Poly.

"People just responded enthusiastically from the very beginning. It was really cool," he said. "We had people from across the religious spectrum ... singing in Arabic, which the U.S. government says is the second hardest language for Americans to learn, playing in neutral tones and in additive meters."

That winter, Thomas Davies, Cal Poly's director of choral activities and vocal studies, invited the Arab Music Ensemble to join the Cal Poly choirs in concert. It went so well that the ensemble teamed up again with PolyPhonics and The University Singers in 2011.

In March 2014, the Arab Music Ensemble will perform with PolyPhonics at Carnegie Hall at the New York Choral Festival. During the same trip, the ensembles will perform at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where Habib will give a lecture-demonstration, and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.

They'll be joined by two of Cal Poly's resident composers, associate music professor Meredith Brammeier and music professor Craig Russell, and Middle Eastern guest artists.
Cal Poly's Arab Music Ensemble is comprised of about 50 dancers, instrumentalists and vocalists. | Courtesy of Cal Poly Music Department

With every concert, Habib said, he endeavors to present a wide-ranging program that reflects the complex, interconnected nature of the Eastern Mediterranean region. A typical concert might begin with Egyptian music and end with Armenian folk dances.

"I've done my best to ensure the quality level in concerts is at a respectable enough level," he said. "It's a question of trying to be as egalitarian and systematic and reasonable as possible, and balancing that with what I can do with the resources I have .... I'm really blessed to have a great group of colleagues who are willing to come from L.A., and the Central Valley and San Francisco for less than they deserve."

The Nov. 16 concert will feature performances by Adel Iskander Guirguis, an Egyptian violinist, and Jordanian-American musician Moses Nasser, who specializes in the qanun, a zither-like instrument. (Both will play at the Carnegie Hall concert as well.)

Also performing with the Arab Music Ensemble is religious studies professor Dwight Reynolds, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Reynolds, who received his Ph.D. in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, will present a lecture demonstration on the tradition of oral epic poetry in Egypt.

Accompanying himself on a two-stringed spike fiddle called a rababa, he'll perform a small section of the lengthy Arabic epic "Sirat Bani Hilal," which chronicles the westward migration of the Bani Hilal Bedouin tribe from the Arabian Peninsula, their conquest of North Africa, and their eventual destruction in the 10th century. Accounts of historical events are embellished with stories of love, rivalry, treachery and magic.

"It's a spectacular story, a wonderful piece of literature. It should be up on the shelves with Homer and the others," said Reynolds, who studied the epic through several trips to northern Egypt between 1982 and 1995. And yet, he added, "Almost no one in modern Arab culture has heard a real performance."

That's largely due to the fact that there are fewer and fewer singers getting trained in the oral epic tradition, said Reynolds, creator of a "Sirat Bani Hilal" digital archive. The folklorist, who once performed "Sirat Bani Hilal" for a gathering of Arab member states at the United Nations, sees live performances as essential to keeping that legacy alive.

"We like to use those moments as opportunities to inform and teach and getting people interested in learning more," Reynolds said. "That is absolutely part of what we should do ... as specialists in other cultures."

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Top Image: Kenneth Habib, founder and director of Cal Poly's Arab Music Ensemble, plays a lute-like Middle Eastern instrument called the oud. | Photo: Bob Lawson.

About the Author

Sarah Linn covers film, television and the performing arts as the editor of Ticket, the arts-and-entertainment section of The Tribune newspaper of San Luis Obispo, Calif.
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