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"The Music of the 3 Musketeers - CD Review"

By Deanne Sole
February 22, 2008

Anyone who bought the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble’s debut album is going to look at the cover of this one and feel a zing of familiarity, as if an old friend has turned up in new clothes. “The font,” this person will say, musing to themselves. “I remember that font. And the whole vibe of the thing, bilingual, severe, one step away from monochrome, and oh, the gray portraits of the composers too ... But isn’t this a different group?” They check the inlay. “No, the same group with a new name. That explains it.”

The Ensemble has changed both its title and its lineup since it recorded 2006’s Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh but The Music of the Three Musketeers suggests that its raison d’être has remained intact. The musicians are still performing decades-old Egyptian music with accuracy and style, and it’s clear that they still want to plant composers, rather than performers, firmly in the spotlight. The Three Musketeers of the title, Zakariyya Ahmad, Muhammad al Qasabji, and Riyad al Sunbati, all wrote music for the singer Umm Kalthoum, a woman so famous that her albums are still selling in the tens of thousands more than three decades after her death. So, from a marketing point of view, it would have been sensible to call this CD For the Love of Umm Kalthoum, or Umm Kalthoum’s Composers or something else with Kalthoum’s name in it. But no ... the Ensemble has removed these songs gently from her grasp and decided to reflect glory on the people who devised them.

Kalthoum had a wide repertoire of love songs, therefore The Three Musketeers is an album of love songs. Six of these love songs are personal and one is patriotic, yet even the patriotic one has turned intimate by the end. “I have in Egypt a lover,” sigh the translated lyrics. “His distance keeps me up at night.” Youssef Kassab’s voice quivers as he sings.

The playing is richly ornamented, and the exchange between Kassab and the musicians with their ‘ud, qanun, ney, cello, violin, and percussion, is close and sympathetic. This is music as poetry, music that rises and falls like a voice. It has the flexible measure of a good Shakespeare recitation. In both cases the material is old, but there’s a core of human feeling in it that keeps it from sounding crusty. When Kassab asks his lover to sing to him “shewayya, shewayya,” or “softly, sweetly,” his tone incorporates longing, appeal, and insinuation, even a slight, hopeful sleaziness, as if he wouldn’t say no to something more physical than soft singing. He makes the word swerve like a swallow, beginning with a susurration on the “S”, swooping downwards, and pulling back on the final “A”, giving “shewayya” the shape of a shallow hook. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the same shape throughout any piece of Arabic script.

The Three Musketeers has a plush appeal that sets it apart from the operatic ambitions of its predecessor. Those of you looking for music with snap and spark are going to like Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh‘s “Ya Barget eh-Roh”, with its female chorus whipping out responses to the men, more than Three Musketeers’ “Leh Tilaw’ini”, “Ya Fayetni”, or anything else in this muscular whirlpool of love. I think that listening to them in reverse order is the answer. First Three Musketeers, a fat slice of chocolate cake. Then Darweesh the palate cleanser. There. Done. - Pop Matters

"An American Salute to ‘Egypt’s Verdi'"

By Ben Sisario
February 16, 2006

A few years ago Hicham Chami, a young musician in Chicago who was researching early-20th-century Arab music, found some melodies he recognized from his school days in Morocco. The words were slightly different, but the music was unmistakable. And most important, it had a composer.

“I always thought this music belonged to the traditional repertoire,” Mr. Chami said. “There was no credit given to any composer; it was just a melody out there. But I was surprised to realize that all these melodies have a composer, and it happened to be Sayyed Darweesh.”

Darweesh, a furiously prolific Egyptian composer who died at 31 in 1923, is one of the most influential figures in modern Arab music. He earned a wide reputation as much for his short but eventful life as for his cosmopolitan, Western-influenced music. An advocate of the working class when Egypt was occupied by Britain, Darweesh — whose surname is sometimes rendered as Darwish, and his given name as Sayid or Sayed — wrote about women’s suffrage and class disparities, and composed the theme that would become the Egyptian national anthem. He was also a cocaine addict who died before achieving his goal of traveling to Italy to study opera.

Mr. Chami and his group, the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble, have recorded “The Songs of Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of a People” (Xauen) and begin a national tour tomorrow at Symphony Space.

“He is famous for the kind of life he had,” Mr. Chami said. “He was famous for the kind of death he had. He was famous for the kind of lyrics he was writing. But he was not famous for what I think should be the essence of his fame, which is having composed these songs and these melodies that are being sung from North Africa to the Arabic peninsula — in different languages, and with each nation adding its particular flavor.”

Writing classical pieces for small ensembles as well as operettas for the theater troupes of Cairo, which in the early 20th century entertained a varied international audience, Darweesh developed a modern, polyglot style. He called himself Egypt’s Verdi, and in his lyrics he tinkered with language, mixing in regional colloquialisms as well as bits of Greek and English.

As played by the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble — an eight-piece group that includes the zitherlike qanun (played by Mr. Chami), oud, tambourine and nay (flute), as well as cello and male and female vocals — the music is delicate and sometimes dour, with arialike melodies blended in.
“He changed the course of the standard composers before him,” said George Dimitri Sawa, an ethnomusicologist in Toronto who studies Middle Eastern music. “What he did is not only standard classical songs, but he decided to sing for the people. First the French came to Egypt, then the British. He composed songs about poor Egyptians who could not find work.”
Among his friend-of-the-working-man songs are a cycle devoted to modern jobs. One, “Il-Shayyaleen,” recorded by Mr. Chami and his group, describes the frenzied workday of a porter who has to hustle for clients but must also cooperate with his comrades, or else everyone will lose out.

“He was saying this so long before unions came in,” Mr. Chami said. “This was singing about how when you are among a group of people, you have to start thinking as a group.”
Born in Morocco, Mr. Chami moved to Chicago at 22 to study for an M.B.A. at DePaul University. He continued his musical studies on the side, until he decided four years ago to jettison his day job creating marketing campaigns for shampoos and detergents, and to pursue Arab music full time.

Mr. Chami, now 28, and the members of his group, who come from various parts of the Middle East, say they took on the project partly to keep a fading tradition alive, and partly to promote the idea of a pan-Arab influence that connects the nations of North Africa and the Middle East through an adventurous, multicultural music.

Kareem Roustom, 34, who plays oud in the group and is its musical director, also noted that the music can promote American understanding of the 20th-century Arab world, which struggled with independence, adapting to the industrial age and absorbing diverse cultural influences.

“Darweesh would be a good conduit for cross-understanding,” Mr. Roustom said. “It helps to understand a people through somebody they hold dear.” - The New York Times

"Writers finally get credit Egyptian composers' songs known, names not."

News Special Writer
February 6, 2008

It's about "The Three Musketeers,'' but d'Artagnan and his buddies Athos, Porthos and Aramis are nowhere to be found.

The musketeers in question come from another time and place than the mid-19th-century French novel. Their heyday was the 1930s and '40s, and collectively, they represent a golden age of Egyptian music.

The problem is that even aficionados of their music often don't know their names, only that of the celebrated Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum (1904-1975), who made their music famous.

"People will listen and say, 'That's an Umm Kalthoum song,' but Umm Kulthum never composed a single song,'' said Moroccan-born Hicham Chami, a virtuoso on the plucked string instrument called the qanum and founder of the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble, which brings together mostly young professional musicians of Arab heritage from a number of U.S. cities. (The group recently changed its name to the Arabesque Music Ensemble, but this concert is still being marketed under the old moniker.)

Chami and his fellow members in the group set out to give praise where praise was due, with a recording of "The Music of the Three Musketeers'' (Xauen Music) that honors the contributions of Zakariyya Ahmad (1896-1961), Muhammad al-Qasabji (1892-1966) and Riyad al-Sunbati (1906-1982).

Friday, with three vocalists, the group - Chami, legendary percussionist Michel Merhej Baklouk, cellist Kinan Abou-Afash, oud player Kalid Zairi and violinist Hanna Khoury - brings music from the Three Musketeers to a debut at Rackham Auditorium under University Musical Society auspices.

One of the vocalists with them on tour (in addition to Dima Orsho and Aboud Agha) is the 75-year-old male vocalist Youssef Kassab, who is heard on the CD and who played a critical role in the recording.

It's not for nothing that the members of the group, professional musicians in their 20s and 30s, accord Kassab the honorific of "ustaz'' or professor.

When Kassab arrived in Chicago for the mix and mastering of the recording, he sat in silence as Chami and Khoury played for him what they had laid down.

"It's wonderful, fantastically performed,'' Chami recalled Kassab saying. "But it is terrible. It does not sound traditional at all.''

It was back to the drawing board. "We redid everything,'' said Chami, "we rerecorded every note.'' It was frustrating and challenging, Chami said, but also very rewarding.

"I think he was right,'' said Chami. "I listen to the recordings we had before,'' which won wide praise in world-music circles, "and we're talking about two neatly played, well-recorded performances. This is different. Youssef is by no means this diva performer, but the title 'professor' is one he should be carrying.'' - The Ann Arbor News

"Arab songstress's music comes to life"

By Katie Carey
February 08, 2008

With a collection of musicians from seven different countries including Morocco, Syria and Israel, one would expect the Arabesque Music Ensemble to be performing an eclectic blend of culture and tradition. But, they're not about reinventing the wheel, but rather about preserving the original.

Tonight, Arabesque takes the stage at Rackham Auditorium to keep Arab history alive. Performing music from the legendary Arab songstress Umm Kulthum, composed by three Egyptians, Arabesque differs from other ensembles in its commitment to staying true to the original work.

However, their ambition was met with difficulty since the original performers committed the music to their memory and were urged by Kulthum to "let their hearts guide them." Because the music was never notated on paper, and those who worked with The Three Musketeers - the name given to the three composers - are no longer performing because of old age, the live compositions were virtually lost in the Arab world.

While Umm Kulthum has influenced such pop icons as Bob Dylan, Nico, Bono and Led Zeppelin, never before has a group taken on the task of performing her original work in its entirety.

"Everybody is trying to come up with new ways to come up with this music, but no one is trying to recreate this music the way that is was in the '20s , except this ensemble," said Hicham Chami, founder of Arabesque. The musicians today attempt to stay as loyal to every note and vowel as The Three Musketeers intended. The group had to sit down and listen to tapes of the music, rewind and notate over and over again before they could start to play music. What would take two or three days to learn musically took two or three months because of the process and accuracy they wanted to ensure before attempting to recreate these masterpieces.

"If that doesn't make you mad and angry," Chami paused. "It does make me mad and angry; it is one of the finest pieces that this composer has ever created and no one took the time to notate it."

Layering Middle Eastern instruments like the qunan, buzuq and riqq with Western instruments like the cello, flute and viola over a rich dialogue of vocals, Arabesque builds a repertoire of highs and lows that pull the listener along with a crisp percussion section.

As each song progresses, the compositions that once lasted up to two hours build with the rhythm of a climbing emotional catharsis. Through the repetition of key lines that translate to "sing for me; I'll give you anything" and "why do you make me suffer so?", Arabesque quietly changes the meaning of the lines each time they are sung.

Each following verse is more passionate than the last, creating a universal language of love, loss and longing that the music of The Three Musketeers once emphasized. One doesn't need a deep understanding of the Arabic language to understand the musical language that reaches out of each of the musicians and touches the core of listeners all around the world.

"I believe this is going to be the next big revolution in Arabic music, and I hope that it is coming soon," Chami said. As an artist, I cannot allow such great music to be forgotten."

However, the music of Arabesque stretches past simply being a re-creation of the past. Arabesque strives to do what many great artists can only hope to accomplish in their lifetime. They hope to make a change. Arabesque is on the road to bridging the Arab and Western worlds through their music.

"Once we step on stage, yes, we are musicians, but we are also ambassadors," Chami said. "We offer a positive image of the Arabic world."

Chami recalled his recent performance in which he estimated that 90 percent of the audience had been looking at an Arab face for the first time. Additionally, the group will be teaching a workshop to youth people before the performance, giving exposure to the music and promoting understanding. Through his art, Chami and Arabesque build a bridge between the two worlds, uniting them on a common front of the humanity found in their music. - The Michigan Daily

"Ensemble Explores Arab Music"

The golden age of Egyptian music has returned on "The Music of the Three Musketeers," (al-Fursan at-Talatha) by the Arabesque Music Ensemble. The three endearingly-labeled composers — Zakariyya Ahmad, Muhammad al-Qasabji, and Riyad al-Sunbati — wrote a large majority of pieces performed by the Arab world's most famous singer, Umm Kulthum of Egypt. However, they received little attention themselves. Until now.

Though the Arabesque Music Ensemble (formerly known as the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble) has produced one of the most historically-representative Arabic music recordings of these composers in recent years, surprisingly, the Ensemble's musicians are young (most in their 20s or 30s with the exception of legendary percussionist Michel Merhej Baklouk) and based, not in Damascus, Tangier, or Cairo, but in various cities throughout the United States; many of them raised here. Though they are highly-educated, well-practiced, and not in complete disregard of popular culture (some ensemble members have recorded with Shakira and Beyoncé), they made a conscious (and sometimes painful) effort to re-create the music as authentic to the era as possible.

To get this unadulterated sound, the group recruited the great Syrian-born 75-year old singer, ustaz (professor) Youssef Kassab, who five decades ago performed and recorded with the Syrian National Orchestra, when the three composers highlighted on the new album were still alive. Kassab meticulously transcribed the compositions — some of them rarely reproduced in decades — from old recordings, and became a conduit between these historic composers and the young musicians. But Kassab's greatest contribution was unexpected, and only emerged after the recording was ready to be mastered.

"We recorded the entire instrumental portion of the album and played it to Youssef for his final approval, before sending it to the pressing plant," explains Moroccan-born qanun player Hicham Chami, the founder of the Ensemble. "He listened from beginning to end, very calmly, without a hint of reaction. Finally, when it was over, he said, 'That's good, very good, the playing is tight, but it's not traditional.' " What followed was a painstaking process of re-recording the entire album, with utmost attention paid as much to recreating the era's style as to masterful performances. In spite of their own musical dispositions, Chami and ensemble allowed themselves to become "instruments" for Kassab. In the process, they established the foundations of a bridge across generations; something on the verge of being lost.

"He made me re-approach my entire playing," says Chami, who is known for his mastery of intricate techniques on the qanun. "It was very challenging and demanding. And it wasn't until late in the recording sessions that I started getting it. I really started hearing myself differently. I started to understand what was in Youssef's very experienced mind. I gained more in those few days in the studio with him than I have gained in over twenty years of classes with other master musicians!"

The same thing happened with violinist Hanna Khoury and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach. "Youssef thinks in terms of the 1930s sound, where you might only hear one instrumentalist," says Khoury. "Consistent with the era, Youssef emphasized the importance of the vocalist, so we had to bring the instruments way down. He told us, 'When you are accompanying me, I want eighty percent less of what I am hearing.' And 'I want just one instrument accompanying my voice.' It will never get more authentic than this."

This was the ideal approach for such homage to these three composing heavyweights.

"We come from a tradition where usually the singer gets all the credit," explains Chami. "And many people forget that behind the singer is a person who put the music together. In this case, they were very talented composers. Many composers who contributed significantly to the canon, including Zakariyya Ahmad, died penniless."

While Ahmad's compositions were heavily inspired by Sufi chant, recitation of the Qur'an, and sacred incantations, al-Qasabji and al-Sunbati were part of a movement that had one foot in tradition and another in something new, with a bit of Western influence. But this hybridization is not what it seems on the surface.

"After decades of colonization by the Ottoman empire, Egyptian musicians used Western characteristics to merge their traditional sounds with what was going on in other parts of the world," explains Dr. George Sawa, an independent scholar of Medieval Arabic music history and author of the Three Musketeers liner notes. "The provinces had been kept very separate by the Turks and missed a lot of modernization. So when France and England came along, it was a chance to connect with the larger world. And that affected everything from education and poetry to art and music."

While three of the compositions (tracks 1-3) have been recorded in recent years, they have not been recorded with such traditional playing accurate to the era. Three of the compositions (tracks 5-7) have not been recorded since their original records. The remaining track (4), says Chami, "is so difficult to record, few have tried."

"As far as the whole theme — 'composers first!'—this has almost never occurred in the Arab world," says Khoury. "It's always the performers first — and the composers? Almost nobody has heard of them. People always know these songs by their performers. But think about Western classical music: Mozart, Beethoven. This music is still alive, long after the person who first performed it is gone. We have to do the same thing to maintain this tradition. This music doesn't have to die because Umm Kulthum died."

"Back home in Egypt and Syria, good traditional singers starve while most modern composition has more to do with half-naked women dancing to very bad music," says Sawa. "The 1930s and '40s in Egypt was the most sophisticated era for this music. Umm Kulthum surrounded herself by the Three Musketeers, as Egypt came to call them. I feel so depressed about the state of music today, that it gives me great pleasure to know that these young musicians are bringing such composition back to the spotlight." - AAN

"Celebrating the masterful music of an overlooked Arab composer"

By Philip Zonkel
March 2, 2006

SHEIKH SAYYED DARWEESH is one of the most influential figures in modern Arab music; some even consider him “the father of modern Arab music.”

The Egyptian composer radically modernized Arabic classical music by introducing Western instruments and harmony, and his lyrics blended working-class and patriotic themes. His “Biladi (My Homeland)” was adopted as the Egyptian national anthem.

He composed at least 100 documented songs spanning a wide range of genres during his brief seven-year career. He died in 1923 at the age of 31 from a drug overdose before achieving his goal of traveling to Italy to study opera.

Darweesh’s songs and style have enchanted the Arab world since the early 20th century, yet many listeners don’t know the man.

“Most Arabs are familiar with Sayyed Darweesh’s music, but they are not aware that he is the composer,” says Moroccan-born musician Hicham Chami. “We’ve known these songs since we were kids. We just assumed they were traditional melodies.”

But Chami wants to change that impression and introduce the man behind the music.

In a bold musical revival, the 28-year-old and the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble (a multicultural group of musicians from the Windy City) have recorded 41 minutes of Darweesh’s music and released it on the CD, “The Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of a People.”

The group also has hit the road for a seven-city national tour, which stops tonight at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Chami says part of his motivation to undertake the CD and tour is to keep a tradition of music alive and the other is personal.

“I’m doing this very selfishly. I enjoy this music. It’s music that I enjoy playing,” says Chami, a qanun (zither) virtuoso. “It speaks to me more than any other type of music. It’s my music. It’s what I grew up with. This music uses microtones that are extremely moving to my ear.”

The Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble tour is dedicated to authenticity. To re-create the standards of Darweesh’s era, musicians are dressed in tuxedos, and microphones are used minimally.

Although the CCOE has 20 members, the La Mirada show will feature five musicians playing Oriental instruments such as qanun, ud (lute), riqq (Arab tambourine) and nay (flute) and Western classical instruments such as violin and cello, as well as a female and male vocalist, 74-year-old Syrian singer Youssef Kassab.

“When we decided to record this music, we decided to do it very authentically,” Chami says. “I wanted to make sure nobody would show up after a show and say, ‘Why did you do it this way? It wasn’t supposed to be like this.’ “
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Darweesh was trained as a reciter of the Koran. He abandoned a career as a religious man — working a number of odd jobs, from laying bricks to working as a clerk at a furniture store — to support his family.

He began singing in cafes and traveled to Syria, where he learned Arabic, Persian and Turkish music and started composing his own works.

After World War I, Darweesh settled in Cairo and was immersed in the theatrical world, helping write seven operettas.

Darweesh’s music crossed boundaries of style, history, geography and genre. It suggests a country reflecting on its identity, seeking to reconcile tradition and modernity, multicultural elements and class and gender disparities.

Many of Darweesh’s songs have traditional folk themes and speak to the common person, but a number of his songs deal with progressive subjects — women’s rights, independence, nationalism and social justice.

His lyrics also were infused with a variety of languages.

“Darweesh’s popular songs used language, such as colloquial Arabic, that was very clever and innovative,” Nagi says. “He often invented words and phraseology. He mixed in token English and Greek phrases to capture the multicultural character of Egypt at the time.

“His subjects captured the mood of a nation in transition and appealed to the masses of Egypt as well as the intelligentsia,” Nagi says. “The songs spoke of their daily lives, concerns, needs and paranoias.”

Six years ago, Chami’s daily life revolved around school. He moved to Chicago and garnered an M.B.A. at DePaul University. Chami studied music on the side, until he decided four years ago to jettison his day job, marketing shampoos and detergents, and pursue Arab music full time.

In 2003, he founded CCOE, which now consists of 20 musicians from nine different countries: United States, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Syria, India, Russia and France. The ensemble performs traditional instrumental and vocal music from an Arabic, Sephardic, Egyptian, Levantine, Turkish and Armenian repertoire.

They took on the project partly to keep a fading tradition alive, and partly to promote the idea of a pan-Arab influence that connects the nations of North Africa and the Middle East through an adventurous, multicultural music.

Playing and promoting Darweesh’s music is part of that mandate.

“I was making good money and enjoying (marketing consumer products), but I’m enjoying what I’m doing a bit more,” Chami says.

“I’m adding something to the culture here in the United States. I’m making something available that was not before. It’s tremendously fulfilling and rewarding to say it took 70 years for someone to come up and do what I’m doing. - Press Telegram

"The Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble honors Egyptian composer."

By Paul de Barros
February 24, 2006

When Sayyed Darweesh died of a drug overdose in 1923 — penniless and addicted to cocaine — he had packed his bags for a trip to Italy to study opera.“I am the Egyptian Verdi,” said the composer, who in seven years wrote hundreds of songs, one of which, “Biladi (My Homeland)” was adopted as the Egyptian national anthem, in 1979.

In a bold historical retrieval, the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble (CCOE) has recorded Darweesh’s music on a CD, “The Songs of Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of A People.” The ensemble performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall ($20-$25; 206-652-4255).

“Most Arabs are familiar with Sayyed Darweesh’s music, but they are not aware that he is the composer,” said CCOE leader Hicham Chami, who plays qanun (zither). “We’ve known these songs since we were kids. We just assumed they were traditional melodies.”

Chami studied music in his native Morocco, but moved to Chicago in 2000 to earn an MBA. Along the way, he became fascinated by Darweesh, and in 2003 founded the CCOE, which now consists of 20 musicians from the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The Seattle performance features seven players, most of them in their 20s, with the exception of 74-year-old Syrian vocalist Youssef Kassab.

“Just to be able to perform and learn from him is amazing,” said Chami. “He’s like a professor, but you’re not getting grades and exams.”
Darweesh’s music was written during a turbulent period, when Egyptians were both absorbing Western influences and establishing a nationalist cultural identity in opposition to British colonialism. (Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy” dramatizes this period nicely.)

Born in Alexandria, Darweesh began as a reciter of the Koran, worked as a bricklayer then toured with a theatrical troupe. After studying music in Syria, he sang in cafes, but found his true metier as a composer of operettas, many satirizing bourgeois Egyptians who supported the British occupation. Though his music was much in demand during his lifetime, he never became a pop star, like, say, diva Uum Kulthum, whom Darweesh influenced.

According to Chami, Darweesh was the first to introduce harmony — and the piano — into Egyptian music, which is based on scales and modes, not chords. His sinuous and warbling melody lines are often carried in rich, thick unisons by the voice, oud (lute), cello, qanun and violin, with the crisp tapping of Egyptian drums driving the proceedings. There are male and female vocals, sometimes in a call-and-answer format.

Many of the songs are rousing, such as “Biladi” which begins “Egypt! O mother of all lands/My hope and my ambition/How can one count/The blessings of the Nile for mankind?” Others are tender love songs or dramatize comic situations.

Finding authentic versions of Darweesh’s music was a huge problem, says Chami, since most of it has never been released on CD. “Some of his lyrics were actually changed because they were too rude, too insulting to some people,” he said. “Some recordings were made in the ‘30s and ‘40s. We had to sort of go back to the originals.”

Ironically, after the ensemble searched far and wide for authentic versions of the music, e-mailing friends back home, a few months ago, an agency sponsored by the Egyptian government published a three-volume work about Darweesh’s life and work, including his lyrics.

“I wish I could have had those books a year and a half ago!” said Chami. - The Seattle Times


"Soul of a People": The songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh.

"al-Fursan at-Talatha": The music of the three musketeers: Riad as-Sunbati, Zakariyya Ahmad, Muhammad al-Qasabji.



The AME is comprised of conservatory-trained musicians from the Middle East and North Africa who perform the classical Arab repertoire. The traditional takht (violin, qanun, ‘ud, cello, and percussion) forms the foundation of the AME. Permanent AME instrumentalists are Hanna Khoury, violin; Hicham Chami, qanun; and Kinan Abou-Afach, cello. Youssef Kassab is lead vocalist with the AME; prominent international guest artists, both instrumentalists and vocalists, record and tour with the AME.

The AME’s mission is to preserve and transmit the legacy of classical Arabic music through making studio recordings of historically-significant composers, presenting top-calibre performances of the finest works from the classical oeuvre, educating students of all ages in Arabic music history and technique, and engaging in community networking at all levels.

Not only is the AME one of the very few ensembles in North America devoted solely to the classical Arab repertoire, but the AME claims the distinction of maintaining a focus on the composer in all of its recordings and concerts--as Le Devoir (Montreal) expressed it, “Le Compositeur d’Abord!” Each recording project involves substantial translation, research, and transcription/arranging in consultation with respected ethnomusicologists, resulting in a product that combines artistic and educational achievement. The AME’s dedication to presenting the popular and lesser-known works of time-honored composers keeps this music alive for current and future generations.

Concert tours produced in conjunction with AME's recording series give audiences the rare experience of hearing classical Arabic music as it is meant to be performed...not in a “modern” style, but as if transported to a concert hall from decades past. The AME is privileged to re-acquaint those of Arab origin with the authentic music of their heritage, and to introduce this music to many listeners for the first time. Music critic Peter Margasak writes, “Unless you travel to the Middle East, it’s hard to see this stuff played live—and nearly impossible to find a group that can do it with such elegance and passion.”

The Arabesque Music Ensemble credits its vocalist, legendary singer Youssef Kassab, with keeping the ensemble true to its mission, whether in its recordings or live performances. Ustad Kassab, who has collaborated with many of the “greats” in the Arabic music pantheon, serves as a “link to the past” and is tireless in mentoring the ensemble’s younger musicians in the traditional techniques. With this continual guidance, the AME is well-positioned to represent a “revivalist” approach in its artistic efforts.

The Arabesque Music Ensemble’s educational activities range from classroom presentations and youth concerts to college residencies and cultural programs for community/governmental agencies. The annual Heartland Seminar on Arabic Music, a six-day residential program designed both for people who wish to begin their study as well as those who seek to improve their skills offers participants the opportunity to learn from AME musicians one-to-one and in small ensembles. A year- round academy for the study and teaching of classical Arabic music, in the development phase, will complement existing cooperative ventures
with music schools around the U.S.