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"LIC couple revisit the classics of Arabic music"

For Sami and Robin Shumays, the best way to move Arabic music forward is to look to the past. The Long Island City couple are the creative force behind Zikrayat, a performance collective devoted to classical Arabic music and dance.

Sami Shumays, 31, a violinist, fell in love with Arabic music while studying to be a composer in the Western classical tradition. He headed to Cairo, Egypt, and Aleppo, Syria, to study violin and learn the Arabic language. "Egypt is accessible for Westerners," he said. "Really, I'm an American."

He was born in Pittsburgh to a Euro-American mother and a Palestinian father, but Arabic was never spoken at home. He has observed that Arab immigrants to America, in their eagerness to assimilate, often "aren't supportive of their culture."

Meanwhile Robin Shumays, 36, a lifelong Queens resident who also goes by the stage name "Dameshe," became interested in Eastern cultures by absorbing the diversity that surrounded her. She concedes it is an unusual path: "I'm one of the only African-American belly dancers in New York City," she said.

She has carried a fleeting interest in the performing arts throughout her life. Combine that with a childhood spent watching Indian teleplays on cable access in Rockaway Beach, a father who brought home tales of world travel with the Merchant Marines and a fascination with the belly dancer in Prince's ensemble, and you have the ingredients for a late-blooming dance career. "Usually it's considered too late once you're in your 20s," she said.

The Shumayses' devotion to Arabic culture led not only to Zikrayat, but also to the meet-cute that culminated in their 2005 wedding.

It was 2003. Robin was a member of a Middle Eastern dance company, and Sami was the violinist in a musical troupe that would accompany them in a one-time show with live music.

"We didn't talk at all," Robin said. "We didn't say more than two words. But apparently we were developing a crush on each other." The performance came and went without Robin working up the courage to act on it.

Some time later, another musician acquaintance came to her looking for Middle Eastern musicians - and Robin had a particular half-Arab violinist in mind. But it took until the very end of her call to Sami for Robin to make her move.

"So," she offered. "How have you been?"

"We wound up talking for three hours," she said. They began dating soon after, got married on the Astoria waterfront at Rainey Park and bought a two-family house in Long Island City.

But even as they planned their wedding, they were marrying their artistic sensibilities in Zikrayat. For each of them, the group affords them an opportunity to both seek out the roots of Arabic music and dance and explore artistic territory that few Western artists have trod.

In Egypt, where Sami studied and the couple honeymooned, they came across the wealth of classic Arabic music and dance performances captured by Cairo's film industry - an entire repertory of song virtually unexplored by musicians in the West.

For much of the 20th century, Sami explained, Cairo was the Bollywood of the Arab world. "Almost every single musician in Cairo was in films. The best dancers also É The movies are really unavoidable if you're studying Egyptian music."

For Robin, who was concerned about the sometimes trashy image of what we call belly-dancing - over there it is known as raqs sharqi, or "eastern dance" - the newly discovered performances offered an opportunity to modernize Arabic dance by reinventing the classics.

Arabic dance can be almost as controversial in the East as it is in the West, Robin said. It has its roots in Arabic folk culture, but as it has evolved, its presentation has become more kitschy and sexually charged.

"Every wedding has to have one, but nobody wants their daughter to be one," Sami said of dancers in the Arab world.

"Because it has acquired such a stereotype, it's important for me to perform these dances on a stage and gain some respect," Robin said. "I didn't go into dancing because I wanted to dance for anyone."

Zikrayat, then, would put on a more theatrical show with both artistic and educational ambitions - not just a club show with dancers gyrating to music on CD. The group features half a dozen regular musicians, a vocalist and four dancers, along with occasional guests. They eschew keyboards and drum machines in favor of a traditional takht, a small ensemble of strings and percussion.

"We've lost money to be able to do them as we wanted," Sami said of Zikrayat's somewhat infrequent performances.

After almost two years with the group, which performs together only every few months, the Shumayses see Zikrayat as in a transitional phase right now, between their exploratory period and emergence as a real touring ensemble. Robin plans to seek a performance grant from the Queens Council of the Arts to allow Zikrayat to start playing theaters instead of clubs where they may be relegated to background noise.

They have also just released a CD, "Live at Lotus," with songs culled from a pair of 2006 performances at a small theater in Manhattan. It's available at shows and online at Amazon.com and CDbaby.com, a retailer of independent music.

"We tried to make it feel like what our shows sound like," Sami said. - Astoria Times / Times Ledger newpapers


ZIKRAYAT - Live at Lotus



MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Sami Abu Shumays first received a bachelor's degree in music composition from Harvard University before beginning his career in Arabic music. He first studied Arabic violin under Simon Shaheen in New York, then traveled to Egypt on a Fulbright Fellowship to study with Alfred Gamil. After a year in Egypt he traveled to Syria to study classical muwashahat singing and violin. He has performed at Carnegie Hall and Symphony Space with Simon Shaheen and Bassam Saba, opened a private concert for Indian Master Sultan Khan. He has taught maqam (Arabic modal scales) theory at the Arabic Music Retreat and violin at Lark in the Morning Camp for World Music and Dance as well as the Folk Tours World Music Camp. He also hosts two podcasts on Arabic music and maqam theory.

DANCE DIRECTOR: Robin Dameshe Shumays, known professionally as “Dameshe,” began studying Middle Eastern Dance at Serena Studios in 1997. She has studied and performed across the country and in Cairo focusing primarily on Egyptian Raqs Sharqi and folkloric styles of dance from Upper Egypt. In 2003 she extended her dance vocabulary to include the classical Indian forms Bharat Natyam and Kuchipudi. The following year she began classical Indian vocal training as well. Dameshe has performed professionally as a soloist at Kush, Kapadokya, Lafayette Grill, Galapagos Art Space, Rakkasah East Middle-Eastern Dance Festival, Lotus Music and Dance, among countless venus, and at private events around the city. She has also performed in numerous theatrical productions with the “Maqamikaze Dance Theater", the "Serena Dance Theater" and the "Casbah Dance Experience." Inspired by a deep love of Egyptian musical films and the dancers and musicians who starred in them, Dameshe developed the idea for Zikrayat alongside musical director Sami Shumays in 2005. Dameshe is also a professional web and graphics designer.