Souhael Kaspar

Souhael Kaspar: Percussion Virtuoso

By Kari Sprowl

This celebrated Lebanese-born concert percussionist was conservatory-trained in Aleppo, Syria, in both classical and ethnic Middle-Eastern rhythm patterns and percussion techniques. Although his primary style is Arabic, he is also expert in various Persian and Turkish rhythmic styles. Proficient on most percussion instruments, his primary instrument is the tablah, or Arabic hand-drum.

Dr. Jihad Racy and Souhael Kaspar

In his 24-year career, he has performed in Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South America, and Australia. He has performed in the United States for 17 years, most extensively in New York and California. He has worked with such well-known artists as Faiza Ahmad, Aboud Abdel-Al and his orchestra, Sabah Fakhri, the beloved Fairuz, Farid al-Atrash, George Wassouf, and Wadi’ al-Safi. He has also performed with the world-famous Hani Muhanna ensemble in Egypt. His proficiency and versatility are such that he is able to meet any performance demand in concert, nightclub, or media situations.

He is a featured guest artist on numerous recordings, two of the latest being “Earthtribe Rhythms – The Primitive Truth,” a recent release by Brent Lewis, and “In the Beat of the Night,” by Dr. Sami Farag.

Distinguished concert oudist, composer, and arranger, John Bilezikjian, with whom he regularly works, said, “Souhael is what I would call a ‘trained drummer.’ He not only knows the rhythms, but also the history, ethnic background, and technical language of the music. I particularly enjoy working with Souhael, because I feel that he has a special talent and sensitivity for anticipating a primary instrument. He anticipates the direction that the melody line will take, and selects and varies the choice of rhythm from his very broad repertoire. He is particularly accurate in his timing. He has a special talent for embellishment and ornamentation to enhance the melody. His phrasing is perfect. He is also a pleasure to work with because of the professionalism of his attitude toward the other musicians with whom he works.”

Souhael Kaspar has performed frequently with the prominent ethnomusicologist, Dr. Jihad Racy. Dr. Racy is a professor in the Ethnomusicology Department at the University of California at Los Angeles. The department offers a highly prestigious doctoral program. Mr. Kaspar and Dr. Racy have worked together in a variety of cultural events and workshops throughout the country.

Dr. Racy says of him, “I’ve worked with Souhael for 12 years, and he’s been very important to my performance career. He epitomizes professionalism in its best sense. He is one of the finest drummers in the world. Souhael is a musician’s musician. He is on a level that musicians admire and strive to attain. He is technically impeccable. His performance is so solid, and so simple in its complex way, that it makes an entire ensemble play comfortably. When he performs with me I feel very safe. His good nature communicates itself to the audience in his music.

“I’ve traveled with Souhael to major universities and to theaters in most major cities. I present my ‘Panorama in Sound,’ Arab music on folk and urban instruments. I demonstrate different musical styles and improvisations. Souhael has always made me feel solidly supported in my performance.

“Souhael is asked to perform with the Near-East Ensemble each spring in the ethnomusicology concert series at U.C.L.A. He is a musical role model for students, as well as other professionals.”

Souhael Kaspar was recently involved in a presentation by Al-Funun Al-Arabiya, a newly incorporated organization for the promotion of the Arab and Arab-American arts. The organization’s board of directors consists entirely of respected artists in various media.

He is invited every year to teach and perform at the Mendocino Middle-Eastern Music Camp in California. This week-long cultural event includes instruction and performances by some of the brightest lights of Middle-Eastern music, such as Jelalledinn Takesh, Faruk Tekbilek, John Bilezikjian, Ergun Tamer, Cengiz Gokcen and Salaheddin Takesh. The camp is prestigious, and highly demanding. Six hours of instruction on various ethnic instruments are given to students each day. At night, there are lectures on the styles of music from different countries and regions followed by concerts.

One does not necessarily expect an outstanding artist to also be an outstanding instructor, but this highly regarded Lebanese performing artist is gifted in both areas. His instructional style can be described in one word: exacting. Hand positions are carefully watched. His sensitive ears are constantly alert for the tone and quality of one’s dums and taks, for appropriate accenting and for timing precision. In his group classes each student receives so much personal attention that it feels like private instruction.

Teaching students to pound out a rhythm pattern on a drum is not enough for Souhael Kaspar. He teaches and expects his students to know the academics, including considerable amounts of Middle-Eastern music theory. He will often, without warning, ask an individual student to execute any one or several of a number of rhythm patterns in front of peers. Or, the student will be challenged to identify a pattern that he will play with such speed and elaborate ornamentation that the obvious is obscured (listen for the dums and the accented taks). The student will also be asked at any moment to discuss the ethnic origins and applications of any given rhythm, and must be ready to explain in technical terms how one rhythm pattern differs from another.

There are exercises to develop strength and coordination (developing a strong and precise left-handed tak is especially difficult). Souhael Kaspar teaches the impressive ornamental technique that so often characterizes Middle-Eastern percussion. He also teaches the incredibly complex art of the drum solo.

Many of his students are Western, and the challenge of learning to produce the complicated, compelling rhythms develops in Westerners an acquired taste for Middle-Eastern music. This in turn often fosters a wish to understand Arab culture. Many Westerners have developed an appreciation for the Middle-East, based on a love of the music. Is there a greater international language than the arts?

The rewards for the students are many. In addition to added depths of understanding of and appreciation for the music, and increased vocabulary, there are practical rewards. After three lessons, some students have been functional enough to accompany a primary instrument, utilizing several different rhythms for dance and music classes, and friends’ parties. After seven lessons, the students had learned 20 rhythm patterns with ornamentation plus variations. These include Baladi (Masmudi Saghir), Ayyub, Sa’idi, Malfuf, Dabki (Lebanese and Iraqi), Wahda Maksuma, Jaza’iri, Masmudi Kabir, Khaliji, Bolero, Chifte Telli, Sam’i, Fox, Hatsha, Muhajjar, Valse (waltz), Ugrug, Wahda Tawila, and Badawi. And this is only the beginning of the instruction.

Souhael Kaspar takes genuine pride and pleasure in the progress and accomplishments of his students. He impresses his students with the confidence that with practice and hard work they can eventually become, if not great artists, at least highly skilled technicians. If the commitment, the motivation, and the self-discipline are there, instruction by a virtuoso performing artist can be an intensely enriching and expanding experience.

Kari Sprowl has a B.A. in Psychology and an M.A. in Rehabilitation Counseling, and is a board-certified Medical-Surgical, Rehabilitation, and Psychiatric case manager for the managed medical care industry. She is an active Oriental dancer, and a drummer for the Caravan Middle-Eastern Music Ensemble. She is an original MECDA member, and a five-time MECDA Central Board officer. She has been involved in the Middle Eastern arts community for over sixteen years, and has been a Middle-Eastern arts and culture reviewer for about a dozen periodicals on four continents.

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