Nabil Azzam

Playing for Peace

Meeting with Nabil Azzam

by Deborah Hunter

People were everywhere. When I arrived at his house, clusters of people stood on every corner. Some talked heatedly. Others were relaxed, observing, just being together, hands in pockets. I thought: “Of course Nabil’s house is an attraction for community spirit. How natural.”

Such were my thoughts of the man I knew, Nabil Azzam, the “welcoming host and master of concert introductions” at the annual Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp. Nabil, the man in circulation.

Nabil Azzam. Photo: Mimm Jamil-Illut.

In addition to his warmth and joie de vivre, my interest was kindled by the bits and pieces I knew of his background. A Palestinian man, born in Israel, he now lives in Los Angeles. He has a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A. in ethnomusi-cology, and will be teaching Arabic music at Redlands University in Southern California in 1997. He returns periodically to Israel to lead an orchestra of Russian immigrant musicians (of both Jewish and Palestinian heritage). They are learning and adapting Arabic music styles to their Western classical instruments, under Nabil’s tutelage.

The thought of these interconnections between disciplines and cultures was, for me, a bit of heaven fallen to earth. I knew it would be in this arena (of seemingly diverse elements finding harmony) that our sharing would resonate — a unity within diversity.

Please join me in our afternoon conversation.

DEBORAH: How did you get started?

NABIL: Where I was going initially was not going to lead me anywhere. It was only going to make a lot of stress. My old views were about to lead me to be very standard. The way I am going now will maybe explain better. Now I am going to do everything I want to do as led by spirituality…and by what is better for more people. I work on myself very hard so that I can reach a point where I can care about everyone, regardless of ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation. I don’t buy or consume cheap thinking. It is better to know what is real and what is not real. And to enjoy the real things.

With that comment, I felt increased joy of communion with him. And in him feeling my understanding, more words came forth.

NABIL: So many people are ruled by only the things that they see. And maybe the things they feel. But beyond that, to know this higher sensitivity of nonphysical things, not to be attracted to the shiny stuff of life, takes a lot of thinking.

DEBORAH: What was pivotal for you in coming to the way you now view things?

NABIL: The Gulf war was a period of horrendous disorientation for me. It coincided with the finishing point of my Ph.D., which I had imagined would be the grand opening of my life. The war in the Gulf confronted me with realities of life that were not positive structures. I sat down and did not know what to do for months. I read a lot, and came to understand that unless you become in control of your thoughts, nothing positive can come into your life. But, with the force of your thoughts and feelings of wanting to understand life, the desire for something positive somehow starts. And you start from there. And it affects your playing of music.

During this crisis of the Gulf war and the civil unrest (the riots) in Los Angeles, I had to ask myself many questions. And also to ask myself: who was I to think of confronting change of this magnitude. In these questions the only way to go is deeper. I asked myself what was more important: to leave, or to understand?

“Understand. Understand,” he whispers passionately with repeated pulse. The composer in me responds to the rhythm of his words. We pause in silence, drawn into the force of life which propels the human spirit to understand. Nabil punctuates his pause of stillness with occasional sips of strong coffee from a tiny china cup.

NABIL: The challenge is to look for the truth. Do we learn in that looking? Yes! There is always something to learn if you want to explore areas of human behavior. I think that the big artists were experts in these areas…expert in these areas.

Again, the tone of his whispered certainty puts musical repeat signs around that which he wants emphasized.

DEBORAH: How exactly does it affect the way you play music?

NABIL: You go to other levels of playing. The average music student is not taught to do more than the score asks him to do. The arguments students are encouraged to have are mostly about interpretation, and about what is written. But there is another level. Why are there some musicians who can reach more people? Who can speak through their instruments? Nobody wants to hear just action and reaction between the notes. This is not the function of music. We don’t want someone to play for us. We want someone to SPEAK TO US! Speak to us on human and emotional levels!

DEBORAH: How do you work with the artists in Israel? Tell me about the Galilee Orchestra.

NABIL: It is all very different in Israel. People are so direct. The confrontation, even politically is so direct. So I went there to establish something that would continue my life. I had developed certain theories, and the time had come to apply them. Not scientifically, but practically…to work with them.

DEBORAH: What were those theories specifically?

NABIL: It is about the orchestra. I know this body of musicians. I was brought up as a western classical musician, as a violinist. I understand the dynamics of listener, player and conductor. What I saw was the empirical way that symphony orchestras work. First of all, during our era there is no time to rehearse. The modern conductors who make it are the ones who can make something work in a limited time period. There is some room for experiments, but it’s got to be quick.

Nabil Azzam conducting the Galilee Orchestra.

My theories require longer experiments, a blending of my ethnic background with your ethnic background. And the repertoire of the orchestra must have room for the innovations of that, and of life as it is today.

DEBORAH: Is the Galilee Orchestra an Arabic music orchestra?

NABIL: Western classical instruments and classically trained musicians. But we take from the Arabic ensemble’s freedom, which is an accumulation of instruments. An Arabic notion is: ‘If you want to play this instrument or that instrument, you are welcome!’ Then when joining, they figure out what to do with you. If you want to play the clarinet in an Arabic orchestra, they will find a way to squeeze you in. So the attitude is open to all kinds of additives and changes in texture.

Some modern keyboards now used in Arabic urban orchestras miss the point of intonation. It is more acceptable to me to modify a western instrument to Arabic tuning and expression.

Looking at a programme of the orchestra, with both European classical repertoire and contemporary Arabic compositions (in this case Nabil’s compositions), I begin to get a feel for their endeavors.

NABIL: I don’t want to change anything. I want to preserve Arabic music. But some people want to preserve by means of choking. Preserving is not stopping the life. We cannot stay the same for millions of years. Life is changing. When a baby is two years old, he is beautiful for two years old. But you don’t want to see him ten years later as the same age. Life changes normally. Even the rocks are changing. They are not something dead. They might not dance like we do, but they change from something to something.

DEBORAH: So you don’t want to change anything? But this orchestra is built on the premise of change!

NABIL: No one needs another orchestra. Why another fantastic orchestra? Why? No. We want to establish a different orchestra.

DEBORAH: What was your goal?

NABIL: To write Arabic music for the symphony orchestra. To use the symphony orchestra for our needs. I would hope the music would appeal to everyone, including the potato seller on the street. There is no such thing as “high class” in music. We are peasants, all of us. If it’s not a bunch of peasants, it’s not good. The players themselves know. They whistle a melody. They talk about it…not about the hard passages that would make them have a hernia.

My satisfaction comes from people who, for example, come to the Middle Eastern Camp and speak of staying around the campfire until five in the morning. They say they couldn’t get up and leave. I want everyone to feel free to touch orchestral music in that way. Yes. And we can do that through composers who compose in that natural way. Our aim is to encourage composers to not be afraid of the orchestra. Free the composer! Free the composer! Whatever you want to do, do it!

He begins to speak about the great composer Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab (c.1910-1992). To Nabil, this man exemplified the freedom of miraculous transformations, both in himself and his compositions.

NABIL: In the late twenties, the entire Middle East unanimously agreed that Mohammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab was the best singer and composer in Egypt.

DEBORAH: Why was he the best?

NABIL: Because he used his antennae to go beyond the instruments or his voice. It became a reaching out to give — to give melody, to give answers to different questions. Social questions. Human questions. That’s why he was a leader. A leader is not only a good person, but rather someone who leads the masses from where they are, to another place, in another time. That’s how music changes. So the notion of preservation for me is totally different because of Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab.

Look at what he did! By 1928 he had composed one of the biggest hits all over the Middle East (‘Ya Jarat Al-Wadi’). If he was a follower of the idea of preservation, he would have produced hundreds of pieces like that. But no, he changed. He rearranged the parameters of music. Changes of ideas led to musical change. No one on earth can trace his music to be the personality of the same composer. He moved from one style of music that he excelled in…to the next style of music that he excelled in…to the next style of music that he excelled in. He had one foot in the Middle Ages and the other in the 20th century, shifting modalities, shifting rhythm, every element into something new, again and again.

Nabil and I go into intense musician’s talk, discussing nuances of music that have moved us. This brings Nabil to speak of the singer Oum Kalthoum (c.1900-1975).

DEBORAH: Why was Oum Kalthoum such a great singer?

The phone was ringing. Nabil resisted answering it until his words found form.

NABIL: Why Oum Kalthoum? Because she convinces you. Convinces you in a way that can reach your soul. And you believe!

Now he picks up the line. It is a rabbi from a synagogue. He and Nabil liase about the Yom Kippur service for which Nabil will give a violin rendering of “Kol Nidre.” After the phone call, Nabil tells me of the sacredness of this devotional song: “Kol Nidre,” a song for the Day of Atonement.

DEBORAH: Since you work in the Palestinian world, isn’t there a traditional Arab view of not associating with the Jewish tradition?

NABIL: But I am blessed. I am blessed. I am blessed. I’m not that famous. I know a lot of people, and they know me. But I’m not famous. My nationalistic reputation is not in question. I have friends on both sides, true friends. And they trust me with their own music…their own music!

My gut again knows exactly what he means in that emphasized repetition. The intimacy of sound. The privateness of devotion put forward for all to hear. He and I speak for some time of the different foundations underlying music of different religions.

NABIL: The concept of Arabic music is to enchant. It is a totally different way of dealing with the music. To enchant is to be a brain surgeon.

DEBORAH: You mean the ability to change minds.

NABIL: They trust me with their music, their most sacred music! It is wonderful and very dangerous. In the case of Kol Nidre, do not consider me non-Jewish. This piece is about the Day of Atonement. It is about going deep within your body to clean it. Being in touch with this feeling, I think, makes me Jewish in a true sense when I play it.

I changed the tuning of two strings on the violin in order to re-express myself. With all the ornaments, with all the vibrations of my soul through my fingers on the finger board, with a special kind of vibrato. . . I am able to play this Jewish musical theme, I think, with dignity. And the congregation is…SSSHHH…WOW…amazing! And the rabbi is a good rabbi. He says our ideas — wherever we go — should bring peace and love, not occupation.

DEBORAH: Why are you personally focusing your musical effort in this direction?

NABIL: I don’t know. Maybe to test myself. I was asked to do this two years ago, and I did. And it was wonderful. And I was paid for it. But this time I called them, and give it freely from my heart. I don’t know why. Maybe because of the situation in the Middle East. Do you know what it means to them to see a Palestinian honoring this sacred service?

At this point, Nabil warned about the possible dangers of playing music from other cultures, especially when there is tension between the nations. Imagine a singer who has good intent, but only average voice. Perhaps she sings off key at points in the music. Nabil improvises a possible inflammatory reaction of: “Now, not only do they occupy our land, but they want to possess our music as well?!”

NABIL: So it must be done with musical skill, sensitivity, deep understanding of the background of the people and tone of their devotion. And when it happens successfully, we can feel each other through the music! Through the unspoken, we hear each other…taste each other. We meet mentally, emotionally without talking. And we feel safe.

We take a break from verbal sharing, and drive to nearby Loyola University, where Nabil has recently made a habit of visiting the chapel. We sit in silence for half an hour, the brilliance of stained glass windows spilling their color, blessing our prayers individually, to move the day deeper. We finally turn to each other, ready to leave. It is twilight.

NABIL: Now, Deborah. We’ve had a wonderful day. But what should we find to talk about for Habibi?

I predict that you, the reader, might be a step ahead of us in what we discussed next, Middle Eastern dance.

Nabil comments on how different it is here in the West. Belly dance transferred to western culture does not have the stigma of sexual assumption (e.g. that the dancer is also a prostitute). He educates me a little, saying that in the Middle East, women are often banished from their families if they choose dance as a career. Then he recalls a contrasting example from America, a memory of a husband inviting friends to watch his wife perform, with pride in her skill and career, as well as her beauty.

NABIL: The nature of American people is that if they like something by itself, they use it…and enjoy it. Whereas in the Middle East it is associated with social dimensions. There is fertile soil for an American sub-genre of belly dance to flourish. Something new. But that will not materialize if the dancers use traditional Arabic music forms, because the atmosphere of tradition would be too strong. The dancers need original music.

With this opinion about original music, I hear Nabil, the composer, yearning to give new sounds to the world. But original music or not, Middle Eastern dance is changing because of how western cultures take it forward. And always, with the wheel of time, there is the circulation back to the countries of origin. It is happening also with Argentine Tango, Zulu singing and dance, Japanese tea ceremony and other forms being learned in the West. Other cultures do the same for our American art forms. Russian skaters choreograph to our “oldies,” showing us sides of our past revitalized. By honoring other cultures and arts, we perhaps can help lessen the cultural holocaust worldwide.

Nabil mirrors agreement with me when I bring forward again the message he earlier expressed to composers. Now translated to dancers and choreographers: “Whatever you want to do…do it! Be free. Take the dance into totally new forms.”

At this point, it all begins to whirl in the visioning. I can feel Nabil’s qualities activate when he speaks the word “freedom.” And yet simultaneously I know we are on the edge…where the racing ideas can lead astray. (By experience I know that grand ideas dissipate more quickly than they manifest, especially when those conversing are not in the center of their area of expertise. And Nabil and I are both musicians, not dancers.)

In driving homeward, I take a moment to anchor the rush of ideas. With so much speed in our society, much is skipped over. I pause to recall Nabil’s comment from earlier in the day which opened our point of communion: “It is better to know what is real, and what is unreal. And to enjoy what is real.”

With so many misrepresentations in life, to go beyond illusion takes great agility of mind. Even within this afternoon of friendship sharing, there were gentle jokes of illusion that the day played out.

First, the image to which I arrived that day: of people lingering outside Nabil’s home, clusters of people scattered everywhere. It was not exactly community spirit, as I had initially labelled it. No, the buzzing of spirit among the people was the result of a bomb scare which had forced evacuation of a local business. That was a smiling lesson to me about premature conclusions.

And a joke on Nabil? What did these strangers — looking on — think of him? He took his wife to work. Then, not even five minutes later a different woman (me) showed up to receive a warm hug at the door. Ah…the eyebrows. The image. And this clustered community audience looking on viewed the perfect theatrics of its timing and assumptions.

So the day held discrepancies in appearances, delightful theatrics, as well as our penetrating mind sharings, aiming arrows of thought toward musicians’ truth. Life is vast. There is room for all. Room for the missing bits of information which our ignorance settles into constructed images. Room for the tensions between people, between nations. Room for the sifting between real and unreal, between permanence and impermanence. And room for playing a melody for mutual understanding, friendship’s respect and peace.

Perhaps in this reading you have been touched by Nabil’s spirituality. Or perhaps you are more attracted to the spiritual qualities of another melodious personality who has graced your path. The challenge is the same: to find the resonance inward…and then outward with individuality of step. For me, the afternoon’s dynamic specified a formula for spiritual practice:

Be moved by the feelings. Ride with the instincts of hope that expand your visioning of life. Feel our world, its presence, its people, its events…as enrichment. Allow the world to shift parameters of expression, yet with authenticity to personality, culture and training. Question the images. Discern the projections and the realities. Then — with naturalness of creativity’s flow — develop forward, into new form.

Trained by eminent musician for dance, Betty Walberg, Deborah Hunter went on to become the Head of Music from 1979 to 1985 at University of London’s Laban Center for Movement and Dance. She wrote the syllabuses for the music education of dancers at the Center, which at that time was pioneering Europe’s first academic degree in dance.

From such diverse performing experiences as collaborating with John Cage and Merce Cunningham (a project involving 80 dancers, 20 musicians and 20 visual artists), to the honor of a commissioned work by the BBC for Pope John Paul II’s first visit to England (young dancers, singers and orchestra which Deborah conducted for an audience of 40,000), her delight has always been the coming together of different disciplines. She was honored with other Americans at a Lincoln Center reception in NYC for her contribution to dance in Great Britain.

In the recent decade, Deborah has shifted her career to focus on multi-cultural, interfaith, personal development, mediation, and health events. Deborah is internationally respected for her healing arts workshops in the USA, Europe and India.

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