Simon Shaheen: World Music Virtuoso | A World of Influences Infuses the Spiritual Virtuoso

Simon Shaheen comes from a Palestinian family of musicians and singers. (Photo by Patrick Ryan)

Simon Shaheen and Carlos Santana share several important traits. They are both instrumental virtuosos who incorporate elements of jazz into their ethnic repertoires and have a deep sense of the spiritual qualities of their music. Not surprisingly, the two recently performed together live.

“I hope Santana will also play on my new album,” Shaheen said over his cell phone from New York City. “We share a similar sensibility about what is sacred in the music.” Santana is not the only big-name artist Shaheen has shared a stage with. He also has performed with rocker Sting, pop legend Quincy Jones, and jazz greats Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia.

Of course there are many differences between Shaheen and Santana. Shaheen plays the violin and oud (a stringed instrument that resembles a lute) instead of the guitar. His music reflects his Arabian heritage. His last record, Blue Flame, recorded with the ensemble Qantara, was nominated for 11 Grammy Awards. Critics from around the globe, including those from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, have praised his playing.

Shaheen’s accomplishments are too numerous to list. They include a U.S. Presidential National Heritage Award and contributing to the soundtracks of  award-winning movies The Sheltering Sky and Malcolm X. Among other places, he’s played at the Newport Jazz Festival, Carnegie Hall, Cairo’s Opera House, the International Souk Ukaz at the historic citadel in Amman, Jordan, and the Yabous Festival  in East Jerusalem.

A Family Tradition

Describing Shaheen’s music is difficult, even for the man himself. “I am a multicultural musical person. I grew up in my village of Tarshiha as a Palestinian in the northern part of Galilee. I began singing and performing traditional works since I was four years old.” Shaheen’s father, Hikmat, was a music professor and master oud player. He said that learning to play from his father was a profound experience that shaped him as an artist.

After graduating from the Academy of Music in Jerusalem, he was appointed its instructor of Arab music, performance, and theory. He left his position after two years. “I came to the United States in 1980 and studied classical composition and American jazz at the Manhattan Institute of Music and Columbia University. All types of music have influenced me—South American rhythms, Western African percussion, Asian Indian, and Persian styles—they all help to form me as a composer and performer.”

Shaheen will appear at Sebring-Lewis Hall on the campus of Grinnell College on Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 7:30 p.m. Tickets will be available beginning at noon on April 6. Shaheen will be accompanied by a percussionist, bass player, and flautist.

Far-ranging Influences

“We will play two selections from Blue Flame, but most of the time we will perform new material,” Shaheen said. “We are collaborators on stage and are always trying to get in touch with something inside. And this reflects the influence that the entire world of music has had on us.”

“My performances always have been in music halls that fit the instruments and let them be heard, even when it is quiet,” Shaheen continued. “I also take an interactive role and talk to the audience. I teach and explain so the listener understands what is going on and enjoys the experience more.” Shaheen has led many residencies on world music, especially Arabian music, at some of the most prestigious universities around the globe. He is considered one of the leading experts in the field.

According to Shaheen, most audience members sit reflectively and listen to the music. Some people may meditate. Even though the instrumentalists may be playing at fast speeds to pulsating beats, there is something calming about the music. Listening to the CD Blue Flame is a mind-blowing experience. The songs flit from deep Arabian melodies to Latin American dance tempos to contemplative Western classical-style rhapsodies to avant-garde jazz and beyond, all during the same song, in a way that makes a kind of intuitive sense.

“There’s a nice buzz that develops when we perform,” Shaheen said. “That may sound strange, but that may be the best way to describe the interaction between the players and the audience.” But then again, he says that’s not exactly correct.

“I am the number one member of the audience,” Shaheen explained. “If I do not enjoy myself, how can I please anyone else?” He said he attaches a strong value to sincerity. “I also know not to underestimate the sophistication and intelligence of my audience,” he continued.

“Even if they are unfamiliar with the music, and most people are, they appreciate the abilities and virtuosity of the players. We are actual people playing real instruments,” Shaheen said. “They may be listening to something they have never heard before, but the music itself is hauntingly beautiful and captures one’s attention.”

To help people better understand his music, Shaheen is writing a book. “Compiling it may be more accurate,” he said, “as I’ve already written the material for workshops and residencies. In fact, I plan on releasing more than one. One book will be on music theory and analysis and the other will focus on my experiences here in the United States.” Finding the time to collect and organize the material when spending so much time on the road is the immediate problem, but don’t bet against Shaheen. The quality and caliber of his music demands that one take his boasts seriously.                                              

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