Faraj Abyad and his Orchestra
presented by The World Music Institute at Symphony Space
February first, 2020
Arabic music is like a fine, complex miasma. It washes over us like a wave – its delicacy due largely to the plucking of the zither. Most western songs express one mood or another. An Arabic song is like a city that experiences four seasons in a single day. One might start with a snappy, complex rhythm, then move on to a legato and dolce in a passage so slow that it’s nearly without time, and then revive with a dramatic burst of energy. And these songs often have endless, heavenly fermate. If they are to our Anglophone ears somewhat alike to one another, each has so much internal variety that we never grow weary of them.
On February first, Faraj Abyad and his Orchestra gave a brilliant concert called Enta Omri and the Golden age of Arabic Music, sponsored by The World Music Institute at Symphony Space, New York. Mr. Abyad told us that his “home country” is Syria, but his English is flawless. He explained that The Golden Age of Arabic Music spanned the period from the 1940’s through the 1970’s. His mission, he explained, is “not only to preserve the old music but to continue it.”
The concert opened with the instrumentalists. They mixed ancient instruments with modern: ney (end-blown flute); tambor; tabla (goblet drum); violin; cello; lute; zither; piano. During the concert, each instrumentalist had a marvelous solo.
After several minutes, Mr. Abyad entered, wearing a black three-piece suit with no necktie. For nearly two hours he and his orchestra enchanted the audience, presenting about 10 songs of about 10-to-15 minutes each, singing always in Arabic.
Mr. Abyad’s voice is remarkably supple. He can execute those characteristic Arabic trills and turns seemingly effortlessly. He moves from mezzo forte to piano in an instant. He prolongs the vowel between breaths, and sometimes, in the concert’s best moments, even while his two back-up singers were moving on with the song. His stance was slightly rhythmic and animated, sometimes with his right hand by his head.
And speaking of the back-up singers: each of the two women had a solo of her own, her charming mezzo offering a terrific contrast to Mr. Abyad’s baritone. The choice to give them solos was very wise – singers need vocal contrast in a concert.
Mr. Abyad and his instrumentalists presented a popular, cherished 1964 song called Enta Omri, written by Mohammed Abdel Wahab, with lyrics by Ahmad Sahafiq Kamel. Translation from a Google search:
Yours eyes took me back to those bygone days -
They taught me to regret the past and its pain -
All I saw -
Before my eyes saw you.
What American pop singer could sing this in English?
The concert included the world premiere of a piece with music by Mr. Abyad written to a poem by Aziz Gouwaid. The program us the words in Arabic, plus a transcription and a translation. Mr. Abyad taught the lead to the audience first – and they were happy to assist, singing with him. The English:
Don’t think that my words, oh my love,
Are a language used by the world of those in love
Because silence is also a language of love
And with it, the one in love expresses his longing.
Indeed, through the concert the audience intermittently, spontaneously and quietly sang along with Mr. Abyad – or clapped. The program called the songs “classics from Syria, Lebanon and Egypt” and most were, apparently, well-known.
Those of us who don’t speak Arabic would have liked some help receiving the lyrics – either from Mr. Abyad or from The World Music Institute. Are they all about romance? Are any about the fatherland?
Nonetheless, it was a grand concert! We’d like another as soon as possible!
The orchestra: Faraj Abyad on vocals; Layth Sidiqon violin; Firas Zreikon qanun; Naseem Alatrash on cello; Fadi Saba on piano; Faris Ishaq on ney; Zafir Tawil on ud; Gilbert Mansour on percussion; and
Alber Baseelon percussion.
Faraj Abyad in 2019: