Al-Bustan’s second guest artist of the 2014 spring concert series, Grammy & BBC Award-winning composer and pianist Fathy Salama was in Philadelphia for a number of appearances in the community before his culminating concert with Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble on Sunday afternoon.
His residency events began with “Making Music in Egypt,” a public demonstration and talk at the Penn Museum on Wednesday, April 23rd. The event was held in the Sphinx Gallery, a part of the museum that houses artifacts from Ancient Egypt. This was a fitting setting for the Egyptian jazz artist, who combined his training in classical music with his exposure to Arab and American artists to finally produce his own genre of new-world jazz. Mr. Salama recounted his early training and success in the Egyptian commercial pop scene before moving on to describe his success in Europe with his own ensemble Sharkiat. It was with this group that he was finally able to perform the type of music he wanted. Upon his return to Egypt, he felt he was able to make more of an impact on the local music scene while gaining significant international recognition. This recognition culminated in 2004, when he won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album for the album “Egypt,” which he composed and arranged for Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour.
After talking about his background, he gave the audience a brief overview of Arab music and how it differs from traditional Western music. To begin with, Arab music relies more heavily on melody and rhythm (instead of harmony) and uses a system of tetrachords to create many of the sounds that are unique to Arab music. In addition to the Western scales’ half step (most easily recognized as the black keys on the piano), Arabic music divides even further into a quarter tone, which is sometimes played on a wind instrument. Finally, Fathy discussed the current state of Egyptian music. He described two varieties of popular music currently coming out of Egypt: one style turns traditional beats and rhythms into machine-produced chords and music, and one style uses American hip-hop as the base for new music with an Egyptian touch. The former he does not care for in the least; the latter he respects for its unique quality. Finally, the event ended with some improvisation from Fathy, Al-Bustan Music Director Hanna Khoury on the violin, and Hicham Chami on the qanun. The event was a great introduction to Fathy’s work, and gave an informative and enjoyable start to his time in residency with Al-Bustan.
In addition to his program at the Penn Museum, Fathy led workshops in a number of schools in Philadelphia. At Germantown Friends School and Settlement Music School, he led members of the schools’ Jazz Ensembles in playing original compositions, and even classic jazz (Coltrane’s Mr P.C.) in a modified Arabic scale to demonstrate the differences to the students. He also held a demonstration at Northeast High School for a larger student assembly. Students at Moffet Elementary produced an Egyptian-inspired tapestry (informed by Fathy’s music and homeland) under the instruction of Teaching Artist Nancy Sophy. All of these students enjoyed hearing Fathy’s music, and learning about his life and work!