Poetics of Suheir Hammad Meet Musicality of Concert Series

Posted On:
20 December, 2011

On Friday, December 9, 2011 Al-Bustan presented the third event of the Arab Music Concert Series, featuring The Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble and guest poet Suheir Hammad, to an audience of 320+ who filled the Great Hall of Trinity Center for Urban Life in Center City Philadelphia.

The evening opened with The Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble led by Music Director Hanna Khoury. The Ensemble, offered as a course for credit through the University of Pennsylvania’s Music Department, is open to both Penn students and community members. The instrumentalists played a selection of compositions by A. J. Racy, namely Promenade, Salam 2, Sama’i Nahawand, and Mayyala. The last piece Mayyala included a percussion solo by Hafez El Ali Kotain and members of the percussion ensemble who rocked the hall with their energy. The choir performed Ana Winta by Farid al-Atrach, and with the accompaniment of many in the audience, they also sang popular favorites: Nassam Alayna by the Rahbani Brothers, Yalli Zara’tu ElBurta’an by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, and Fog El Nakhl.

Once the Ensemble finished their set, Suheir Hammad surprised the audience by emerging from the back of the hall while reciting her poem Mike Check. Thus began the remainder of the evening which had the audience mesmerized by the synergy of spoken word and music. Hammad’s poetry is imbued with cultural references to her roots in Palestine and her upbringing in America as evident in Brooklyn and Gaza Suite. She was raised on the music of Egyptian diva Umm Kulthoum as she recounts in Bint Il Neel, while also being equally influenced by American icons such as Sam Cooke who figures prominently in Daddy’s Song.

Photos by Jacques-Jean Tiziou

In a beautifully creative collaborative effort, Hammad performed a selection of her poems with Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, comprised of Hanna Khoury on violin, Kinan Idnawi on oud, Kinan Abou-afach on cello, and Hafez El Ali Kotain on percussion. The poetry and music flowed back and forth, each informing the other, with a lyrical exchange that included Into Egypt, Sawah, Talisman, and Not your Erotic, Not Your Exotic, and music excerpts from Ana fi Intizarak, Change is Gonna Come, Ahwak, Ya Msaharni, Ana Albi Elek Mayyal, Khosara, Samara ya Samara, and Wake Up Everybody. A special appearance came towards the end when Hammad invited two young percussionist Jad and Mazin Blaik to accompany her on What I Will, a powerful piece that resonates with rhythm in defiance of war. The last set of the evening included Karnabal, an energetic instrumental composition by Kinan Abou-afach, thrilling the audience with the ensemble’s exceptional musicianship, and ended with Hammad’s moving ode to Beirut, (wind) break (her) performed to an original composition by Abou-afach.

All in all it was truly a magical evening and heartwarming to see the audience’s reaction…as one audience member affectionately remarked:

The evening was pure artistry on every level. I don’t think anyone left that night without a deep feeling of gratitude and inspiration.

Video selection of poems by Suheir Hammad:

We are grateful to the all the performers for their dedication and creativity and to Al-Bustan staff and volunteers for their hard work!

This event would not have been possible without our supporters — we especially thank the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for supporting the launch of the Arab Music Concert Series and bringing the poetics of Suheir Hammad to meet the musicality of our concert series.