Astaza Brings Awareness to Traditional Middle Eastern Music


One of the events that kicked off the last day of Arts Fest was a performance by Astaza, Boston College’s Middle East Ensemble. Astaza’s goal is, as the event program states, to bring “students together to learn multiple music traditions of the region” and “to promote intercultural understanding and student-community exchange.”

One of the many musical events to do so, Astaza performed in Gasson 100. The event featured four songs, all of which were played at an Astaza event that occurred two weeks previously. Listening to these songs a second time, different aspects of the music begin to be made clear. At first, the hollow percussive beats on the wide drum and the atmospheric violin and cello work—and of course the oud playing—are the most prominent parts of the music. The second time through, it is the wind instrument—the ney—played by professor Ann Lucas, that takes center stage. The ney is a Persian end-blown flute made of wood. The qanun, played by resident Astaza artist Jamal Sinno, was also a very impressive part of the music. The qanun is a very large string instrument that sounds similar to a cross between a piano or harpsichord and a guitar.

Astaza began the performance, under the direction of Nizar Fares, with a song called a sama’i—an all-instrumental piece with Turkish origins. This particular sama’i was composed by legendary master oud player Charbel Rouhana—a musician that BC had hosted at the last Middle East Ensemble event. This song was made up of four verses and a chorus and, as is always the case when played by Astaza, was beautiful.

The second piece was a duet of two songs played together. The first part of this was “bTendam,” a very popular Lebanese song from the ’50s and ’60s. The other part of the duet was “Debbek Debbayki,” a more traditional Lebanese folk song. The singers of these two songs were both non-student members of the ensemble, Mireille Thomas and Nader Hawa, respectively.

Astaza followed up with a crowd favorite from their last concert, “‘Ahwi.” This song translates to “Coffee,” and was also composed by Rouhana. Prefacing the song was an oud improvisation by Hussam Jefee-Bahloul, another adult musician in the ensemble. Backed by the slowest and lowest notes, drawn out on the violins and cellos to provide a filler for silence and a backdrop for the oud music, Bahloul performed an entirely improvised oud piece. This backing was constructed in much the same way a painter would frame art to separate it from the surrounding wall. “‘Ahwi” itself is a very upbeat and engaging piece, especially with the beautiful singing from Nano Raies, a student from Berklee College.

The concert wrapped up with a song called “‘Unshūdatul Fan,” sung by Nizar Fares. The piece began with expert violin work by Ben Lee, CSOM ’20, and was quickly buffed out by the rest of the ensemble. Overall, this was a very nice and neat survey of Astaza’s last concert, providing audience members who had been there a refreshing memory and new audiences a great sense of the ensemble’s capabilities.

Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Staff

Jacob Schick
About Jacob Schick 192 Articles
Jacob is the A1 Editor for The Heights He is from Orlando and misses the warmth very much. He is still trying to watch every movie in existence, even though he is no longer mandated to fill pages of the newspaper with his reviews. You can reach him at [email protected] or @schick_jacob on Twitter.