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Arabic Fusion Music: Simon Shaheen’s Compositions

By Mohammad Moussa Khalaf, Bar-Ilan University (2018)

My dissertation deals with a topic that doesn’t been discussed and analyzed in a large-scale in Arabic music before; fusion in Arabic music. Fusion today means something different from what it meant before the twenty-first century. Few composers were able to create Arabic fusion music and at the same time preserve an essence of traditional Arabic music. Furthermore, it is rare that Arabic fusion music would be appreciated by the public of Western popular music. The aim from my study is to analyze the fusion music based on three compositions by Simon Shaheen. I argue that Shaheen created a new Arabic fusion music style that proved to be meaningful both for an Arabic and an international listener.

The core of my dissertation is the transcription and a deep analysis of three of Shaheen compositions: 1) Blue Flame 2) Fantasie For Oud & String Quartet 3) Al-Qantara. The final work of these compositions is created in the performance, hence, it was highly important and essential to transcribe these pieces based on recorded performances in order to understand every little minuscules of the music “as it heard and perceived”. For this reason, it was necessary to base the analysis on the “live” performances as these are preserved in recordings. Ethnomusicologists, who attempt to transcribe complex, and to the Western system unusual musical structures, know that the transcription is an analysis in itself. Transcription is, in fact, the deepest and most informative analysis. The transcriptions presented in my dissertation are a vital part of my argument.

Each of the three analytical chapters begins with the transcription of the composition. And then comes an introduction that tells the history and the significance of the piece, then, I highlighted the basic of the piece’s structural ideas. Then comes the last and the most important stage which is the analysis of the transcription. I decided to analyze the pieces in their continuity moving from section to section, from beginning until the end. These detailed analysis were important to highlight the dramatic narrative of the compositions.

Although every piece gets different focus in the analysis, still the following issues shared amongst them:

  1. large-scale form, and within it, the dramatic function of each section in the musical narrative;
  2. the style, and within it the issue of fusion;
  3. tonality/modality especially in terms of the fusion between the Arabic maqam and the Western major-minor system;
  4. improvisation and
  5. sonority/instrumentation.

Other parameters of the music, like rhythm, tempo changes, rubato, dynamics, special effects, etc. will be treated whenever these are significant.

In all the compositions analyzed in this dissertation, the central instrument is the oud. Shaheen himself is the oud player at the same time the composer. And in performances, Shaheen often sits in the center of the stage. This idea evokes the style of concerto in Western music.

Shaheen uses the improvisation in his compositions as a tool to “loosens” the form of the compositions. Improvisation is inherent to all musical traditions which Shaheen uses in his pieces (like the cadenza in Western music, improvisation in jazz, and Arabic taqsim). These styles of different improvisations appear side by side, or superposed, or fused into one another.

In all of his original compositions, Shaheen reimagines the style of the traditional taqsim. He superposes, combines and alters traditional ideas within them, in such a manner that the end result is new. One typical technique of his taqasim is the lack of resting points especially when presenting the upper jins or ajnas. He modulates between ajnas extremely freely, and sometimes, by using melodic leaps – something unusual in the tradition.

These characteristics expose an important aspect of Shaheen’s aesthetics. On the one hand, the choice of instruments and the fusion of styles are the result of a conscious decision to bring different cultures together in a manner that the “voice” of each culture would be heard and recognized but at the same time a new totality would be achieved. On the other hand, the stylistic decisions reveal Shaheen’s aspiration to create a style that, although different from traditional Arabic music, achieves somewhat the same effect that traditional Arabic music did.

This dissertation is the first to transcribe and analyze Shaheen’s composition and by using the results of these analyses, it also explains the basic tenets of Shaheen’s aesthetics. I hope my work will inspire scholars to ask further questions and research this music more deeply.