There are 7,100 spoken languages in the world, but only one that transcends every culture and border: music.
At least that’s what conductor Michael Ibrahim is hoping when he brings his National Arab Orchestra to the Valentine Theatre on Saturday for a concert unlike any Toledo has likely seen.
For starters, the Detroit-based National Arab Orchestra will be joined by the Toledo Symphony under the direction of Sara Jobin for a performance of Arab classical music.
The show will also feature 40 students from Start and Woodward high schools — singing in Arabic no less — along with Syrian opera singer Lubana al Quntar, who was granted asylum in the United States in 2011 following the start of her country’s civil war.
Factor in some Middle Eastern foods and dancing, and the result is being billed as Mideast x Midwest: a Dialogue of Music, Food and Fun at America’s Crossroads.
The National Arab Orchestra staged a similar concert in Detroit last year, complete with high school singers. Bringing together these disparate parts speaks to the need to reject stereotypes and find a common language, Ibrahim said.
He said he’s especially excited about working with the Start and Woodward students.
“It’s always great to work with these kids,” he said. “At first, they’re always hesitant because they’re doing something different, and probably don’t have a lot of exposure to actual Arab culture other than the shaded view they see on the news. By the time they get to the concert they’re really excited and they learn something in the process.”
This weekend marks the orchestra’s fourth collaboration with a public school system. The Toledo students will do a Lebanese song called “Zurini,” which means “Visit Me.”
For local arts patron and event organizer Rita Mansour, “dialogue” is the key phrase in the show’s billing.
“[The event] is primarily about bringing people together through music, and giving a portal to the larger community as to what it is to be Arab, because there are a lot of misconceptions through the whole ordeal with the election,” she said. “For us in Toledo, it’s a nice beginning stage to understand what Arabic music sounds like. There will also be an afterglow [party] with light snacks, dancing and singing as you would [find] in the Arab world.
“I’m hoping we can launch this type of show elsewhere in the country,” she added. “I think it’s great when you can bring together people from different backgrounds, particularly with the school kids.”
Contrary to its name the National Arab Orchestra isn’t an all-Arab orchestra. Members range from Palestinian and Lebanese to Mexican, Japanese, and American.
“[Calling ourselves an] Arab orchestra is indicative of the music we play,” orchestra founder Ibrahim said. “In the Middle East, researchers have found that what was played 20 years ago is considered old, and anything before that is now considered folkloric. Whereas as Westerners we know that classical music was from this period to this period. [For example] there was the renaissance and then there was baroque.
“For our purposes, classical means anything [Arabic] that dates back 50 years. Anything that was composed in the last 10 years is considered new.”
There is another significant difference between Arab and Western music, he observed.
“Arab music is about 80 percent vocal, always accompanied by a musical ensemble. Orchestra is a relatively new invention in the Arab world, [only] arriving after World War I.
“We’ll have a violin section. We’ll have one to three cellos. Then of course we’ll have the traditional Arab instruments such as the oud, the grandfather of the modern day guitar; the anun, which is like an Arab harp; and the nay, a reed flute. And then you’ll have a percussion section which is an instrumental part of the repertoire.”
The National Arab Orchestra and the Toledo Symphony will each do a set during the concert, and then come together for the finale, “Dialogue,” a piece originally written for a traditional Arab takht or quartet.
What is Ibrahim hoping the audience takes away from the experience?
“I’m hoping that people will have a greater appreciation for Arab culture, and see that we’re more alike than we are different,” the conductor said.”Even in the ways we are different it’s OK. It just adds to the beauty of society.”
Written by Toledo Blade