Palestinian composer calls audience to action

On April 27, Palestinian composer and musician, Simon Shaheen, stages a performance that connects music and revolution.

Palestinian composer and musician Simon Shaheen - Photo by Henry Leutwyler

Palestinian composer and musician Simon Shaheen – Photo by Henry Leutwyler

The Call: Songs of Liberation will rouse the audience away from black and white definitions of culture, genre and geographical borders to the place of shade and diversity in between.

Shaheen was born into a musical family in Tarshisha, a northern Israeli village abundant in musicians. “My father was a performer, composer and educator. He exposed me to the best of traditional Arab music,” says Shaheen. Inspired by his surroundings, Shaheen began learning the violin and the oud, a traditional Arab instrument, before the age of four.

Shaheen has studied music from around the world extensively. Like an omniscient translator, he gathers forms unique to each genre and creates one humane international language in his music. “When I compose for [the oud and the pipa, a traditional Chinese flute], I am crossing the cultures and I am reaching out. People appreciate this because they can see the commonalities rather than the differences,” says Shaheen.

Shaheen is famous for his ability to transcend cultural and geographic boundaries: “There is always beauty in the shades between the black and the white. This is where I bring the cross-cultural elements to seep into each other to create a fusion style that almost creates a new genre,” says Shaheen.

Shaheen’s outlook on the performance also challenges defined boundaries and convention. “Wherever I play any performance, that becomes my world,” says Shaheen when asked about his favourite place to perform. “The [Chan] centre will be my home and the audience will be my family – so this is the world for me,” explains Shaheen.

To give context to The Call, Shaheen described a post-performance jaunt through the Metropolitan Museum, where the statue of a veiled dancer caught his eye. “As I looked at the statue, it triggered something in my mind,” says Shaheen. He imagined the music from his violin breathing life into the static figure.

In The Call, Shaheen parallels this idea of the static stirring to life with the statue-like state of Arab countries stirring into revolutionary protest during the Arab Spring. “[Citizens of Arab countries] heard something and they started to move. They are breaking those boundaries of being frozen for so many years,” says Shaheen.

In the performance, Shaheen revisits anthemic works from the 1950s and 1960s that express the spirit of Arab freedom against colonialism. “They address the same issues: human dignity, freedom, living in openness and living away from fear. This is why I am using those songs, because it speaks to the moment,” says Shaheen.

This innovative performance grounds the audience with a resounding metaphorical message that calls listeners from stillness to action. As a reflection of the Arab Spring, his pieces incite the audience to transcend statue-like paralysis and ask for the right to live with dignity and respect.

The Call: Songs of Liberation will take place at the Chan Centre on Saturday, April 27th at 8 pm.