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Drumming on doumbeks

Syrian musician Omar Al Musfi to play tonight with Morris High band

Those in the area will have a unique opportunity this evening to hear music of the Middle East, as renowned Syrian percussionist Omar Al Musfi joins the Morris Community High School band for its Winter Concert.

Al Musfi is friends with MCHS Band Director Don Stinson, who took his Middle Eastern drumming class last summer as part of his Master’s Degree program.

Al Musfi will conduct a workshop with band members before the concert, then join with them for a couple of pieces, including one in which he will have an improvised solo on the doumbek.

“I will bring a few frame drums and a few doumbeks,” he said of the workshop. “I will teach them about the variety of rhythms from the region.”

Stinson said he is looking forward to introducing his students and others in Morris to Al Musfi and Middle Eastern music.

“Sitting in class this summer,” he said, “I was always fascinated by Omar — not only his world-class playing abilities, but his story, and the cultural differences of the fine arts in America as compared to the fine arts in Syria.

“Omar’s story of being kicked out of a cab because he was a professional musician, which was not allowed in the area he was in at that time, was a large contrast to myself and others being encouraged to perform in Chicago and the surrounding areas.”

Stinson said it’s important for band students to hear professional musicians and also to be exposed to non-Western styles.

“I’m hoping that this workshop and performance will broaden everyone’s horizons,” he said, “and also help us to realize that while cultures and ethnicities may be different, we all have the common ground of being able to create and enjoy art.”

Al Musfi said the rhythms are so different among the various regions of the Middle East that he can tell where a musician is from just from the beat and the scales.

It’s not like that in the United States, he said, except for jazz. Music-lovers can easily tell the difference between Chicago and New Orleans jazz, for instance.

In the Middle East, the Gulf States play rhythms a little differently than percussionists in northern Africa and from other regions. Odd and complex time signatures are common in the music and often distinguish one region from the other.

Americans are used to time signatures such as 4/4, which means there are 4 beats per measure, and the quarter note gets one beat. The signature ¾ means there are 3 beats per measure, and the quarter note gets one beat.

Middle Eastern rhythms may also be 9/8 or 6/7 or 10/8 or other tempo.

“Odd rhythms are very common in Middle Eastern music,” Al Musfi explained.

The tones are different, too, he said, with additional notes between, say, the C and the C-sharp. The “maqum” are the Arabic scales, like “F Major” in Western music, but they include the extra quarter tones.

“We have seven major scales,” he explained, “and each scale has a lot of branches. You can tell where a musician is from by how he plays the quarter tone. It’s different in each region.”

Middle Eastern music includes styles of North Africa, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and the Gulf area, among others.

Al Musfi grew up in Syria and played the doumbek since he was a 6-year-old little boy.

“My brother bought the instrument,” he said with a laugh, “and I used to steal it from his closet.”

The doumbek is one of the most common Middle Eastern percussion instruments. It is like a small drum with goblet-shaped body and a membrane of skin or plastic. It’s a single-head hand drum, and the bottom is open. It’s generally played with the hand and fingers while the doumbek is resting on the player’s leg.

It is very common in his country for people to have their own instruments, Al Musfi said. And by watching others play and by listening to cassette recordings, he quickly became good at the instrument. In middle school and high school, he learned to read music and how to play better. He decided it would be his career.

“I didn’t like anything else,” he said.

He graduated from the Damascus Conservatory of Music and performed with the Syrian Symphony Orchestra for five years. He eventually moved to the United States to finish his Master’s degree and to learn Latin jazz and is now a professor at Northern Illinois University. He also teaches at the Old Town School of Music.

Al Musfi has performed with the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic and has recorded with such pop musicians as Sting and Shakira. He produces and arranges his own group, HiJazz, which fuses traditional melodies of Syria, Turkey, and Armenia with modern Latin jazz. 

Recently, he recorded and performed with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, the World Music Festival, and the Chicago Jazz Festival. He has also recorded several film soundtracks.

When Al Musfi moved to the United States, it was two days before the terrorism act of Sept. 11. And now, his country is being torn apart in a revolution. The “Arab Spring” began with Tunisia and other countries soon followed, including Egypt, Yemen, and then Syria.

It’s been very difficult for him and his wife, he said, who together lost seven cousins just in the past week. It’s not just the opposition or the regime who are being hurt in Syria, he said.

“Everybody is affected now,” he said. “It’s really, really bad. There are 400,000 refugees on the border of Syria and Turkey, and it’s increasing every day.”

There are several parties involved in the conflict now, too, he said. With a population of various sects of Muslim, Christian, and Jews, Syria has a tradition of not arguing about religion, he said, but that has changed.

Al Musfi will sell copies of the CD, “Nashama,” proceeds of which will go to the refugees. It can also be purchased on iTunes.

At the band’s Winter Concert, Al Musfi will be performing with the symphonic band on a piece entitled “The Bizarre Bazaar.”,The symphonic band will also be performing a Gaelic piece entitled “Solas Ané” (Yesterday’s Joy), and the concert band will be performing American Riversongs and Air for Band.

The symphonic band, concert band, jazz band, jazz ensemble, and percussion ensemble will also be performing some holiday music.

The concert is free and will be at 7 p.m. tonight, Thursday, Dec. 13, in the auditorium of Morris Community High School.

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