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6Qs with Composer Bassam Saba //

bySeif Al-Din

Bassam SabaIt only takes a few minutes to realize Composer Bassam Saba is a genius. Listening to his delightful compositions, watching him seamlessly switch from nay to oud to flute and back, it all leads up to what he calls “creating a beautiful moment” — where music, musician and listener meet.

After studying and mastering his craft at the Lebanon National Conservatory and the Conservatoire Municipal des Gobelins (Paris), he went on to work with great composers and musicians such as Fairouz, Ziad Rahbani and Marcel Khalife; and pop music icons Alicia Keys, Sting, Paul Simon and Santana, to name a few. Now he brings it all together as founder and director of The New York Arabic Orchestra — decades of experience, a traditional yet inventive outlook on classical Arabic music and a group of talented musicians to bring his compositions to life. I had the chance to ask Saba a few questions before sitting in on one of their rehearsals, which was quite a treat.

Plays: Nay, Flute, Oud, Violin, Bouzouk, Accordion, Piano

1. You founded the orchestra in 2007 — what was your inspiration?
To promote Arabic music through an orchestra where I can reflect my musical ideas and bring the sound to the public in a beautiful way. I also love to teach the music.

The members of the orchestra commit themselves to learning to create this beautiful atmosphere in the Arabic musical phrase, so they are always building on their technique and making the music better. There is a mutual relationship in the way they think and the way I think, and we meet in a beautiful moment.

2. Did you know the orchestra would be mixed when you founded it?
The fact that we are in New York makes it inevitable.

It’s a beautiful marriage, when you hear an American playing Arabic music. And for me, it’s very important because this is the way I think about the music. I have different musical backgrounds and today there is no border to limit any type of music. The way I compose, the way I think, the phrasing — it’s all based on this mix.

3.  Are your audiences generally mixed, more Arab, or more non-Arab?
More non-Arab, which is a great thing. My purpose and my fight is on a bigger scale than just playing for the Arab community. I care about them but it’s not going to fulfill my ambition — I have to be looking wider.

4. You have to spend one month on an island and can only take one instrument with you. What do you take?
I always have half an hour of indecisive moments before going on vacations. Practically speaking, though, I usually end up with the flute and the nay.

5. You’ve worked with Alicia Keys — what was that collaboration like?
Alicia called me and Karim Nagi in to record for her. Karim played percussion and I played nay and oud. I also sat on the piano and played a few Arabic styles for her and she loved it. So I taught her a few, then I recorded some compositions and improvisations for her – and she’s very smart, so she knows what she wants. I don’t think she’s going to use the music we worked on, though, because Shakira used Arabic music before her. While Alicia was preparing her album, Shakira called me in to record as well, but I didn’t go. Shakira rushed hers, so I think somehow she knew and competition led her to release it. And now Alicia probably doesn’t want to imitate.

6. Who is your favorite classical artist or composer?
Oh I can’t pick just one. I like Beethoven, Bach, Paul Hindimeth, Paul Stravinsky…

[And on the arabic side?] Abdel Wahab, for me, is a great memory. Om Kalthoum is part of our daily life, so our heart belongs to what she sang. Every time I listen to one of those giants, they are my favorite at the moment.

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