Michael Ibrahim is busy building bridges. But his bridges are not made of steel. And they do not cross rivers. Instead, they are made of music and cross cultures.
Ibrahim is the founder and director of the National Arab Orchestra (NAO). The group is based in the state of Michigan. It aims to preserve and share Arabic music and culture in the United States through its performances and education programs.
“We want to be an organization that is sort of the cultural representative of the Arab-American community,” Ibrahim said.
At an NAO concert, the orchestra quickly makes connections with its listeners. As the musicians begin to play, Ibrahim moves his body up and down like a dancer. Soon, audience members start moving to the music’s rhythm.
Suddenly, Ibrahim turns around and faces the audience. He urges them to clap their hands to the beat of the music. And he urges them to sing along with parts of a well-known song from Egypt or Lebanon.
With each song, the bridge between the audience and the orchestra grows.
Decreasing fear and increasing awareness
Ibrahim spoke about the need to help people know more about the culture of Arab-Americans:
“The Arab-American community had to face a lot of discrimination, just because they’re different, like any other minority community in this country. And that was magnified, you know, after the events of September 11.”
He added that after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, there was a lot of false information. He said, “There is a huge debate on the meaning of the word, ‘Arab’, and what is Arab culture”
“So we’re doing this to bring awareness about the culture, build these bridges so that people can have a chance to engage with each other, and then that in turn makes the world just a much better and easier place to live in because people are less afraid. . .”
He added, “I really love to share who I am, and I feel like the best way for me to do that is for me to share my culture. . .but I also am born here. And what is American culture if not just this giant melting pot of constant immigration into this country that makes it what it is?”
Ibrahim was born into a Syrian immigrant family in Michigan. He said he was able to connect to his family’s culture through music and the arts. When he was 10, he spent a year living in Syria with his family.
Back in the U.S., he learned to play the oud, a stringed instrument his father played. He then studied both Western and Arabic music.
The NAO started in 2009 as a student musical group at the University of Michigan under Ibrahim’s direction. Soon it doubled in size and became the Michigan Arab Orchestra in 2010. It changed its name and began playing as the NAO in 2014. In the 2022-2023 season, the orchestra played together at 12 events, including a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Ibrahim noted that the group tries to represent all the countries of the Arab world today. But he said much of the music they play comes from Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and Syria.
The musicians in the orchestra are diverse. Some were born in the Middle East and moved to the United States. Others are Arab-Americans born in the U.S. And some are from the U.S. but have no family connection to Arab countries.
The tonal and rhythmic patterns central to Arabic music are different from Western music. So are some of the instruments the musicians play.
Throughout almost every song, Arabic orchestras have musicians playing different kinds of hand drums and tambourines. This gives the music a strong rhythmic feel. Two kinds of lutes, the oud and the buzuq, are among the instruments that help give the music its special sound. Another important instrument is the qanun.
Ibrahim arranges the music that the orchestra plays. That means he writes down what each instrument will play. Depending on the piece, this can take him anywhere from two weeks to two months to finish.
One of the big goals of Ibrahim and its executive director, Sherri Richards, is to create a year-round school of Arabic music in the U.S.
“We’re keeping this culture alive and we’re building on it and letting it grow in its own unique way in this part of the world,” Ibrahim said. “You have to share it with everybody; you can’t just keep if for yourself. So that’s the cross-cultural work,” he added.
Along with concerts, another way the NAO shares its culture is with its Building Bridges Through Music program. This includes an after-school program teaching Arabic music in the public schools of Detroit, Michigan.
Supporting the arts
In January, the NAO concert in Washington, D.C. sold out in less than three hours. About 1,100 people attended the concert.
Richards, the executive director of the NAO, said, “We have over 400,000 followers on YouTube, which is more than any other orchestra in the world…”
“That,” she added “really speaks to the reach and the popularity of the music and the orchestra.”
Ibrahim explained that the arts bring people together in special ways.
“I guess there’s a case to be made for the place of the arts in spreading democracy. With the arts you have the ability to bring people from a variety and diverse geographical makeup. . . It works. We’ve shown that for the last 15 years we’ve been doing it.”
Ibrahim shared a central reason for supporting the arts. “I think it’s really important that people support the arts,” he said, “because that’s where the soul of humanity resides.”
I’m Jill Robbins. And I’m Andrew Smith.
Andrew Smith wrote this story for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
preserve -v. to maintain or keep something safe and protected over a long period of time
concert -n. a performance of music in front of an audience
orchestra -n. a large group of musicians playing a variety of musical instruments, especially those used for classical music
audience -n. people attending a public performance such as a concert, play, or speech
rhythm -n. how a piece of music is organized in time
clap -v. to hit the palms of the hands together, usually to express approval
magnify -v. to make something seem larger or more important than normal
engage with -v. to interact with
diverse -adj. having variety or many types
soul -n. the innermost part of a person’s mind and spirit
reside -v. to live or exist in a certain place
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