William & Mary’s Middle Eastern Music Ensemble has been bringing traditional Arab music to the United States for two decades now. In January, the group was able to perform in Middle East for the first time.
The ensemble, directed by Music Department Chair Anne Rasmussen, traveled to the Sultanate of Oman to learn more about Arab music, work with Omani music students and teachers, and perform three concerts, including one for the U.S. ambassador to Oman.
“I think learning Middle Eastern music in the Middle East was just an experience that can’t be matched,” said Ro-Derrick Branch ’14, an international relations major. “We can come back here and try to emulate the same way of teaching or the same way of learning music, but being there and hearing it from Omanis was a very good experience because you get to see where they’re coming from.”
The trip is an example of the university’s growing relationship with Oman. During her sabbatical in 2010-11, Rasmussen was awarded a fellowship from the Omani Government and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center. One of the stipulations of the fellowship was that Rasmussen would share what she learned about Oman, which she did in her courses and through publications and public programs.
“But, I said to my colleagues in Oman, if you are interested in fostering exchange, look no further! We have a wonderful Middle Eastern Music Ensemble with terrific students who would be very interested in this kind of a trip,” she said.
Rasmussen worked with the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center to garner a grant to make the trip a reality. She secured enough funds to be able to bring seven students on the trip as well as Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jonathan Glasser, a longtime member of the ensemble.
The first of the ensemble’s performances took place at the residence for U.S. Ambassador Greta Holtz.
“That was an incredibly high-profile engagement,” said Rasmussen. “Ambassadors from several countries attended the reception. There were important people from the government and cultural spheres. It was a lovely setting and a very, very nice event.”
The ensemble also performed at the Sultan Qaboos University with student from the Department of Music. Although the ensemble wasn’t able to do much collaborating with the students, just being able to perform with them was significant. In Oman, there is a lot of discussion about “whether it’s socially accepted or not to perform music,” said Lailah Irani ’14.
“The college [Sultan Qaboos University] was having a lot of trouble with getting to perform music because there are a lot of traditionalists who are against what they see as what’s not proper,” she said.
Having the William & Mary students perform gave the university’s music department a chance to showcase its own work along side ours and was a “huge act of diplomacy,” said Rasmussen. “Setting the example through our performance gave them license to present their own students.”
“Important officials from the University, including the Vice Chancellor, Dr. Ali Al-Bemani, attended the event, which was a great source of pride for the SQU Department of Music.”
Finally, the ensemble played with the musicians of the Oud Hobbyist Association, an institution that serves as a cross between a conservatory and a community center. The musicians in the association, including musicians from the sultan’s private orchestra, were very serious about the concert, said Rasmussen, and the two groups had three intense rehearsals together before the performance.
“That was a great experience just to meet them,” said Mahdi Blaine ’16, who plays violin for the ensemble. “That’s their life. Here, Middle Eastern music is a hobby, and, in America, you only hear about the great symphony orchestras. But, when you go over there, these Arabic orchestras are just as highly regarded. It was just so interesting to see where they’re coming from.”
Irani, who is a vocalist and percussionist for the ensemble, also enjoyed working with the association as she learned to play the “riqq.”
“The drummer in the ensemble was a great teacher, and I am really new to the instrument,” said the psychology major. “So that was really interesting, working with him and getting a lot better at it. Omanis have a lot of different rhythms, so what we did is the entire percussion section just locked ourselves up in a room and just practiced the different rhythms. It was fun.”
When the group wasn’t performing or rehearsing, they also had a chance to explore the country, visiting cultural sites and even hiking with the help of William & Mary Geologist Chuck Bailey, who was in the country to do research and lay the ground work for a study-abroad program he and Rasmussen hope to launch in the near future.
The students who participated in the trip said that they took quite a bit away from their experience.
“I have traveled a good amount, but being able to actually play abroad is something that I’ve always wanted to do and something that I’d like to do in the future,” said Branch, who plays bass for the ensemble. “It was definitely a good start, being able to do it with an ensemble and being able to improvise and roll with the punches.”
Blaine, who has lived in the Gulf region before, said that he didn’t know much about Oman before the trip.
“Getting to learn about it, they have one of the richest histories of the Arab Peninsula and just seeing how that history has influenced them has made me want to know more about it,” said the international relations and Middle Eastern studies major.
The trip was also educational for Rasmussen, who will be incorporating the music they learned into the ensemble’s upcoming performances.
“We are the only ensemble in the United States to perform Omani music,” she said.
“The Omani repertoire is definitely outside of my comfort zone. It has a lot of African influence. In fact, the most significant Omani instrumental music actually comes from the Afro-Omani community,” said Rasmussen. “These rhythms: You could write them down and teach them from notation, but really performing them is an interactive process. It takes two or three musicians to do it properly.”
Although the trip was organized on a grassroots level, Rasmussen said, it garnered a lot of attention for the Commonwealth and William & Mary in Oman. Not only were the performances attended by many, including high-level officials, they were also covered by several Arabic newspapers.
“This is very important work for the College, an example of our commitment to internationalization” said Rasmussen.The ensemble will premier the music they brought back from Oman on Tuesday, April 8, 2014 at the Kimball Theatre when they perform with guest artist, Howard Levy.