Monday, February 23, 2009

"Arabesque"--the Kennedy Center's major celebration of Arab culture

Tonight (Monday) marks the opening of "Arabesque", a major three-week festival of the arts of the Arabic-speaking world, with a particular focus on music, at Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The parameters of the celebration, unprecedented in scope in the U.S. and perhaps in the world, are outlined in a preview feature in the Washington Post's "Weekend" section of 20 February: for three weeks, more than 800 participants from 22 countries will present a wide spectrum of artistic expression in a range of genres. The article details the enormous challenges of the five-year effort, which is a continuation of--and the most ambitious undertaking yet in--the Kennedy Center's tradition of international programming. Another article from the Associated Press gives further details of the festival as of opening night.

"Arabesque" is receiving wide coverage by the media, including a week-long series of vignettes in the prestigious News Hour on PBS, the non-profit national (and primarily educational) television network. In the first installment, Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser explains the philosophy behind the undertaking: "I believe that this festival is going to help people to understand Arab people, to understand their aesthetic tastes, to understand their hospitality and their generosity and their passion, and we'll start to understand them not just as political beings, but as human beings." (This television episode, as well as the remaining four, will be available on the News Hour's Website).

The musical presentations of Arabesque will include nightly performances on the Millennium Stage, which is open to the public without any admission charge; the first night's enormous turnout had listeners standing far back in the lobby of the Kennedy Center. Tonight's program was a duet by Amina Eman Matter and Shayma Khalifa Al-Oraify, two women from Bahrain performing on the oud (also transliterated as 'ud), the most important stringed instrument in Arabic music, and the ancestor of the European lute. This performance is remarkable in that while there are many women who perform vocal music--the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (1904-1975) being the most prominent example--few venture into the realm of instrumental performance, a province occupied almost exclusively by men. This duet was streamed live on the Web, and can be seen here, in the archived programs of the Millennium Stage.

There will also be several concerts in the larger Kennedy Center auditoriums, some of which I'll be covering on these pages, along with selected Millennium Stage performances. In short, the next three weeks promise to filled with many musical riches from the Arabic cultural tradition.

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