New Sounds will perform Middle Eastern songs

by Margot Byrne | 2/25/13 11:00pm

by Dennis Ng and Dennis Ng / The Dartmouth

The five-member group was formed by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, a collection of development networks that funds musicians from the Middle East.

"I have never heard music like theirs before," music professor Ted Levin, who specializes in world music, said of the group's work. "There is a kind of emotional rawness to it that is truly captivating."

Levin is senior project consultant for the Aga Khan Foundation and frequently travels to central Asia to oversee music projects. Levin said he is passionate about the role the arts can play in strengthening civil society in countries where the form is endangered or still emerging.

Levin advocated bringing New Sounds to Dartmouth as part of the musicians-in-residence program, organized collaboratively by the Hopkins Center and the music department.

Each year, three different musicians of various genres visit the College. New Sounds is considered a "world" group, though the band plays contemporary music and most members are classically trained.

The group plays traditional Middle Eastern instruments, such as the quanun, and more well-known instruments, including the clarinet, violin and saxophone. New Sounds seeks to put a contemporary spin on traditional Middle Eastern music in order to develop their own performance style.

"We like to experiment with the music we play to challenge our heritage," clarinetist Kinan Azmeh said.

While many members knew one another previously through various individual projects, this month marks the first time they are performing collectively as a group. Azmeh said the experience has been "challenging" because the band is trying to bring together instruments that do not typically form an ensemble. Each member comes from a specific background and musical training and often has varying opinions about performing.

"One plus one is greater than two," Azmeh said. "A whole really is the sum of its parts, and benefits from collaboration."

Saxophonist Basel Rajoub said he learns from the many ideas of his peers, and the group is still trying to "find a sound to mix everything together." Though New Sounds is focused on performing together this spring, each musician is also working on solo projects. This independence brings a freshness and energy to the band that prevents their music from becoming static or one-dimensional.

New Sounds visited several music and Arabic classes at the College last week in order to show students their creative process.

"The band's visit freed the students temporarily from the confinement and pressure of the syllabus and gave them a chance to practice their Arabic in a more natural and genuine context," Asian and Middle Eastern studies professor Mostafa Ouajjani said.

Azmeh said he enjoys talking to college students because of their curiosity and hunger for knowledge. Their questions provoke the group to think differently about their music and inspire them to keep innovating.

"Sitting in class listening to these musicians, I felt like I could have seen this performance in their native countries just as much as I could have seen them at a Parisian cafe or a Denver concert hall, for instance," Jordan Kastrinsky '16 said.

Students said they valued their time with New Sounds, as they were finally able to listen to and speak with professional musicians in a more familiar, relaxed setting. They appreciated the band's contemporary take on the traditional Middle Eastern practices they studied in class, as this made the music more vibrant and relatable to the young adult audience.

"Media usually represent the Arab world as a space of instability and tension," Ouajjani said. "I hope that New Sounds will shed some light on other, ignored aspects of Arab identity."

The group will perform tonight at 7 p.m. in Spaulding Auditorium.