It's been said music crosses cultural and historical barriers. And while metro Detroit's music scene has always been diverse, Arabic music rarely enters the conversation.
Conductor, musician, and educator Michael Ibrahim wants to change this.
The National Arab Orchestra will take the Masonic Temple stage for a gala performance at 8 p.m. Friday, May 8, led by Ibrahim, and will feature composer and vocalist Salah Kurdi, joined by students from the Detroit School of Arts (formerly the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts). Even though it's not their native language, these students will sing in Arabic.
A Sterling Heights native, Ibrahim, 30, has devoted his life to music and to teaching different groups how to sing in Arabic, especially when they don't know the language. Ibrahim had his own entrance into the culture at an early age.
As a child, Ibrahim was fascinated by his grandfather's voice. He rhapsodizes about the chanting he'd hear, which struck something deep within him.
"I guess I got into music because my grandfather was a priest, and when he would chant he had a good voice," Ibrahim says. "The music in the church was really beautiful. Part of that inspired me in the beginning. I like creating good work. I like doing good work. That's what motivates me to keep doing this."
He was raised Greek Orthodox, born of Syrian immigrants, and while music was integral to daily life, it didn't truly land on his radar as a career until college.
"Nobody in my family really played anything," Ibrahim says. "My dad had an oud (similar to a guitar). He would just take it out and fiddle with the strings. I remember watching him when I was a kid. I liked the sound and look of the instrument. Music has always been a way for Arabs to hold onto their culture. I'm a product of that system. I had my cultural awakening through the music."
Later, at Eastern Michigan University, where he earned a degree in music, he discovered the music of Simon Shaheen & Qantara on a CD called Blue Flame. The music brought tears to Ibrahim's eyes.
Still, he found himself moving between two worlds: music and spirituality. "I had a stint where I worked with the bishop in Toledo," he says. "I was ordained a sub-deacon. I just figured out that wasn't for me. I found myself always coming back to music."
Ibrahim has studied with Shaheen, Johnny Sarweh, Nadeem Dlaikan, Douglas Bianchi, Anthony Iannacconne, Dr. David Pierce, Robert Williams, and Victoria King. He earned a master's degree in conducting from Wayne State University.
"It just made sense," Ibrahim says. "My teacher said, 'Instead of just getting a regular master's degree in music, you should do conducting.' That was the best advice he gave me. The education I got at Wayne helped me to apply all that technique to that work."
Ibrahim wanted to grow as an artist.
Starting the National Arab Orchestra
The NAO, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 2009 and established in 2010. Its goal is to preserve and perform the classical and contemporary traditions of Arab music.
"There's not a lot of groups like this group," Ibrahim says. "There are a bunch of student groups, a bunch of smaller groups that don't have fuller instrumentation. The New York Arab Orchestra was around about a year before I started doing my thing. Most groups center it around one individual. So there's no real sense of strategy or direction. I purposely set it up, when I believe someone might take my spot, I make it about the music, rather than about myself."
Getting past the stereotypes
Thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation, Ibrahim and his group began to think about expanding their base.
"We basically thought, 'Why don't we share this music with non-Arabs,'" Ibrahim says. "Which we were already doing, but we weren't doing it in the sense that we were allowing the general public to participate in the concert. Inherently, Arab music is participatory because people clap along; they listen to it, they like what they're hearing. To really allow students to learn the music was one of the motivating factors. Schools across the states, either their funding is being cut or wiped out all together."
Did it take some getting used to for the Detroit School of Arts students? Sure, but music wasn't the only challenge.
"These kids probably don't have any experience with Arab culture outside of a gas station — most of them," Ibrahim says. "That's unfortunate, but that's the reality. So when you try to talk to them in Arabic, they're going to giggle, and they're going to be like, 'This is weird.' But that dies out real quick, when you start to communicate with them and make it about the music, they get serious about it, and then they get into it. And that's just the most rewarding thing to see. You're sharing something very personal with other kids that you otherwise wouldn't have any contact with."
Finding a national platform
The gala performance is in its fourth iteration, but as executive and music director of the National Arab Orchestra, Ibrahim wants to spread the word beyond metro Detroit and the Arab community.
"It's no secret that metro Detroit has the largest population of Arabs outside the Middle East, hands down, so it's a pretty big community," Ibrahim says. "The best way to represent any group of people is through their artistic achievements. You're talking about a culture that has over 2,000 years' worth of cultural heritage. A lot of that is based in music."
They have upcoming performances in Jacksonville, Fla. on Aug. 22, and a performance Sept. 19 at the Music Hall with the Michigan Philharmonic.
"Teaching Arab music outside of the culture is a great way to create cross-cultural references," Ibrahim says. "It's a great way to put people in touch with people. I want to see this music be passed down. I don't want it to die out. It's dying in the Middle East. That's one of our missions as an institution. We're trying to keep this music alive."
For more information about the National Arab Orchestra, visit www.facebook.com/NationalArabOrchestra.