Aswat for me has been a poignant musical journey into my past and a bittersweet reminder of my rich heritage. Aswat has colored my life by introducing me to so many kind-hearted and talented individuals from all over the globe and by uniting me with some who share the same wounds from the past, inflicted by the loss of country and childhood. Indeed, Aswat has brought together different strands of my life that have been disjointed for a long time. And ironically, after two decades of studying western music, I am discovering the sounds of my roots which have silently accompanied me through the years.
Just a few days before boarding a plane in 1978 to leave war-torn Beirut for good, I still remember hearing Fairuz’s voice on the radio, which was often muffled by the sounds of shelling and gunfire. Her songs and those from other great artists in the Arab world are an echo from my childhood. And now through Aswat, that echo has come back to me as an adult. This is a powerful reminder that this music can outlive any war. It has an ancient soul that heals, unites and transcends religions, sects and nationalities. This music is a door into a dimension where time and space have no relevance. When we come together, just for a few hours, we open that door and, for me personally, my spirit is lifted up, up and far away from every obligation to work, family, community, money, gods and who knows what else. For just a few hours, there is only the sheer love and joy of music.
When the music plays, I feel as if we are united with the spirits of all those who have sung these songs before us, whether privately in their kitchens while cooking or on stage in front of thousands. These spirits are young and old, rich and poor, famous and unknown. They join us from every corner of the globe, many of whom have been scattered and estranged from their countries and their families. They fill every seat beyond our sight in that rehearsal hall. They sway to the lyrical melodies, the infectious rhythms and the rich timbres of instruments and voices. And at the end of the day, they return to their villages and cities, a little less restless and alienated.
While I consider all of us in Aswat to be fortunate for being part of the group, the most fortunate member among us is one who does not sing or play. The healing spirit of music itself chose Nabila as its prime instrument, to bring this group together and to keep it going through thick and thin. Such an honor by the Muse of Muses can only be bestowed upon a very unique individual.
Our musical journey continues. Happy travels…
Human beings, like all living creatures, have a need and desire to belong to a community, to a place where they feel welcome and themselves. One of the communities I belong to is ASWAT. And I love it for many reasons. Aswat is a community where everyone is welcome. The group is made up of globally-minded, well-educated and well-traveled people who have open minds and open hearts. Aswat’s members value beautiful Middle Eastern music and cherish the opportunities made available to them to learn about Arab music and culture and share it with many different Bay Area audiences. Aswat is also very special because of Nabila Mango whose untiring energy and passion have made the ensemble what it is today, a highly respected and sought-after performing arts group. Aswat’s power lies in its musical soul. And this soul, expressed collectively through its many members of different ethnicities, cultures, ages and backgrounds, is helping to create positive perceptions about Arabs and Arab culture in a world where so many horrible messages about Arabs abound. Aswat is unique. It works at creating a family atmosphere in a structured setting and its members are respected and valued. Aswat also connects me in a very deep way to the Palestinian side of my family and that brings me great joy. It’s a wonderful community to belong to!
My relationship with music is similar to that of my painting where i find myself renegotiating my past with my present, my east with my west, dissecting the esthetics of my heritage with the esthetics of my future and then finally discovering that it is indeed a pigmented contrapuntal relationship mimicking canvas in need of melodious paint and visa versa!
Aswat has taught me to find color in music the same way I strive to find rhythm in painting.
The music from Arabic speaking countries has called to me since the first time I heard it as a teenager. Growing up in the Midwest of America, there was no opportunity to hear this music. As soon as I was introduced to it, it became part of my life. Since living in the Bay Area there have been many opportunities to hear and play this music. The gift that Aswat offers to musicians, singers and audiences is unique and priceless. Aswat offers a chance for people of all ethnic backgrounds to learn and perform together with accomplished teachers/conductors season after season. It also provides a rare opportunity for the members who perform this music to get to know each other cross culturally through activities outside of rehearsals and performances. This can only happen because of the tireless efforts of Nabila Mango to keep this nonprofit organization and all its aspects running smoothly within the Board, the group and in the community. I feel deep appreciation and gratitude for the dedication of all the people in this group.
A is for Arabic–a language that has challenged me for a lot longer than I care to admit given my skill level!
S is for singing–not something I excel at, but something I love to do, and something I absolutely love to hear the talented Aswat members do.
W is for Worldly–Aswat members are from everywhere, and fear no borders, and more importantly we don’t fear one another or other people based on stereotypes, no matter how the vast powers that be try to divide us humans. We talk to each other and we make music and sing together, and it is powerful.
A is also for Arabic music–perhaps among the most beautiful and expressive music I have ever known.
T is for Time…because how you spend your time is how you spend your life, and I am happy, honored, and excited to spend even a small part of mine making music, listening to and learning about music, and being part of this unique community called Aswat. Thanks for welcoming me back!
When I think of Aswat, I think of Nabila. I cannot separate the two.
I first joined Aswat 13 or so years ago. I had seen a notice in the Arab Cultural Center newsletter about a singing group being started up at the ACC. Since I was an Arabic dancer (since 1965), dance teacher and wannabe drummer, I needed to and wanted to know more about Arabic songs and music – the backbone of my dance, so I went to the ACC to see what it was all about.
Nabila was there with musician Mimi Spencer (may her soul rest in peace) a local qanun player. and maybe about 3 or 4 other people. This was the singing group and this is what we did. Nabila would feed us – she cooked for us and then would teach us how to pronounce the Arabic words correctly. Later we (including Nabila and me) sang and Mimi accompanied us. We met every other week and outside of Mimi and Nabila, we had no director.
After our group grew, Nabila found us a director. If memory serves me correctly, I believe our first director was Elias Lammam) and soon we found ourselves performing at festivals. We knew “we had made it” when we were invited to perform in Seattle for their Arabic festival. I think about 15 or more of us singers and maybe about 4 or 5 musicians met at SFO. There while waiting to board the plane was Nabila with a picnic lunch for all of us! Bread, cheese, olives, hummos, baklava, cookies, cakes, fruit…you name it…there it was. And so we were off to start our adventure and road to fame. It was a wonderful weekend. I believe two marriages were initiated from that magical weekend.
We were on a role! And then…nine one one and we were back to square zero. I remember our first meeting at the Arabic Cultural Center after that horrible day. It was Nabila, Ismail and me.
Through perseverence, slowly our group once again grew and we once again started performing for various festivals. Then Nabila started producing concerts for us. I think our first concert was at Nabila’s church. What? A Christian church in her neighborhood, with guest Jewish musicians produced by a Muslim? Well. This says it all for Nabila. She knows no boundaries. She is all loving, nurturing and welcoming. And always there was food. And always it was food that Nabila magically produced!
I wasn’t just learning about Arabic words, lyrics, music; I was learning about Arabic hospitality and Nabila’s magic.
We’ve had many directors. All giving us something unique and special depending on their expertise. Some have come from other parts of the United States and some from the Arab world. I have personally enjoyed and learned from all of them and they’ve all left their mark with Aswat and helped to make Aswat the successful performing group it is today. Do all of you know that last Saturday morning, Aswat Women’s Ensemble received an standing ovation and last Saturday evening, Aswat received Two - yes, two, not one – standing ovations? To me, our most important director has been Nabila, the Artistic Director, the mother, the person with the vision, the person who believes in us and the person who works the hardest to keep us going. It’s a thankless task. She has had to make many decisions that not everyone has always agreed with, however without Nabila, there would be no Aswat.
As I said in the beginning: When I think of Aswat, I think of Nabila. I cannot separate the two.
Thank you, Nabila.
I joined Aswat because of the audience. The first Aswat concert I attended was unlike any other concert I had ever attended; The audience was dancing in their seats, drumming on their chairs, singing along to all of the lyrics, wiping away tears of joy and sharing what snacks they had snuck into the theater. Aswat is about community and as soon as I joined, I learned that it is a community built on passionate dedication, in-depth discussion and debate, amazing food and, of course, love of the music. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes Arabic music so enthralling; There are catchy rhythms that set the mood, quarter-tones that resonate in the heart, the character and spirit of each singer and musician that slips out in every performance. For me, I connect most with the poetry. I love that we’re singing about the substance of life; a trip to the river, the birds at your window, a missing wedding invitation and so many more stories.
When I went to Berkeley I decided to peruse Arabic further, along with my studies in Math and Physics. It was in my second year in Berkeley when I first heard of Aswat, because Sahar was singing with them. I saw the show and was awed, but I didn’t imagine I would ever join myself. Then I studied abroad in Cairo for a year, drastically improved my spoken Arabic, and experienced firsthand life in a great Arab metropolis.
When I came back to Berkeley, I knew that I wanted to continue to speak colloquial Arabic, but had no great desire to continue with the cut-and-dry of the formal language. Sahar was still singing with Aswat and managed to convince me to come to the first meeting of the season. And what I found here in Aswat has convinced me to stick around: I have found a community diverse in origin, age, and occupation, held together by a love for Arabic music. From Arabic side conversations to trying to decipher the Maestro’s soliloquies, I have found plenty of opportunities to improve on my Arabic, but more than that I feel that I have found in Aswat a place to make great art, form close connections, and grow as a person.
Sari Dowidar’s musical style is an apt reflection of the latest trends in Arab music in the 21st century – the product of cross-fertilization between Middle Eastern and Western sensibilities. Mr. Dowidar’s brilliance is evident in his ability to maintain the integrity of traditional Arab music while incorporating non-traditional elements such as Western harmony and instruments. The result is a breathtaking musical landscape of depth, layer, and texture that is at once new and familiar.
Mr. Dowidar is trained in classical Arab music at the Academy of Music in Cairo. He has conducted various university choirs, including that of the American University in Cairo. He is a notable composer for such prominent Egyptian opera house singers as Ahmad Ibrahim, Azza Balba, and Reham Abdal-Hakim. Last July, Mr. Dowidar conducted the Arab Music Ensemble at the Opera House in Cairo. Prior to his stint with Aswat, he was conductor of the Popular Folkloric Arts Troupe for the Cairo “Ballone” Theater.