Glowing under stage lights at the most recent Aswat concert, that shock of wispy platinum blonde hair on a petite and delicate frame is Tanya Stum, Aswat vocalist and vocal trainer. With a life steeped in music performance and education, and an affinity for things Arab, it was only a matter of time before she and Aswat found each other, and find each other they did in 2011. An American of Scottish-Irish-German-Iroquois descent and a native of rural Pennsylvania, Tanya is connected to the Arab world only through her heart, and that connection has proven a strong one throughout her life. As a testament to the power of the arts, Tanya’s making as an Arabophile is rooted in her numerous encounters with the Arab arts, beginning with a picture of textiles in an encyclopedia when she was a little girl. As she grew up, Tanya’s portal to the Arab world expanded to include Arab folk dance and food – that is, the culinary arts. Today, it is Arab music that enriches that connection, and Aswat has provided the venue to make that possible. Underlying Tanya’s Arab connection through the arts, however, are actual people – Arabs – with whom long-lasting friendships are under way as they come together in Aswat over Arab food, dance, and music.
What role has music played in your life?
Music has played a great role in my life ever since I was a small child. While growing up in a church, I was the designated pianist and organist. Throughout college I studied classical voice and opera, and at this point in my life, it’s my profession. I teach at the SF Boys Chorus, where I direct preparatory boys of 6 to 7 years of age using the Kodaly method. I also teach theory and musicianship to older elementary boys at that organization and I will be teaching a children’s class at the Jazz school in Berkeley in the fall.
Why Arab music?
I remember when I was a small child, I would look at the world encyclopedia and I would always gravitate towards Middle Eastern textiles and culture. Later on, when I went to college, I was introduced to Middle Eastern friends, and I guess that’s where my love for the Arab World was spawned.
How did you learn about Aswat?
I learned about Aswat from a former colleague who was going to see Aswat with a friend, and he had an extra ticket. He asked me if I wanted to go, and I said, “yes”. When I saw Aswat perform for the first time, I knew that the group was going to be in my life in the future at some point.
You are a cancer survivor. Did music play any role in your healing?
When I first came to Aswat, I met Nabila Mango, and I realized that she was very ill with cancer. I was able to identify with her since I had just gone through cancer myself. I was singing for another group where I was a soloist at times, and they were absolutely instrumental in the healing process. When I even felt better, I joined Aswat, and that was a continuation of the healing process for me.
What are some of your most memorable experiences in Aswat?
When I first met people in Aswat, they were very welcoming, and I really appreciated them coming up to me, introducing themselves, and telling me a little about themselves. My favorite experience in Aswat, however, is a recurring one. Each week at Aswat practice, non-Arabic speakers study the pronunciation of Arabic song lyrics first, and then move on to singing the lyrics of the song with correct pronunciation, but without music. Then, the instrumentalists and singers all come together, and put the song together. That moment when we put the song together is a really positive and precious moment for me.
What impact has Aswat had in your life?
Aswat has had a great impact in my life, musically speaking. I also have a new network of friends – wonderful people – and a new understanding of Arab music.
What value has Arab music added to your appreciation of music itself?
I grew up in a Fundamentalist Christian church that focused on hymns, spirituals, and gospel music. And obviously, that kind of music is mainly – the hymns particularly – from Europe. The spirituals and gospels came from our unfortunate American experience. Arab music is quite different from the music I grew up with. Arab music doesn’t have harmony, and it has such a thing as quarter tones, which gives a whole new depth to music. I am still learning a great deal about it. Arab music is very complex, and I appreciate how challenging it is. It has been a very great learning curve for me. I like how a lot of the folk songs are very rooted to the earth, and that is similar to folk songs from around the world. Arab music is a reflection of the flora and fauna, its people and their activities.
What other aspects of Arab culture do you like?
I really love Arab food. I really appreciate its healthiness. I noticed that since I’ve been in Aswat, I’ve been implementing a more Arab diet – eating a lot more hummus. My first experience with Arab food was during college. Friends and I would go to a restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called Ali Baba, which is actually still in business. I loved going there. When I joined Aswat, there were potlucks and gatherings at restaurants. It inspired me to have more Arab food in my life so I actually visit several Arab markets at this point. I love tabbouleh and baba ghanoush, and I just love trying out new food. Arab desserts are fantastic.
What do you think of Arab men?
I think Arab men in general are really good-looking [giggles girlishly]. I do love Middle Eastern men, but just to look at. My husband knows this. I married an American – a pasty white man of English and German descent. I’ve been married to him 16 years. He’s a robotics geek, extremely resourceful, funny, and adorable. I love his intellect and sensitivity, and his ease with expressing his sensitivity. I call him my “new age man”. Oh, and he’s really good looking, too!
Arab women are very much like American women in that there are some who are traditional, and others who are very progressive and outspoken. I love seeing that similarity.
Is there anything that Aswat members don’t know about you?
Aswat members probably don’t know that I used to have three motorcycles; that I used to lane split on the Bay Bridge; that I used to rock-climb; that I did a tandem hand-gliding session. I am also a bee-keeper. My husband and I have two hives in our backyard. Bees are complex little creatures. They remind me every day about the struggles of life, and death, and I’m glad we are helping the environment by having these bees.
Does your experience in Aswat confirm or challenge Arab stereotypes?
One that was confirmed was that they really like to smoke a lot, particularly during intermission at the concerts [chuckles]. But other than that, people are people. I would like more Americans to know about Arab music and Arabs in general. Where I grew up – in rural Pennsylvania – there is definitely a preconceived idea of what an Arab is. I want to be able to help the Arab community in letting others know that they are people who go to work, who sing, who get together, who experience the same kinds of things that Americans do. When people take the time to learn about each other, barriers are broken, compassion manifests, and meaningful relationships are created…..even with just an encyclopedia.
Aswat soloist Rana Mroue decided to join Aswat in 2007 after being moved by the concert performance of her friend, fellow Aswat soloist Yasmeen Daifallah. “I love music and singing, and Aswat seemed like the perfect venue for that because i was also looking for activities that would bring me closer to home,” Mroue said. Home for Mroue is Lebanon; she came to the Bay Area as a graduate student in biochemistry and Cell and Molecular biology at UC Berkeley in 2005. “When [Yasmeen] said they’d welcome anyone who loved singing, I decided to give it a shot!” That shot yielded solo performances for Mroue, and more. “I love the group, the genuiness of the people, their dedication to music and to the community. I love the fact that each and every person in Aswat decided to put everything aside on Sundays to be part of this group mostly on volunteer basis. That says a lot about these individuals; they want to learn, they are curious, they want to contribute to making something beautiful. In our world today where everything seems so fast-paced, it is refreshing to see so many people taking the time to do something fun, and to enrich their lives in that way artistically and socially… I also feel like I am contributing to something bigger and larger by communicating music in general, and Arabic music in particular to the broader audience.”
If you were a song, which song would you be?
Zahrat al Madaen by Fairouz
Which solo performance of yours in an Aswat concert was most memorable to you and why?
The first time I sang at the Winter concert (2009) under Dr. Sary Dowidar’s direction. I was really nervous but I felt that everyone around me -musicians, chorus, audience- was very encouraging and truly supportive. It was a lot of fun!
What was your childhood ambition?
I really wanted to become a scientist. My father is a geologist and my mom is a chemist and they both had a big influence on awakening my scientific curiosity. I felt like being a scientist would give me a good balance between learning and serving the community. I also wished I could be an astronaut! I still love reading and learning about the cosmos and asking questions about what lies beyond our planet!
What is your wildest dream?
Traveling to outer space.
Who is your favorite Arab/Arabic vocalist? Why?
Fairouz. I grew up listening to her. Every morning before going to school, Fairouz would be playing on the radio at home, in the school bus, everywhere. Her voice is like home to me.
What is most interesting about being an Arab or being of Arab descent in the Bay Area?
I learned a lot about what it means to be an Arab immigrant by meeting Arab-Americans in the Bay Area. Suddenly it seemed to me that what I identify with as an Arab is not necessarily the same for an Arab-American. It made me question what is it that makes the Arab identity and how much of this is me, and how much of it is a social and cultural influence. I guess the most interesting thing about being an Arab here is that you can be yourself truly and transcend your ethnic background without losing it to find a common language and to find common interests with people from all over the world.
What inspires you to get up everyday?
There is so much to do and see and learn and we have so little time! My family and friends make it all the more worthwhile!
What is currently your biggest challenge?
Finishing my PhD.
Describe your ideal man. Does he have to be Lebanese?
My Ideal man is honest and positive. he’s ambitious but not agressive. He’s sensitive and has a lot of empathy. He’s reliable and trustworthy. He has to have a good sense of humor. It would be nice if he is interested in music, arts, and the human conditon, and if he likes to read and has a good amount of curiosity about all things. I would love for him to have a great relationship with his family so he understands my family values. He doesn’t have to be Lebanese.
What do you love most about Aswat?
The people of Aswat.