Four Arab Musicians You Should Know

National Arab American Heritage Month takes place in April and celebrates Arab and Arab-American culture and pays tribute to the contributions of Arab Americans Check out this list of four Arab Performers and Composers you should know!

From left to right – Top Row: Kareem Roustom and Mohammed Fairouz
Bottom Row: Mariela Shaker and the National Arab Orchestra.

Mohammed Fairouz

Mohammed Fairouz is an Arab-American composer who has been named an “important new artistic voice” by the New York Times. Fairouz began composing at a young age and attended New England Conservatory of Music and Curtis Institute of Music where he refined his talents studying under many notable professors. His Piano Sonata No. 2, titled “The Last Resistance,” is a poignant commentary on post-9/11 events, in which he references a book by the same name written by Jacqueline Rose. The book’s influence is also reflected in the movement names, which reflect specific chapters in Rose’s book. Fairouz balances striking chord progressions with ominous melodies and arpeggios throughout the piece. The work provokes thought, and its equally powerful literary counterpart is an intriguing read.

Excerpt written by CYSO Social Media Team member Shirley Xiong for our AAPI Listening Guide: Part Two.

Piano Sonata No. 2, “The Last Resistance” (2011)

Kareem Roustom

Kareem Roustom is a Syrian-American composer and professor. Born in Damascus to an American mother and a Syrian father, Roustom and his family moved to the United States when he was a teenager. In 1989, Roustom attended Northeastern University to study electrical engineering, but later earned a Bachelor of Arts in Music Business and Music Performance from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He then went on to earn an MA in Ethnomusicology and Composition at Tufts University where he wrote a thesis about the oud improvisations by notable Egyptian composer and musician Riad Al Sunbati.

Roustom’s musical career began with guitar lessons and the Arabic oud. It wasn’t until later that he focused his sights on composing contemporary classical music. Roustom’s music has been described as “rooted in two worlds” with references to both Western and Middle Eastern traditions. Notable musicians and ensembles have commissioned works from Roustom including Daniel Barenboim, the West-East Divan Orchestra, and the Kronos Quartet. He’s even created arrangements for pop musicians that include Shakira and Tina Turner.

Roustom is currently a professor at Tufts University where he is a Professor of the Practice of Music. His specialty areas include orchestration, music notation, Music of the Middle East, and composition for film.

CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra performs Roustom’s Dabke at Orchestra Hall in 2017.

Mariela Shaker

Mariela Shaker is a Syrian-American violinist, speaker, and professor. Born in Aleppo, Syria in 1990, Shaker began taking violin lessons at the age of 10 at the Arabic Institute of Music and subsequently taught there after graduating in 2004. Shaker had a vibrant and active performance career in Syria and was invited to participate in the Dubai Arabian Competition and to perform with the Emirate’s Youth Symphony Orchestra. In 2018, she fled Syria amidst the war and conflict to study at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. After completing her Bachelors of Music at Monmouth, Shaker went on to earn her Masters in Music at DePaul University in Chicago.

Shaker has been an advocate for bringing awareness to the situation in Syria. Using music to promote her cause, Shaker has been a keynote speaker at many venues and for notable audiences including performances for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, at the Kennedy Center to commemorate World Refugee Day, and even at the White House for President Obama in 2015, where he named her a Champion of Change for World Refugees. As a refugee, Mariela’s remarkable work ensures that not only her music, but also her voice be heard around the world for refugees in need.

Mariela Shaker performs at the Refugees International 40th Anniversary Dinner in 2019.

The National Arab Orchestra

Founded in 2009, the Arab National Orchestra is an American ensemble dedicated to performing works by Arab composers and musicians. The National Arab Orchestra, or NAO, began in 2009 under the direction of Michael Ibrahim as a student-led ensemble at the University of Michigan; the group was originally called the Michigan Arab Orchestra. It wasn’t until the 2010s that the group rebranded as the National Arab Orchestra and established themselves as the nation’s leading organization for Arab music.

The first educational outreach program of the NAO, Building Bridges Through Music, involved working with the Detroit Public School System to teach students “about the beauty and richness of the Arab culture while providing opportunities for cultural understanding and enrichment.” The NAO have since performed at countless venues, such as the Detroit Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts and the Woodruff Arts Center, promoting its mission “to preserve and integrate Arab culture by creating memorable musical experiences through education and performance with an emphasis on the musical traditions of the Arab world.”

The NAO performs Lama Bada Yatathana with Abeer Nehme (vocalist) and the UMS Choral Union in 2022.

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