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To the beat of a darabukka drum 

A class at Cal Poly brings a taste of the Middle East to the PAC

If you plan to attend Cal Poly Arab Music Ensemble’s newest performance, a spring concert on May 16 at 8 p.m., there are a few terms you might want to brush up on—most of them Arabic. The first of these is ethnomusicology, which, according to a Merriam-Webster online dictionary, means “the study of music in a sociocultural context.”

- GOT MUSIC? :  An Arab Music Ensemble concert from a past quarter -  - PHOTO BY ROBERT LAWSON
  • GOT MUSIC? : An Arab Music Ensemble concert from a past quarter
This is what the ensemble’s director, Kenneth Habib, was hired to do and teach at Cal Poly in the fall of 2006.

Another is Tamzara, a folk song native to Armenia. And Miserlou, a song about a man who is madly in love with an Egyptian girl whom he refers to as Miserlou. Both are pieces that the Arab Music Ensemble will perform during their spring concert.

Of course, no Arab concert would be complete without the buzuq, a type of lute commonly identified with gypsy music. And the darabukka, a goblet-shaped drum played by striking it.

If these terms are a little overwhelming, imagine being one of the 25 Cal Poly students and community members enrolled in the ensemble class. When the university hired Habib, one of his responsibilities, in addition to teaching music classes, was to offer an ensemble class. He was left to select the type of ensemble that appealed to his background.

“Because it’s a big world, [ethnomusicologists] usually specialize in two areas, and mine were Middle Eastern and American popular music,” said Habib. “My specialization within the Middle East is the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Each quarter, students and community members alike are welcome to enroll in the ensemble class and at the end of the quarter the class performs a concert. It may not be standard practice to welcome community members into Cal Poly classrooms, but Habib insists that it’s a fairly common practice in ethnomusicology classrooms. People who harbor a longstanding interest or passion for a particular region’s music don’t always have a lot of opportunities to pursue that interest, so it makes sense to give college and non-college students alike the opportunity to learn.

Together, SLO residents and Poly students—so often at odds—lay aside their differences and study Arab music theory, learn to sing in Arabic, and, in some cases, learn a new instrument, like the aforementioned buzuq.

“Because it’s totally different music than what people are accustomed to, students don’t come in with a background of hearing it,” Habib said. “This way they have to learn from scratch.”

Habib encourages his students to view the class as a yearlong experience, re-enrolling each quarter to maximize their learning potential. Most heed his advice.

And while students who elect to learn a new—and previously foreign—instrument generally require lessons outside the classroom, there are several opportunities for students to incorporate skills they’ve already learned. A student who already knows how to play the guitar can apply that technique to an Arabic stringed instrument. There are also several instruments that Arab and Western music share, including the violin, a central instrument in Arabic art music. Western instruments like the saxophone and flute can be adapted to play Arab music.

Unfortunately, actually being able to play an instrument is just one element of the challenge of transitioning into Arab music. Western music is comprised of 12 tones per octave, a mere half of the possible 24 tones in Arabic music. Without leaping headlong into a very complex discussion about music theory, this basically means that Arab music has more notes than most westerners are familiar with. For those without PhDs in ethnomusicology, that probably sounds intimidating, but as far as Habib is concerned, the Arab musical tradition opens new and exciting worlds of sound.

“What is music? What might be music in one culture is not necessarily music in another,” he said. “As a musician, whose stock and trade is sound, this gives me something else to say that I didn’t have before.”

- RAQS SHARQI :  Members of the local dance troupe SaJa perform at an Arab Music Ensemble performance. -  - PHOTO BY ROBERT LAWSON
  • RAQS SHARQI : Members of the local dance troupe SaJa perform at an Arab Music Ensemble performance.
An important aspect of exposing San Luis Obispo to Arab music entails acknowledging the diversity of the Middle East, both ethnically and culturally. The ensemble will be performing 14 different pieces, representing various regions and types of music. Habib composed two of these pieces, a dulab, which is defined as a brief and introductory instrumental composition and a samai, a more complex piece that demonstrates changes of mode and, therefore, a degree of musical sophistication. The concert will also include improvisational elements, both instrumental and vocal, a handful of soloists—again, both instrumental and vocal—and guests, including Wael Kakish, artistic director of Kan Zaman, a classical and folkloric Arab music ensemble based in Southern California.

Prior to moving to San Luis Obispo and becoming a professor at Cal Poly, Habib lived in Santa Barbara where he occasionally collaborated with dancers Saundra Sarrouf and Jenna Mitchell. Through some happy twist of fate, Sarrouf and Mitchell also relocated to San Luis Obispo, where they now direct a Middle Eastern dance troupe called SaJa. Habib once again finds himself collaborating with the dancers for his quarterly ensemble concerts, lending yet another cultural dimension to the performance and adding a touch of the exotic.

For anyone whose exploration of Arab music never progressed beyond Sting’s “Desert Rose,” it’s probably time to step into a new—and maybe intimidating—world of unfamiliar notes and songs and instruments that you probably won’t see at the local music store. And if you happen to fall head over heels in love, check out for fall quarter enrollment information.

INFOBOX:  East meets PAC

The Cal Poly Arab Music Ensemble will perform a spring concert on May 16 at 8 p.m. in the pavilion at the PAC. Tickets cost $8 for students and $10 for the general public, although the ticket office does assess a $3 service fee. To purchase tickets visit or drop by the PAC ticket office from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays or from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. To order by phone call 756-2787.

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach has yet to sail the seven seas. Send nautical charts to



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