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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Simon Shaheen celebrates 20th anniv of Arabic Music Retreat at Harvard Club

Simon Shaheen

Simon Shaheen and the Arabic Music Retreat Ensemble at the Harvard Club

After building his Arabic Music Retreat over the last 20 years, top Arabic oud (lute) player and violinist Simon Shaheen is looking to increase its achievements with a scholarship program.

Shaheen hosted the Arabic Music Retreat's 20th Anniversary Gala 1997-2016 Saturday night at New York's Harvard Club, the event featuring an auction and performances by the Arabic Music Retreat Ensemble, comprised of 14 musicians representing 12 nationalities.

The main auction item was a beautifully detailed classical oud, made by Hanna Nahhat in Damascus in 1929 and described as "the Stradivarius of ouds." While the instrument was valued at $20,000, Shaheen's brother Najib Shaheen, who plays oud in his brother's groups and also is a major restorer of old ouds, said that if it were a comparable Western instrument, it would be appraised at $4,000,000.

Shaheen and an international faculty of 11 instructors have been conducting the week-long Arabic Music Retreat every summer since 1997 at Mt. Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts. The retreat has introduced nearly 1,800 musicians, educators, composers and performers from around the world to the rich cultural heritage of Arabic music.

"The retreat is part of my educational mission to teach participants about Arabic music in its truest, most sincere form," said Palestinian-American Shaheen, who lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The funds raised from the gala will support an endowment fund for scholarships, enabling applicants to carry the Arab musical heritage forward."

Another goal of the Arabic Music Retreat is to ensure Arabic music's "rightful place in world music and art," noted Shaheen.

"There's no home for Arabic music in the U.S.," he said, adding that the retreat provides "a musical/cultural oasis and social community crossing many boundaries and uniting many cultures and generations of musicians." Besides expanding the retreat's mission, he noted, the endowment will "give the message to the world that here is something you should pay attention to."

The auction, which featured a solo performance by Shaheen on the Nahhat oud, was conducted by the very funny Arab-American comedian Amer Zahr, himself an alumnus of the Arabic Music Retreat who credited it for bringing him "back to my roots."

"It's one institution that's also influenced the direction of music in the Middle East itself," said Zahr.

The 21st annual Arabic Music Retreat is scheduled Aug. 12-19, 2017.

2012 Arabic Music Retreat performance



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