Umm Koulthoum Orchestra Visits Dearborn

By Sadaf Ali, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

Detroit- October 27– Guests of every ethnicity mingled amongst platters brimming with grape leaves and falafel all in anticipation of what many consider the greatest Arab orchestra in the world.

This Saturday the Umm Koulthoum Orchestra, named for the beloved 20th century Egyptian diva of the same name, made history by becoming the first Arabic classical band to play at the Detroit Opera House.

Wafa Salah, Chair of the Friends of the Arab American National Museum (AANM), says that about two thousand people attended.

“This is the first time the Arab community has had such a big event, especially in an opera house. I think the people here really appreciate that,” she said.

The event was sponsored by the Museum and put together by Friends of the AANM. A year of planning and working in conjunction with The Egyptian Embassy in Washington D.C. and Egypt’s Ministry of Culture finally paid off when the band made its American debut.

According to Salah, last year’s gala at the Ritz Carlton with Syrian group Salateen Al-Tarab was such a success, that the AANM and Friends were encouraged to top it.

The Orchestra was formed by Egypt’s Ministry of Culture in 1967 to revive and preserve traditional Arabic music. Comprised of 55 trained vocalists and 40 instrumentalists, the Orchestra presents both traditional forms and works by contemporary composers.

But for many the music reminded them of home and of their childhood.

“It brought a lot of nostalgia, a lot of memories from the old days when we used to watch this band on television,” said Rasha Demashkieh, a Port Huron resident, “We used to watch Umm Koulthoum, who is like the Edith Piaf or Maria Kalis of the Arabic world.”

Renowned Maestro Abdel Halim Nowera was commissioned to establish the Orchestra and led it until his death in 1985. Currently the band is led by Maestro Saleh Gobashi, a former violinist.

Although many attendants were orchestral music fans, there were several newcomers to classical music, such as Toufic Riyashi, a Dearborn resident.

“I’ve always been interested in seeing an orchestra perform, so why not make my first time an Arabic orchestra.”

Salah says that although the opera is performed in Arabic it still appeals to many non-Arabic people.

“Sometimes you go to an opera and you don’t understand the language, but you still enjoy it because it is classical,” she says, “I think mainly they will have a great time and not forget this evening.”

The Orchestra’s home is in Cairo, Egypt, and they have toured many countries around the world, such as Jarash festival in Jordan, Mahrajan Al-Madina and Carthage festivals in Tunisia, Babel festival in Iraq, Zanzibar festival, and Andalusian music festival in Algeria.

A 17-member ensemble of the Umm Koulthoum Orchestra, with 15 musicians and two vocalists, is touring five U.S. cities this fall. The tour began in New York City October 25 moved on to Detroit then hit Raleigh, North Carolina on October 30. The final two shows will be in Chicago on November 1 and Washington, D.C. November 4.


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