Middle Eastern Modes

Arabic music master Bassam Saba led the way at the college's first annual Middle Eastern music festival.
March 16, 2009

Berklee presented an impressive preview for its first-ever Middle Eastern music festival on February 18: an intense clinic with Lebanese oud and nay expert Bassam Saba.

Later that day, Saba would perform at the BPC with his own group and the Berklee All-Star Middle East ensemble—a concert organizer/voice professor Christiane Karam called "exciting and exhilarating," with "incredible energy" in the room.

But first, in under two hours, he took a packed recital hall through the complex basics of Arabic classical music. Percussionist April Centrone and Berklee student Ali Amr assisted.

Saba, a member of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, outlined and demonstrated the key differences with Western classical music in abbreviated yet detailed form.

The two came together in medieval Andalusia, Spain, where Iraqi musician Ziryâb established the earliest academic music school, Saba said. You can hear the influence on Western music in Baroque cadenzas.

To the Western ear, the key differences are microtones and modes. Western classical music long ago settled on one mode—the familiar white-and-black piano key sequence. Arabic music uses many, called maqāmāt, that employ half-flats and other notes between the cracks. (Saba had handouts.)

The clinic wasn't all academic, though—far from it. Saba invited anyone with an instrument to come up and play. He led an impromptu 15-person ensemble through several variations on a few lines of traditional songs.

"This is an important event," Saba said after the clinic. For him, connecting different audiences with Arabic music "is a duty and a pleasure."

View the photo gallery to learn more about the clinic.