Dozan wa Awtar

by Micah Hendler:

Traditionally, Arabic classical music is a heterophonic tradition, meaning that it revolves around a single melodic line which is shared by all the instruments/voices, yet ornamented slightly differently by each one in idiomatic ways. Western choral music is a homophonic / polyphonic tradition, meaning that harmony and independently-moving melodic lines are the basis for its structure. So the idea of a Jordanian choir is one which is fraught with many choices and blessed/cursed with a fundamental tension between traditional heterophonic Arabic aesthetics and homophonic/polyphonic European ones. It is a challenge which is embraced by Dozan wa Awtar.

Above, the Whiffenpoofs and Dozan wa Awtar perform together in Jordan, blending musical cultures. (Hendler/TYG)

Meaning “tuning and strings” in Arabic, Dozan wa Awtar was founded in 2002, and according to their website, “caters to promoting Arabic Choral Music and the creation of unique performing arts projects through teaching, composing/arranging, recording and publishing and producing theatre productions in collaboration with professional local and international artists as well as talented youth”. Arabic choral music is an experimental field and therefore Dozan wa Awtar has taken it as a priority to explore and promote new works and composers. Our mission is to become worldwide leaders in this field.” The choir was founded by Shireen Abu Khader, an amazing Jordanian woman who studied music education at Oberlin and choral conducting at USC. Most of the members of the choir are Jordanian.

The 2010 Whiffenpoofs contacted Dozan last year through one of their expatriate members, an American who had been in Amman on a Fulbright. We sought to continue the tradition this year, and, ironically enough, I had my own contact through Zach Ruchman, a friend from Seeds of Peace who spent this year in Amman on a Fulbright and also sang with Dozan. Through him, we were able to set up a concert.

When we arrived in Amman on July 5, we were welcomed graciously by the members of the choir, and we shared our traditions with one another in a joint workshop. We taught a couple warm-ups, and I also taught Dozan a fun little chord progression that the Whiffenpoofs sing when we’re given a cup at Mory’s, changing the words from “FULL CUP!” to “DOZAN WA AWTAR!” (That was fun.) Shireen taught us two songs in Arabic, “Lamma Bada Yatathanna”—a traditional muwashhah, or Andalusi art song in classical Arabic—and “Adinu,” a Sufi chant. Both were her arrangements, and, like most of Dozan’s repertoire, were impressive in their ability to straddle the gap between the traditional Arabic and modern choral aesthetics with creative innovations.

01 Lamma Bada Yatathanna

“Lamma Bada,” the audio clip uploaded (from Dozan’s album “Introducing Dozan”), talks of an enchanting lover, as most classical Arabic poems do, and is in a traditional samai rhythm, a 10/8 pattern with bass hits on 1, 6 and 7, and higher-pitched hits on 4 and 8. This is an irregular rhythm which is very difficult for Westerners to get their ears around. Usually, this rhythm would be played by a percussionist, but Shireen put it in the basses, on the traditional Arabic rhythmic solfege syllables “doom” (on the tonic) and “tak” (on the fifth). The melody, in the Arabic mode maqam nahawand (with the same pitch set, ascending, as harmonic minor in the Western idiom), entered over this ostinato, and eventually develops as drones, harmonic, and ultimately polyphonic lines are added. The arrangement eventually dwindles and closes with a final melodic phrase and cycle of the samai in the basses.

“Adinu” is a Sufi chant whose words mean, “I believe in the religion of love.” Shireen set the melody over a drone and then told us to improvise harmonies to it. In between the chorus, Shireen welcomed us to choose any note we wanted on a vowel of our choice, and allowed for moments for melodic improvisation over the ensuing mostly-diatonic wash. It was a beautiful effect, as members of Dozan and Whiffenpoofs improvised in Arabic and English on the theme of love (I improvised in Arabic, and one of the members of Dozan sang a section of an aria in English, so both languages were represented by both groups).

The concert was a great success – Dozan wa Awtar gave a phenomenal set, accompanied by a modified Arabic takht (an instrumental ensemble composed of an ‘oud, ‘qanun, violin, cello, and two percussionists.) Our set was also well received, from our upbeat numbers to our ballads and even our humor. We closed the concert with joint performances of “Lamma Bada” and “Adinu” to a standing ovation.

Afterwards, we went to a local outdoor restaurant, ordered nargileh (hookahs, for the unenlightened among you) and relaxed and met the members of Dozan. One member had actually participated in some Seeds of Peace local programming, and expressed some open-minded views about Israel which she said she got a lot of flak for on a regular basis in Jordan. A pretty cold peace. I spoke with Shireen who told me about her artistic vision for the group as she negotiates between Arabic and European aesthetics. She said that she felt pressure at times to make her choral work more “modern” and complicated to keep up with the standards of the international choral community, but that she wanted to make sure it remained grounded in the Arabic musical tradition. Of all of the hybrid choral traditions we have encountered so far in our tour, I think Shireen’s position at the helm of the developing Arabic choral idiom is more powerful and sophisticated than most, and it was a great honor to get to meet her and sing with her choir. Hopefully we have helped foster what will be a long tradition of collaboration between Dozan wa Awtar and the Whiffenpoofs.