Reporting Cherri Gregg
By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – A West Philadelphia non-profit is teaching middle and high school students about the Arab culture and language through music. Their big performance is just hours away.
About 70 students stood on the stage of the Trinity Center for Urban Life near 22nd and Spruce. They’ve spent the past three months studying nine different songs written in Arabic and are now in their final hours before the big concert on Saturday.
“I’m very nervous, because I don’t want to mess up,” says Alana Walker, 18. She sings with the Wilmington Children’s Chorus. The choir is part of an Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture program that pairs a community ensemble with a professional singer to perform concerts throughout the year.
“We had to learn like two new songs every week. I had to learn how to use my voice in a very different way because they use their throat in totally different ways,” says Walker. “It is really cool, which makes it fun and interesting.”
Walker says she’s learned about Lebanon, classical Arab music, new dances and lots of new words.
“I’m really pumped to be able to sing with my friends,” she says.
The idea for Al-Bustan was born in 2002, when Hazami Sayed started a summer program to teach Arab culture. She incorporated Al-Bustan the next year and in 2010, the group created a performance arm that educates young people while building a bridge to Arab culture.
“We want to serve both the Arab American community, as well as the non-Arab community,” says Sayed, who is also executive director. “To learn to sing in Arabic is a fantastic way to start to get a feel for the language and to understand its nuances.”
But teaching and learning Arabic music is not exactly easy. It’s one of the reasons Al-Bustan uses students from an established children’s choir. The kids understand music- so the focus is on language.
“There are a few challenges, but I enjoy working with kids because they can absorb things very quickly,” says Hanna Khoury, who directs the music program. “There are some vowels, obviously, that do not exist in English. Just getting them to say [them] that is a challenge.”
Khoury teaches the students the various vowel sounds and then start working the lyrics. They give the young singers the songs in Arabic, the pronunciation in English and then a translation so they have a true understanding of the words. They also share the meaning and culture behind the songs.
“It’s not only getting the lyrics, it’s also getting the context,” says Khoury.
Lebanese singer Rima Khcheich traveled to Philadelphia to lead the choir in Saturday’s concert.
“I just met the choir and I think their great,” she says. “The Arabic language is hard and singing in Arabic is not easy, so they are doing great.”
Khcheich says Arabic music uses complex melodies and rhythms.
“It’s very enchanting,” she says. “I am very happy there is an organization like Al-Bustan that is keeping the Arab culture, the classical music, [alive].”
Al-Bustan’s concert takes place at Trinity Center for Urban Life on Saturday. For more info go to AlBustanSeeds.org.