Zawaya welcomes guest Musical Director
Professor Sari Dowidar from Egypt

by Debbie Smith

Mr. Dowidar joined the local community for a special, 4-month project as the guest musical director of ASWAT, the Bay Area’s only Arabic community choir, for their winter concert season. Although his primary instrument is the violin, he is most known for his skill as a musical director, arranger and conductor of many talents. His background includes extensive study of both Arabic and western music theory, choral arrangement, and orchestration at the Academy of Music in Cairo. In addition to many decades composing and arranging works for groups such as Egypt’s famous National Folkloric Troupe ( Firqat Qowmeyya) and the Reda Folkloric Troupe in Cairo, he has conducted a number of choral ensembles, including the American University in Cairo choir, and the Arabic Music Ensemble at the Cairo Opera House. Dr. Dowidar is also well known as a composer for prominent Egyptian opera house singers such as Ahmad Ibrahim, Azza Balba and Reham Abdal-Hakim. His work has taken him around the globe to participate in more than 20 international music festivals. Mr. Dowidar’s work is characterized by his ability to maintain the integrity of traditional Arabic music, while exploring the innovative use of vocal harmonies and non-traditional instrumentation.

The musicians and singers of ASWAT have enjoyed tremendously this rare opportunity to learn from and be directed by a master musician of this stature. Dr. Dowidar gives his all in rehearsal, sharing his knowledge, and expertise with humor and a spirit of generosity. Duraid Musleh, the President of Zawaya, says “We are so pleased to have Dr. Dowidar lead ASWAT’s winter concert. He brings his tremendous talent and vast music portfolio from Egypt, the capital of Arabic music, to our Bay Area audience. This is a very exciting time for the ASWAT family, and we are looking forward to a wonderful concert in January.” For the winter concert, Dr. Dowidar has selected pieces from the canon of classic Arabic music and song, including the works of Mohammad Fawzi, Sayyed Darwish, Mohammed Abdel-Wahab, as well as several muwashshahat from the Andalusian period and much more. Bay Area audiences and lovers of Arabic music will have the opportunity to see and hear the results of this rare collaboration for themselves, at the concert on January 24th at Skyline College Theater.

Gilded Serpent presents...

ASWAT: Arabic Music Concert

Saturday, January 25, 2009
Skyline College, San Francisco, California

by Rebecca Firestone
posted March 27, 2009

How many bellydancers actually care enough about authentic Arabic music that they'll give up their Saturday evening for a 3-hour concert of it? I am fortunate to live in an area that can support a group like Aswat, which promotes Arabic culture through musical education and participation. This is the second time I've seen them perform.

I'm plagiarizing their publicity material for a moment: "Founded in 2001 by Nabila Mango and operating under the auspices of Zawaya, a non-profit organization dedicated to Arab arts and culture, ASWAT presents two major concerts a year in addition to other events and activities. With 20 musicians and 17 singers of both Arab and non-Arab backgrounds, ASWAT is a testament to the Bay Area’s love of Arabic music."

They'd hired a different director this time, all the way from Cairo, Dr. Sari Dowidar. Dr. Dowidar got professional results even out of amateur performers - probably by pushing them hard. That kind of pressure isn't always fun, but it really pays off. Maqams (maqamaat) are hard enough for the uneducated ear to distinguish without muddying the waters further with inaccurate pitch and tone. 

I don't know if Aswat has gotten better or my ear has improved, or both, but it seemed to me that this year's concert showed better individual execution than in prior years. All the soloists, even the kids, played very well at whatever level they were at, everyone's intonation was (for the most part) REALLY good - and that is the hard part with Arabic maqam. 

A note on maqam: The word means "position", and the Hebrew root MQM means "place". If you've listened to MIDI and synthesizers all your life, you will never hear a maqam, because in the Arabic scales, the notes fall unevenly across the chromatic scale. If you've never heard this kind of music before, it sounds "off" until you get used to it. That's why it's best to learn from the masters.

It was nice to see so many people get a chance to shine with even a mini-solo, and our local bassist Husain Dixon, who plays with the Georges Lammam Ensemble for local dancers, got a chance to shine with his own composition. 

Yasmine, the female Egyptian doctoral candidate was my favorite singer. She really put her heart and soul into the meaning of the music and had a strong and penetrating voice. I found myself watching her face almost the whole time. Another remarkable performance was a vocal performance by an American male (Barney), who proved that you don't have to have the music "in your blood".

Stage decorations were awesome! I loved the lamps and the little things. 

Too bad it was held at a college auditorium. It was almost impossible to find in the dark, and the music deserved better sound equipment and tech support than what you can get at a college facility. 

It would be nice to have a lengthy concert like that with a few more intermissions and some food. My butt was hurting all the next day from sitting for 3 hours straight. There was only one short intermission, a huge line for coffee, and no food. I had to leave right before the end because I got too hungry and tired to sit still any longer. You could probably find volunteers like me who'd love to pitch in and bring food. Make it a real party, in other words, with authentic Arabic hospitality. 


Local community supports concert
Rebecca Firestone, Jeanette Cool, Georges Lammam, Leyla Lanty, Khadr Keileh, Nicole

Masouma Rose, Ma*Shuqa, Carl Sermon

Duraid, Sari

George Lammam, Amina Goodyear, Sari
2/3 of orchestra and choir visible as they listen to Mr. Dowidar's solo



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