Gilded Serpent presents...

Listening with the Arabs

ASWAT poster

ASWAT’s February 2011 Concert

Review by Lovina
posted May 26, 2011

My first Middle Eastern dance teacher, Sandra, routinely encouraged us saying: “If you want to learn how to move like them, dance with them!”

It was in trying to understand the Arabic culture that I came to attend the Aswat concerts.  Aswat’s concerts present a unique opportunity to listen to live Arabic music with a multi-piece orchestra. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to learn about the people and music beyond the focused lens of Oriental dance. Arabs are complex with a multiplicity of identities, in touch with expressing pain and hope. This was the tone of the most recent Aswat concert, which occurred on February 27, 2011, celebrating the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia and the possibilities for the future of the Arab people.

What is Aswat?

Aswat is an Arabic orchestra that is part of Zawaya, an Arab American cultural organization whose goal is to promote and retain the Arab heritage via musical and cultural arts.  It was founded in 2000 by two women, Nabila Mango, a pillar of the San Francisco Palestinian-American community, and Haya Shawwa Ben Halim. Musically, the orchestra is anchored by professional musicians who provide the foundation to support the development amateur Arabic vocalists. Aswat seeks especially to encourage involvement by youth and teach the participants Arabic culture, the music and the language.They learn classical music, folk songs, and cultural pieces spanning the Arab world.

Aswat hires a different professional conductor every couple of years to add his own flavor and to unify the sound. Oftentimes the  director is brought over from the Middle East especially to conduct the group.

The “Salute to the Youth of the Arab World” was a special program that was conceptualized and produced within a two-week period in response to the complex emotions that surfaced while watching the demonstrations happening across the world. The program uniquely emphasized several national anthems and nostalgic folk pieces. It was the debut concert of the newest guest musical director, Omar Abbad, a gifted and professionally trained Palestinian-Jordanian musician. He had just arrived from Jordan the previous week. They had also invited a special guest vocalist, Mohannad Mchallah, a gifted singer and rising star of the Arab world.

The mood in the beautiful theatre space at College of San Mateo Theatre was palpable with excitement and enthusiasm. While waiting for the concert to start, an inspirational Egyptian revolutionary song played in the background while a jubilant scene of protesters in Tahrir square projected on a screen above the stage. Once the program started, the audience comprised mostly of well dressed Arabs and their young families, sang familiar songs robustly along with the performers. Aswat, conscious of its non-Arab audience and in line with its educational mission, projected translations of the lyrics so that the rest of us could follow along. Sometimes the mood would become emotional as voices choked up with nostalgia. The program closed with hauntingly beautiful singing by Mr. Mchallah of “Il-ard Btitkallim ‘Arabi” (the earth speaks Arabic) and “Baklub Ismak ya Bladi” (I write your name, my country).

The concert consolidated a much needed expression of hope, excitement, and pride. I felt lucky to be in the audience, to share solidarity, and to be exposed to songs novel to me.

Are you interested in singing with Aswat? Zawaya is warm and welcoming to those interested in learning Arab vocals and more information can be found on their website, For those of us who are not able to attend Aswat concerts, they do a lovely job of providing professional recordings, and you can also find those at


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