F or Scott Marcus, the idea of a trip to Egypt in the early 80s did not only stem from a desire to stand in awe at the Giza Pyramids; it was his thirst for world music, and Middle Eastern melodies in specific that propelled his journey, and the many that followed.
He quenched his thirst by learning instruments and enrolling at the Higher Institute for Arab Music and the Faculty of Music Education at Helwan University during several visits to Egypt. He then went on to become a music professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara and, in 1989, founded the Middle East Ensemble, an ethnomusicology performance ensemble that entwines classical and folk music accompanied by dance from across the region.
On Wednesday, Cairo Opera House connoisseurs were treated to an evening that functioned as a trip down memory lane as they hummed and swayed to Om Kolthoum’s “Enta Ummry,” Abdel Halim Hafez’s “Ahwak” and Fairuz’s “E’teeny El-Nai.”
What’s unusual about this ensemble is that the group members are not Middle Eastern. And while the lyrics sporadically carried a queer foreign resonance, the musicians have artfully mastered their eastern instruments.
The repertoire kicked off the evening with a heartfelt vocal solo of “Enta Ummry,” a fitting beginning to what an audience member next to me hailed as “an incredible effort to feel the lyrics.” The powerful vocals were intercepted with an electric guitar solo, intricately woven to mirror the cultural diversity that is character of this ensemble.
Shortly after, the beat picked up when six dancers trotted onto the stage for a Dabkeh number, the traditional folk dance originating from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The choreography was dull, and dancing Dabkeh in harem pants and Mary Jane’s stood out as a little odd, making this number unworthy of the strong line-up to follow.
The theater then turned into a choir when performers belted out three classic tunes by great Egyptian composer, Sayed Darwish. The audience sang along to fan favorites “Zuruni Kul Sana Marra,” “Til’it Ya Mahla Nurha” and “Tal’a Min Bayt Abuha.”
Five more dances followed the Dabkeh, the most memorable was a number hailing from Azerbaijan. Doffs replaces the traditional drum (riqq) for a somber tune that brought the sextet back on stage, holding up a golden sash as they elegantly shifted from one formation to the next. Although there were no lyrics accompanying the tune, it was easy to grasp the inner serenity painted on stage.
When it came to Hafez’s romantic ballad, “Ahwak,” a clarinet led the tune while the audience, mesmerized, sang along. Laughter erupted when the ensemble belted out the famous Egyptian nursery rhyme “Mama Zamanha Gaya,” but soon after, they picked up the words as well.
The line-up was colorful and diverse, and members of the ensemble made sure to carry that message with every number performed. It was heartening to catch musicians’ lips moving to the lyrics when there was no microphone set up in front of them.
On adopting a musical style so far from their native origin, violinist Lillie Gordon said, “I think people initially get attracted to some part of it…then they take some time to get used to the whole of it.”
She explained that the experience of performing in Cairo to an audience who recognizes the music was thrilling.
“We hope that the next shows are going to be just like last night and the crowd just as enthusiastic,” said Gordon.
Despite glitches in intonation, the ensemble’s effort is commendable, making for a highly entertaining evening at the Opera House.
Leaving the best for last, Marcus, in a black suit, blew his mizmar as the sextet shook the stage in glittering ware for a number reminiscent of Egypt’s own Reda Dance Troupe, once again reminding the audience that borders can diminish through art.
UCSB Middle East Ensemble will perform on July 16-17 at Cairo Opera House’s Open Air Theater, 8 pm. Admission is free. The ensemble will also hold performances in Ismaillia, Beni Suef and Helwan.