National Arab Orchestra shares the joy at Jack White

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

As Michael Ibrahim was finishing up his musical performance studies at Eastern Michigan University in 2009, he says he was struck by the fact that there was "no real avenue" for Arab music in America.

"You have student groups and that's fine," says Ibrahim, who is American-born of Syrian parents. "You have hobby groups and they're okay, too. They serve a purpose. But my thought was to have an ensemble that can play this music at a really high level."

So the Clinton Township resident recruited friends and colleagues to form the Michigan Arab Orchestra. In the intervening years, the ensemble has attained nonprofit status and rebranded itself the National Arab Orchestra, as its ranks have swollen to include high-caliber performers from across the country. The orchestra will perform its fourth annual gala concert Friday at the Jack White Theater, featuring renowned guest vocalist Salah Kurdi.

The ensemble's repertoire heavily favors Arab classical music, which Ibrahim says will be familiar in some ways and intriguingly different in others for Western classical music lovers.

"In Western music you have melody and you have harmony and you have accompaniment," he says. "In Arab music you have melody with an underlying rhythmic structure, and that rhythmic structure is not necessarily supposed to be there 100 percent of the time. You can have free-flowing structure, you can have improvisation and then you have your straight-up melody."

National Arab Orchestra violinist and Ann Arbor resident Katie Van Dusen says that improvisational element was what drew her to playing with the ensemble in the first place. Although she says improvisation can be "very scary" for classically trained performers like herself, she'd already begun developing a fascination with the more free-form worlds of jazz and folk music when she joined the orchestra in 2010.

Van Dusen says she also cottoned to the way the orchestra's predominantly Arab audiences responded to the music, dancing and singing along to familiar songs.

"I found it really refreshing that the norms of audience behavior were much more relaxed than in the Western classical concerts that I had played a lot of by that point," she says. "The audience is more able to be a co-participant in what was happening and the performance was a gathering of friends who were sharing this joy together. That was really wonderful to be a part of."

Van Dusen, who is of Scandinavian descent, reflects the orchestra's diverse cultural heritage. Many members are of Arab descent, but the group also includes African-American, Japanese-American and Mexican-American performers.

"We like to make sure we mix with the other communities here," says Lebanese-born vocalist Ghada Derbas, who resides in Clinton Township. "You will see a lot of Americans playing our music in the orchestra and you will see a lot of people from different countries playing the music."

Ibrahim says it's important to him to use the orchestra to "build bridges" across cultural divides.

"There's just so much negative press out there in terms of Arab culture, whether it's religion, wars or terrorism," Ibrahim says. "I don't really even get involved with any of that. There's just so much more depth to the Arab culture than what's being represented out there."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

National Arab Orchestra

with Salah Kurdi

8 p.m. Friday

Jack White Theater

500 Temple, Detroit

Tickets $20-$100

(313) 638-2724