Shaheen builds musical bridges between cultures

Although Simon Shaheen has been a professional musician since he was in his teens, his real job is building bridges—between cultures, sonic styles, and listeners of all sorts. At the moment, for instance, he’s writing a concert for oud—the acoustic guitar of the Arab world—and orchestra, commissioned by the Detroit Symphony. And, as Shaheen explains from his Brooklyn, New York, home, there’s more to this than simply waltzing in with an armful of sheet music.

“I am scheduled to go there twice, just to work with the strings on microtonality and certain concepts of ornamentation that we use in Arabic music,” says the Palestine-born musician, a powerful performer on both the oud and the violin. “Now, this doesn’t mean that the composition will be pure Arabic music”¦but the context will definitely be symphonic.”

Another collaboration, with storyteller Margaret Wolfson, recasts the legend of Gilgamesh, an ancient king of the region now known as Iraq. “The big question was, ”˜How does Gilgamesh relate to what’s going on today?’ ” Shaheen notes. “So we want to”¦connect this historic epic to contemporary Iraq, especially under the circumstances.”

The 52-year-old performer also keeps busy by teaching workshops in Arabic music, touring, and writing for several ensembles. His most recent composition, however, is less concerned with linking cultures than with the various structures—both physical and metaphorical—that divide them.

“That is a new piece for the violin called ”˜The Wall’,” Shaheen explains. “I composed it when I was giving a workshop in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. We were in this monastery on the top of a hill, and from there we could see workers building the wall that isolates Palestinians from Israel. Just looking at it, I had to write this piece of music.”

Can art tear down the walls that keep us apart? That has always been Shaheen’s goal, but the state of his native land does not inspire hope.

“I might have someone sitting in my audience who cannot stand Palestinians, but if they listen to my music, we can live together for an hour,” he says. “Music will always be helpful, if people can approach living together with open minds. If they cannot do that, I don’t think it can really do anything.”

Simon Shaheen plays the Capilano College Performing Arts Theatre on Sunday (January 27).