Palestinian at vanguard of Arab music renaissance

Thu May 20, 2010 10:38am EDT
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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS (Reuters Life!) - Growing up in the chaos of the Lebanese civil war, Palestinian composer and singer Marwan Abado used to practice the oud while his friends in a rough Beirut neighborhood were out carrying knives.

"Marwan thought far ahead of us. The Israelis were laying siege to Beirut. He was resisting with his oud," said Lebanese banker Hussein Jaber, a childhood friend of Abado, who later emigrated to Austria and studied the Arab string instrument under Iraqi maestro Assim Chalabi in Vienna.

"There was no electricity, but we used to play basketball while the night sky was being lit by shelling from warships. The fact that Marwan was a Maronite Christian in (mostly Muslim) West Beirut didn't matter."

Twenty five years after leaving Lebanon, where his family fled from war in Palestine during the creation of Israel in 1948, Abado is on his biggest Arab tour in Amman, Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut and Sidon.

He is part of a small but dogged class of artists working on reinvigorating Arab music by integrating Western influences without detaching it from its roots.

But they are not among the mainstream in the Arab Middle East, which has seen a decline in artistic output over the last 50 years as autocratic governments crushed opposition, educations standards collapsed and artistic creativity was smothered.

Even Egypt's towering Imam Issa, a blind musician known as Sheikh Imam who identified with the country's huge underclass, has seen jail time for his political views.

Main figures in the renaissance generation now mostly reside in the West, including oud player Rabih Abou Khalil, one of the best-selling artists on Enja Records, who left for Germany in the late 1970s and made a triumphant return to his homeland in Lebanon at the 1999 Baalbek Festival.   Continued...

<p>Palestinian composer and singer Marwan Abado performs in front of members of the Nahda, a Syrian society for music connoissuers, at Sham Mahal cafe in Old Damascus May 13, 2010. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri</p>