By Ivan Flores
A small audience gathered at the Java Spot in the Student Center last Wednesday to get a taste of Arabic culture. Victor Ghannam, a renowned Arab musician known for his mastery of the oud, performed with three Washtenaw Community College students. In addition to music, the audience was treated to baklava and tea. Michael Naylor, the director of Music at WCC, provided some insight into the purpose of the performance.
“In Arabic culture,” he said, “hospitality is extremely important…People by and large get images and perceptions of other cultures based upon a lack of good information.”
He went on to explain that predominantly Christian and predominantly Muslim cultures share commonalities, both cultural and religious.
“In the case of music, we would not have the guitar without the instrument you’re seeing behind me, which is called the oud,” Naylor said.
The oud is a fretless string instrument. It was brought to Europe by the Moors when they conquered Spain. Over time, the rounded body of the oud was flattened, the neck elongated, frets were added, and it eventually became the modern guitar.
Ghannam is a self-taught musician. He was born in the United States to Palestinian immigrants. He started playing music at the age of four, and grew up to become an accomplished artist. He has performed internationally and recorded music for various Hollywood productions. Notably, those include “Xena: Warrior Princess,” “Hercules,” and most recently, Starz’ “Spartacus.”
Ghannam is not a new face at WCC. He has been a part of Our Musical World Project for years. According to Naylor, this project is incorporated into music appreciation classes at WCC, where students get access to interviews and performances with musicians trained in various musical traditions.
Marianne Layousse, 20, is one of the students who performed with Ghannam. She is Palestinian, but graduated from high school in San Antonio, Texas, where she was an exchange student her senior year. Layousse has been singing and performing Arabic music since she was in fourth grade. She immigrated to the U.S. four months ago.
Layousse explained how she got involved with last Wednesday’s show.
“In my music theory class we had to perform a demo of whatever we do musically. I sang an Arabic song…The teacher told me that there’s another (student) who also sings and he wanted us to meet,” Layousse said.
She admitted she hadn’t heard of Ghannam before Naylor told her about him. But she said, “I’ve seen videos of him, and I did the research and I’m honored to perform with him. He’s an amazing oud player.”
Layousse shared about her experience in the U.S. and the cultural barriers Wednesday’s performance was meant to overcome.
“Living in Texas for one year shocked me…(There is) definitely a lot of ignorance, and it sucks. I made the effort to educate myself and not to judge, and to be open…but not everyone is like that. It’s frustrating that there’s a lot of stereotypes. (People) should just be human,” she said.
Back at the Java Spot, Ghannam and the students performed together for about an hour. They sang love songs and listened to Ghannam’s virtuosic playing.
“As Professor Naylor was saying, sometimes there is a misunderstanding between the cultures and religions, but the one constant thing between everything, is the music; it somehow has a way of bridging that gap, and bringing everyone together,” Ghannam said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY EVAN KOUKIOS