Dedicated musicians wondering if they should pick up a second instrument – or a third, or a fourth – should look to Bassam Saba for inspiration. This Lebanese-born, New York-based multi-instrumentalist specializes in flutes – both the Western classical kind and its Middle Eastern counterpart, the ney. But Saba is also proficient on plucked string instruments like the oud, the Turkish saz and the buzuq, as well as the violin and the accordion. Saba attributes this versatility to his early years: He grew up surrounded by the musicianship and inexhaustible intellectual curiosity of his father and brothers.
Theirs was an influence that lasted. Despite being forced to leave Lebanon when he was just a teenager due to the outbreak of civil war, Saba maintained strong roots in traditional Arabic music. He continued to develop playing techniques for the ney even while studying Western classical flute in Paris and, later, at the Moscow Conservatory. Since then, he has established a career as a leading international performer and proponent of Arabic music. His collaborators include stars from the Arab World like Lebanese legend Fairuz, Algerian singer-songwriter Khaled and Kathen Al-Saher of Iraq. On the Western side, Saba has worked with Quincy Jones, Alicia Keys, Yo-Yo Ma and Silkroad. A firm believer in passing the love of Arabic music to future generations, Saba has led Middle Eastern ensembles at Harvard University, Berklee College of Music and New York University.
While teaching at the DePauw University’s 2018 Global Musician Workshop, Bassam Saba caught up with 21CM director Mark Rabideau.
Though you left Lebanon as a teenager, you’ve acknowledged that your early years were incredibly influential. How so?
I believe that my home was the best school [for] music and learning about the philosophy of life. [I come from a family of] musicians. I was the youngest. My father was a great artist. He was an amateur, but music was everything for him. I learned by listening and imitating the way he used to play the ney, the oud. Then my older brothers taught me. This was how I learned everything. It was basically the library I’m still using.
The environment where you live is important. Lebanon was a center of culture before the civil war. We can say it still is today, because [the Lebanese] didn’t lose their traditions. But before [the war], the climate was great for artists to participate and produce music, literature, theater. The environment was so healthy and helpful.
How do these two forces, music and war – one that’s so infinitely good and one that’s so profoundly sad – inform the way you think about the role music plays in the world?
This is one of those problems today: to bring people together. I think, in our roles as artists, we have to do the maximum possible to deliver our thoughts through art, and not to lose our humanity.
We should stand together as artists on this planet and speak one language. We all carry one message: of peace, of right of expression regardless of nationality or background. … We have a political message that speaks to humanity on a different level. We will win. Because this is the truth. You can see it all over the planet. Today [there is] no distance. People travel to each other. They speak different languages but when it comes to music, we can see a deep connection.
For our listeners who are just coming to learn about Arabic music and the Arabic world now, what would you want them to know?
All [that people] hear about the Arab world is what propaganda on the media promotes. An audience in Germany, let’s say – German people go to hear Mahler and Beethoven and Brahms. I had a program that had a mix between Arabic music and classical structures. The Swiss composer [Daniel Schnyder] wrote this music for me – a ney concerto with symphony orchestra. People had no clue: “What is the ney? What is the oud?” So I presented myself on the stage playing those instruments. The impact on the German people was unbelievably stunning. They were so impressed. They [gave a] standing ovation for like 10 minutes. You’re talking about an audience who’d been loyal to their music for hundreds of years. When there is a strong message and you deliver it in the right way, people can accept who you are and they can judge you on a personal level, not through the TV or the newspaper.
It’s been a joy to have you here. Thank you.
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.