Arab-Latin-Jazz Fusions: Simon Shaheen and Qantara

Enjoy an invigorating blend of music from the worlds of jazz, Latin, and Arab traditions. Joining composer, violinist, and ‘ud (Arab lute) virtuoso Simon Shaheen is a genre-crossing ensemble on ney (Arab flute), qanun (Arab zither), guitar, violin, cello, and percussion. Recorded live in concert at the Freer|Sackler on June 23, 2018.


Arab-Latin-Jazz Fusions: Simon Shaheen and Qantara

Simon Shaheen, ‘ud and violin
Bassam Saba, ney and flute
Firas Zreik, qanun
Bengisu Gokce, violin
Juliano Vendemiatti, violin
Elia Bishara, guitar
Naseem Alatrash, cello
Alber Baseel, percussion

Simon Shaheen
Blue Flame (2001)
Simon Shaheen
Dance Mediterranean
Tanbûrî Mustafa Çavuş (1700–1770)
Dok Zulfunu
Ahmad F. Hassan (died 2011)
Simon Shaheen
Al Qantara 2001
Simon Shaheen
Waiving Sands (2001)

This concert was recorded at the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on June 23, 2018. It was made possible through generous support from Aramco.


Simon Shaheen, ‘ud (Arab lute) and violin, is a major force in promoting Arab music as a composer, performer, and educator. Born into a Palestinian family, Shaheen began to play the ‘ud at the age of five with his father, Hikmat Shaheen, a famous teacher of Arab music and a master ‘ud player. After graduating from the Academy of Music in Jerusalem, he moved to New York in 1980 to complete his graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music and later at Columbia University. Shaheen went on to form two groups: the Near Eastern Music Ensemble, which performs traditional Arab music, and Qantara, which blends Arab music with jazz and Western classical music. He also tours as a solo artist internationally and promotes awareness of Arab music through his lectures. Shaheen’s concert credits include Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Cairo’s Opera House, Theatre de la Ville in Beirut, and Le Palais des Arts in Belgium. He has written numerous works for chamber ensembles, including Zafir (for the Imani Winds) and The Call, and scores for theater and films, among them The Sheltering Sky and Malcolm X. In addition, he has released seven recordings, including the Grammy-nominated Blue Flame. In 1994 Shaheen received a National Heritage Fellowship, and three years later he founded the annual Arabic Music Retreat at Mount Holyoke College. He currently teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Bassam Saba, ney and flute, began to study music at the age of seven, first with his father and later at the Lebanese National Conservatory of Music in Beirut. He earned his bachelor’s degree in music at the Conservatoire Municipals des Gobelins in Paris and his master’s at the Moscow Conservatory. His collaborators have included such stars of the Arab music world as Lebanese legend Fairuz, Algerian singer-songwriters Khaled and Kathen, Al-Saher of Iraq, and Marcel Khalife. In Western music, Saba has worked with Quincy Jones, Alicia Keys, and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble. Since moving to New York, he has established the New York Arabic Orchestra and directs the Middle Eastern ensembles at Harvard University and New York University. In 2018 he was named director of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music.

Firas Zreik, qanun (zither), is a Palestinian performer and composer who was born in Haifa in 1995. He began to take lessons on the qanun at Beit Al-Musiqa Conservatory at the age of eleven. He now studies at the Berklee College of Music as a double major in jazz composition and performance. In addition to performing with Roger Waters, Shreya Goshal, and Aynur Dogan, Zreik has been a performer and composer with his mother, the renowned singer Amal Murkus.

Naseem Alatrash, cello, is a classically trained musician who improvises in a variety of styles and traditions. He graduated from the Berklee College of Music with highest honors on a full Presidential Scholarship. His undergraduate and master’s studies focused on cello performance with a global jazz concentration at Berklee’s elite Global Jazz Institute.

Bengisu Gokce, violin, was born in Istanbul and studied violin performance at Mersin University State Conservatory and Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” in Berlin. During her studies, she received awards at national violin competitions and at the Berklee College of Music. She has studied at Berklee with Simon Shaheen since 2015.

Juliano Vendemiatti, violin, is a musician and performance artist with experience in symphony orchestras, theater, and dance. He emphasizes accessibility and democratization through his integrative artistic projects.

Alber Baseel, riqq, is a percussionist from Bethlehem, Palestine. He initially studied classical Arab music at Edward Said Conservatory and now attends the Berklee College of Music. His international performance career in the United States, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East has expanded his styles to include Latin and jazz.


Ahmed Hassan, composer and musician, collaborated with many of Canada’s leading contemporary choreographers and was a driving force in Toronto’s emerging world music scene in the 1980s. He died in 2011 from progressive MS, after many years of advocating for fellow sufferers and the rights of the disabled. Born in New York City to Egyptian parents, Hassan and his family moved to Cairo and then settled in Halifax in 1969. While studying biochemistry at Dalhousie University, his life took a turn toward music after he encountered the charismatic drummer Ricardo Abreut, a self-taught musician with the Toronto Dance Theatre. Hassan moved to Toronto in the early 1980s to work with the Desrosiers Dance Theatre. With fellow composer John Lang, Hassan wrote the music for Desrosiers’ Blue Snake (1984–85) for the National Ballet of Canada. The National Film Board documentary Inner Rhythm (1986) followed his creative process. Hassan’s last major project, Fourteen Remembered, was a requiem for the women massacred at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989. It was performed at different venues throughout Toronto, including Massey Hall, from 1998 to 2001. Even as MS depleted him, Hassan continued to perform with his wife, choreographer Peggy Baker.

(Adapted from articles in the Toronto Star and


This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording by Andy Finch and audio editing by SuMo Productions. Web design by Ryan King, with additional web production by Torie Castiello Ketcham. Copy editing by Nancy Eickel. Photography by Colleen Dugan. This concert was made possible, in part, through the generous support from Aramco. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performance at the Freer|Sackler.

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