Egypt's new musical mosaic: From French horn to qanoun and oud

Ati Metwaly , Friday 12 Oct 2018

The line-up of a newly formed Mosaic quintet includes French horn, oud or qanoun, piano, double bass and percussion.

Mosaic quintet
Mosaic quintet (Photo: courtesy of Mosaic quintet)

Sayed Darwish (1892-1923), Riad Al-Sonbati (1906-1981), Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), the Rahbani Brothers… What would bring together those and a few other names from the Arabic and Western music repertoires? The answer is simple: Mosaic, an Egyptian quintet who gave their debut concert on Monday 1 October at the Malak Gabr Theatre, American University in Cairo (AUC).

Founded and directed by French horn player Amr Abulnaga, the group includes a unique combination of musicians specialising in Arabic and/or Western classical music: Abulnaga on French horn, Alaa Saber on oud and qanoun, Mahmoud Mekhemar on piano, Ahmad Osman on double bass and Hisham Kamal on percussion.

The portfolio of the Mosaic quintet is still very small, with only one concert so far. But the idea behind the new formation is impressively big and equally original.

“While our aim is to cross the borders separating Western classical and the Middle Eastern music, we do it through the creative merging of the French horn with the qanoun or oud, supported by piano, double bass and percussion,” Abulnaga explains.

While creating this unique and harmonious musical amalgam, the Mosaic’s instrumental line-up recalls smaller jazz ensembles where one or more solo instruments become the protagonists of the show, accompanied by piano, double bass and percussion. But in Mosaic’s French horn there is a Western classical flavour with the qanoun and oud providing a backbone forged out of traditional Arabic music.

The concert included Ana Hawait and Ahu Dah Elli Sar by Sayed Darwish, the famed Longa Riad (also known as Longa Farahfaza) by Al-Sonbati, the Samai Hijaz Kar Kurd by the most renowned traditional Turkish composer, Kemani Tatyos Ekserciyan or Tatyos Efendi (1858-1913), Muwashah Ya Ghareeb Al Dar by Fouad Abdel-Meguid and a Medley by Omar Khairat as well as Albinoni’s Adagio, Delilah by Clifford Brown (1930-1956) from the jazz repertoire and, from Lebanon, the Rahbani Brothers’ Bent Shalabiya. Oscillating between familiar and less familiar, classical and jazz, Western and Arab sounds, Mosaic’s original blend has definitely got the audience hooked.

Abulnaga has many years of experience as principal horn player at the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, lecturer on musicianship and brass instruments at the AUC and one of the founding members of Omar Khairat’s orchestra where he also performs. With scores of concerts and recordings to his name, he can seamlessly combine his knowledge of Western classical music with the Arabic traditions.

Enriched by such creative meandres, Abulnaga speaks to the French horn’s ability to blend with a variety of instruments regardless of their origin — woodwinds, brass, low and high strings, etc.

Indeed, when we look at the Western classical canon, his instrument stands out with its unparalleled colour; it adds to symphonic, chamber and many other compositions a warm feeling of nostalgia, coating the music with its majestic and somehow magical sound or embroiders it with noble solos. But with Mosaic, Abulnaga explores a different face of the French horn as he showcases its adaptability to instruments used in Arabic music.

Mosaic quintet
Mosaic quintet
Mosaic quintet (Photo: courtesy of Mosaic quintet)

The result is of interest to the large segment of Egyptian audience, which enjoys Western harmonies and Arabic melodies alike.

“The Western ear is not used to the Arabic maqamat [or modes] but the dialogue created between the French horn on the one hand and the qanoun or oud on the other responds to those listeners’ taste,” Abulnaga clarifies, adding that the group is still working to fine-tune and perfect their choice of compositions, considering how far to steer away from commercially known works to make room for rarely performed melodies from the Arab repertoire.

“The first concert was our way to find ourselves, to better understand where we stand and where to go next.”

That is why, when working on their first concert, the group looked into the better known reservoir, translating it onto their instruments.

“Alaa Saber who plays qanoun and oud and is the only member of Mosaic with such deep knowledge of Arabic music gives a push to many compositions. The ideas behind the blend — or the basics of arrangements, if you will — come from Alaa, but then all the musicians add something to it,” Abulnaga explains.

“Alaa Saber has already been commissioned to compose a work for horn and qanoun accompanied by the rest of the group. But we will reveal more details later.”

And while they operate on large and fecund territory, Mosaic play only instrumental music.

“We shed light on the beauty of the melody. Lyrics take the audience in a completely different direction and this is when the listeners cling to the words without looking deeper into music,” Abulnaga says.

His approach to the riches of instrumental music echoes beliefs promoted by the Zaii Zaman sextet, which this writer introduced last week. Though the character of Zaii Zaman is different, both groups’ investment in instrumental music might, slowly but surely, lead to a new dawn in Egypt’s independent scene.

Mosaic’s dedication to music combines an informative and educational goal. During their debut concert which took place mid-day on campus and so gathered a large number of students among other audience members, Abulnaga spoke briefly about each composition, preparing the listeners.

“We are also looking forward to holding classes to introduce and explain Arabic maqamat and rhythms to our potential audience, prior to a concert. This is an important educational element to be crowned by a concert, beneficial to local audiences as well as Western ears, should we get an opportunity to perform outside Egypt.”

Abulnaga reveals that in the coming weeks, Mosaic will pay more attention to traditional Arabic music. We are looking into works by Mohamed Abdel-Wahab as well as many instrumental treasures by Sayed Darwish and Al-Sonbati, among others.

“We might invite other musicians to join the quintet as guest performers creating blends with ney or rababa for instance, but always keeping in mind that new explorations should serve the group’s purpose of presenting Arabic music in a way that all cultures would be able to understand and enjoy.”

As Abulnaga explains, members of Mosaic “share the same passion, the same inspiration. We believe we can present something new and outside the box. Mosaic’s debut concert was very successful and encouraged the group to continue their work and think deeper about realising their mission. The AUC was a great place to start, but we are ready to move to other locations and other audiences with concerts and workshops.” 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A musical mosaic

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