As one of the oldest world-music institutions in Santa Barbara, UCSB’s Middle East Ensemble (MEE) carries with it a rich history that stretches far beyond its local roots. Since forming the ensemble in 1989, director and professor Scott Marcus has watched the MEE grow from a small group of local enthusiasts and curious students to an interdisciplinary force to be reckoned with. Boasting some 60 to 70 members, today’s MEE—which features a dance troupe, a choir, and the group’s original instrumental core—is the largest of its kind in North America. In between diligent weekly practices, which have been rumored to last well into the night, the ensemble takes their show on the road, performing a bevy of traditional, classical, and contemporary Middle Eastern tunes to audiences around the Western United States. Still, it’s the group’s upcoming trip to Egypt that marks the MEE’s biggest venture to date. I recently chatted with Marcus about the ensemble, its history, and what it means to take this music back to its source.
How did this trip to Egypt come about? As a group we play for a huge variety of events and one of the events that we played was when the Consul General of Egypt came and gave a talk for the Center of Middle East Studies here on campus. We were asked to play for him after his talk. When I knew this opportunity was coming up, I made a really diverse program of pieces. And as we were playing, he got more and more touched by all this. I remember at one point we played this children’s song and he came over and sang along with us. He said, “You know, I haven’t sung that song in 40 years, since I was with my mother.” And, as a result of all this, he said that he would love to have us perform in Egypt, so soon after that we received a formal letter inviting us to perform over there.
What are the logistics of traveling with a group this large? Interestingly, the entire group is invited to do this, so we’re going to go with 52 people. The government is hosting us while we’re there—hotels, food, and transportation—so the tickets are the main thing, and they’re costing us about $70,000 … We’ve had great success though. We’re very, very close to our goal, so, in a sense, money is not a huge issue at this point.
What excites you most about this opportunity? The idea that, as a teacher, I am able to bring my students to Egypt, that is hugely exciting. Here are people who have been learning about this music and the cultural traditions that go along with it, and to have them experience it firsthand—and to have them experience it as a group—it’s absolutely huge.
Politically speaking, it’s a pretty big deal. Yes. It has a lot to do with political activism and social activism. Here we are, a bunch of Americans interacting with the Muslim world, with the Middle East, and with Egypt in totally positive ways at a time when, day in day out, America’s interaction with the Middle East is in a place of conflict. I hope that this trip can help change the dialogue a little.
What about Santa Barbara do you think allowed an ensemble such as this to flourish here the way it has? It was a surprising combination of things. I was hired here in 1989, and when I came up it was understood that I would teach Middle Eastern music. At the same time, there was a group of people who would meet on State Street once a week and practice Middle Eastern music. When I came to town they sent me a letter asking me if I would direct their group. So I went down there and I found these six people, so from the very beginning it was a combination of community people and university people. At the end of that quarter we gave a concert, and it was my 12 students and these six people who had been practicing the whole time. The community people really gave us the longevity. People jokingly liken a group like this to a football team, in that every four years everyone has graduated and you have new people. And at some level that’s true. But thanks to the enthusiasm of the group a lot of people will stay in town after they graduate because they want to keep playing.
What do you think draws young people to the ensemble? I think we grow up interested in other cultures, and we don’t have many opportunities to really absorb and get involved in other cultures if you’re living in America. So when something is available, people find it interesting and they want to try it. In our specific instance, just the enthusiasm of the group is contagious, I guess. People come in and are very, very welcomed and the enthusiasm is extremely high. It feels like you just walked into a huge family-type situation, a community of people.