This Saturday, May 21, the UCSB Middle East Ensemble hosts its quarterly concert, and if you haven’t been before, this may be the time to treat yourself. Now in its 27th year, the Middle East Ensemble and its quarterly concerts have become renowned for their engaging shows. With a 45-plus-piece orchestra including a percussion section led by Susan Rudnicki, a dance troupe helmed by Cris! Basimah, and guest performers all creating diverse programs spanning hundreds of years of Middle Eastern music, from ancient religious odes to contemporary pop songs, their performances have a way of uniting genres, cultures, and communities that haven’t always intermingled historically. It’s always a celebration and a coming-together — particularly powerful to see in a time when Middle Eastern cultures, both in America and abroad, are so often the target of prejudice and political pressure.
Director Scott Marcus founded the official Ethnomusicology Performance Ensemble in 1989. He brings to the table a rich education in Middle Eastern music. When studying and playing the sitar and oud at UCLA under the guidance of Near East school ethnomusicologist Ali Jihad Racy, Marcus delved deep into both Indian and Middle Eastern classical music. In between trips to India to learn the virtuosic demands of the sitar, he traveled to Egypt, where he concentrated on maqam, the modes of Arab music akin to scales. And though the improvisatorial nature of Indian ragas differed from the more composed, piece-based Arabic music, the rigor of learning the former informed his understanding of the latter. “The intensity of my Indian study just really prepped me to study the maqam system,” said Marcus, whose fingers still wear deeply indented calluses from sitar strings. Learning the maqam system “was a gift” from Racy, who gave it to Marcus as a focus of study, he said; for some time, Marcus was the only maqam scholar in the nation.
When Marcus was hired at UCSB, he was asked to form an ensemble and found an answer in a handful of musicians who had been rehearsing in the Fithian Building. To this group joined some students, and the small ensemble put on its first concert in November of ’89 at the old MultiCultural Center. “I don’t know why people came, but it was the biggest attendance to the MultiCultural Center I’ve had to date,” he said.
Within a year, the open-enrollment ensemble became official and grew with each year until reaching its current size. “We have an incredibly tight group of people; the esprit de corps and rehearsals are very upbeat, friendly, communal,” he said. “There are so many people who contribute, so the sources of inspiration are many, and a lot of people feel some level of ownership to the music.” Marcus credits much of the ensemble’s enduring success to the ever-popular drum teacher Rudnicki, who has also been with the ensemble since its founding, and the help of the always-smiling Basimah, who joined more recently.
The ensemble also endures for its ability to assemble cultures and songs that have sometimes clashed. “Every point of conflict is not simple,” Marcus said. Whether it’s a question of labeling music composed during the Ottoman Empire as Armenian or Turkish, or choosing among Sabbath songs from Israel, Yemen, and Baghdad, the overlap of cultures can stir up contention but often results in unity — or at least shared space in the program. Marcus always makes a conscious effort to include pieces known to Santa Barbara’s large Persian and Armenian communities.
With very demonstrably appreciative audiences — “It’s more of a people’s music,” Marcus says — the shows are celebratory, of specific as well as of shared identities. Whether it’s an especially stirring oud solo from the blind musician Udi Hrant or a remarkably lively dance that gets the audience on its feet, this Saturday’s show is sure to have many reasons to celebrate. Yallah!
The Middle East Ensemble plays at UCSB’S Lotte Lehman Concert Hall on Saturday, May 21, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, call (805) 893-2064 or visit music.ucsb.edu.