Bil Afrah, a celebration of Lebanese heritage in Brooklyn

November 20, 2016
The New York-based Bil Afrah Project.

New York - The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd is on Fourth Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a neigh­bourhood whose resi­dents range from long-time New Yorkers to recently arrived Arabs and Turks.
One recent evening, this tra­ditional church resonated with a twist: An 11-member ensemble with oud, violin, qanun, buzuq and other instruments representing the traditions of Arabic music.
The occasion was the 40th an­niversary of the release of the Lebanese album Bil Afrah, a suite of songs recorded by Muslim and Christian musicians as they wit­nessed the initial battles of Leba­non’s sectarian civil war that would continue for 15 years.
The songs on Bil Afrah were a combination of tunes written by the Rahbani brothers and performed by an ensemble gathered by a very young Ziad Rahbani, who would become one of Lebanon’s most re­nowned composers, writers, politi­cal commentators and actors.
The songs were popular favour­ites in Lebanon, known to both Muslims and Christians, and the musicians united to celebrate their common heritage and culture as embodied by the music.
The performance in Bay Ridge was the culmination of 18 months of practice by local musicians who dubbed themselves the Bil Afrah Project. Composed of professional musicians and talented non-pro­fessionals, the group became ac­quainted with one another through studies with master teachers of Arabic music in New York and at the annual Arabic Music Retreat, a week-long event in Massachusetts directed by the Palestinian oud/vio­lin virtuoso Simon Shaheen. Others met through the New York Arabic Orchestra led by Bassam Saba, also an off-shoot of the retreat.
“It just sort of happened on its own,” said Brian Prunka, one of the Bil Afrah Project’s oud players, ex­plaining how the musicians came together to practise and perform an album made 40 years ago.
“All the musicians involved in­dependently fell in love with this record and we feel it’s a really great piece for introducing new audi­ences to Arabic music because even if you’re not familiar with Arabic traditions, the joy of this music still comes through.”
Josh Farrar, a writer of young adult books and a guitarist who said he received an oud as a gift during a visit to his mother-in-law in Damascus a few years ago, ech­oed those sentiments. “Bil Afrah is sort of a gateway drug for someone who doesn’t know anything about Arabic music,” he said, “because it is significantly more accessible to a typical Western listener. Some Arabic music is very complicated. Umm Kulthum performed pieces that might be 30, 40 or 50 minutes long, with different parts that could be compared to a symphony. Bil Af­rah is more like chamber music.”
Prunka, a trained jazz musician, and Farrar are representative of the diversity of the Bil Afrah Project. Some performers — Simon Moush­abeck (accordion), Tareq Rantisi (percussion), Tony Barhoum (qa­nun) — are of Arab ancestry and have played alongside some of the great names of maqam.
Marandi Hostetter is Jewish and a classically trained violinist, as is Insia Malek, a Pakistani-American, who plays alongside Hostetter in the Detroit-based National Arab Orchestra. Percussionist Vin Scialla has a jazz background and Bridget Robbins is an ethnomusicologist who plays the nay. Bass player Sprocket Royer is well-known in lo­cal music circles for his rock roots as well as for his instrument repair shop tucked away in Lower Man­hattan.
The best-known of the 11 musi­cians is percussionist Michel Mer­hej, a long-time New York resident who played on the original album in 1975. Merhej’s résumé includes gigs with legendary figures such as Umm Kulthum, Fairouz, Farid al-Atrash and Mohamed Abdel Wa­hab.
“I’ve been doing this for 65 years,” Merhej, 86, said following the Bay Ridge performance. “Playing music is what I do. I’m happy to be able to join with younger musicians to play these old songs. It’s different now because we’re just playing the mu­sic. When the original album was made, we were full of emotion, full of passion for what we were doing.”
Rahbani, son of Lebanese singer Fairouz and her composer hus­band, Assi Rahbani, recognised, at the age of 19 the significance of the violence overtaking Beirut. Although he would become some­thing of a firebrand — a well-known communist, atheist and radio com­mentator — Bil Afrah was not a con­frontational political statement. It was an attempt to impress on Leba­non’s diverse communities that they could unite under the banner of their shared culture.
The audience at the Bay Ridge performance, possibly the first time the entire suite of songs has been played in public, mirrored the composition of the ensemble: A di­verse group in terms of ethnicity, religion, gender and age. Although the original recording was not able to prevent the civil war, it has sur­vived, bringing its message to a population ready to receive it.