Philadelphia’s Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture Launches Ambitious Multimedia Project

Words Adorned: Andalusian Poetry and Music” in Fall 2015

Composers Kareem Roustom and Kinan Abou-afach to Debut New Works for

Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, Vocalist Dalal Abu Amneh, and 24-Member Chamber Choir, The Crossing

Inspired by the Poetry of Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), “Words Adorned” Creates an Innovative New Repertoire Bridging the Traditions of East and West

Beginning September 29, Events Include Lectures, Readings, Open Rehearsals and Concert, to be Followed by CD Release with Musical Scores in 2016

For over a decade the Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture organization has enriched the cultural life of Philadelphia by presenting unique Arabic language and arts programs as a platform for cross-cultural understanding. In the past Al-Bustan has offered structured learning programs on Arab visual art, literature, dance and music. This year the organization takes a quantum leap forward with their most ambitious multi-media project to date: “Words Adorned: Andalusian Poetry and Music”.

“Words Adorned” will debut newly-commissioned works by two composers, Kareem Roustomand Kinan Abou-afach, both of Syrian heritage, who take their inspiration from Andalusian poetry, and especially from the form known as muwashshahat — a powerful tradition from the Iberian kingdoms of Al-Andalus that still resonates in the music of the Arab world, North Africa, and Southern Spain today. 

The centerpiece of the project will be a performance at Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall on December 5th. The program brings together the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble with Philadelphia chamber choir The Crossing - well known in the classical music community for its own adventurous programming - and Arabvocalist Dalal Abu Amneh to premiere two longform, 20+ minute musical suites by composers Roustom and Abou-afach.

But the “Words Adorned” project goes far beyond one evening’s performance, thanks to generous grants from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. Al-Bustan will launch a website dedicated to the project and there will be a series of events leading up to the December debut, including a scholarly talk on Andalusian poetry with Huda Fakhreddine and Lital Levy at the University of Pennsylvania (September 29th); a concert by Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble with a reading of Andalusian poetry by Ahmad Almallah (October 25th); a lecture on the Andalusian Garden by Dede Fairchild Ruggles at Bryn Mawr College (November 3rd); and an open music rehearsal at the Trinity Center for Urban Life (November 24th), culminating with the final concert at Bryn Mawr (December 5). All events are open to the public.

The “Words Adorned” project also marks the first time that Al-Bustan will record, publish, and distribute a studio CD and create annotated musical scores. It’s a significant step forward for Arab music in the U.S., as Al-Bustan creates a new, hybrid contemporary repertoire that blends Arab and Western musical aesthetics. In this program, classical Arabic poetry merges with Western compositional structures, building on an evolutionary path set forth by Sheikh Sayyed Darwish, the father of modern Arab music

Words Adorned: Andalusian Poetry and Music

Event Schedule - Fall 2015

On Andalusian Poetry

Tuesday, September 29, 2015: 7:00 pm

University of Pennsylvania

Houston Hall, Ben Franklin Room (3417 Spruce Street, Philadelphia)

A talk by Huda Fakhreddine and Lital Levy

Classical Arab Music and Poetry Reading

Sunday, October 25, 2015: 4:00 pm

Trinity Center for Urban Life (2212 Spruce Street, Philadelphia)

Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble with Poet Ahmad Almallah

On the Andalusian Garden

Tuesday, November 3, 2015: 4:30 pm

Bryn Mawr College (150 N. Merion Avenue, Bryn Mawr)

Goodhart Hall, Music Room

A talk by Dede Fairchild Ruggles

Music in Practice

Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015: 6:30 pm

Trinity Center for Urban Life (2212 Spruce Street, Philadelphia)

Open rehearsal with Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble and The Crossing Choir

Arabic Vocal Demonstration by Dalal Abu Amneh

Thursday, Dec 3, 2015: 7:00 pm

University of Pennsylvania

Irvine Auditorium, Amado Recital Hall (3401 Spruce Street, Philadelphia)

Words Adorned Concert

Saturday, December 5, 2015: 8:00 pm

Goodhart Hall, Bryn Mawr College (150 N. Merion Avenue, Bryn Mawr)

A concert featuring The Crossing, solo vocalist Dalal Abu Amneh, and Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble debuting new compositions by Kinan Abou-Afach and Kareem Roustom

About “Words Adorned: Andalusian Poetry and Music”:

The “Words Adorned” project was conceived byAl-Bustan Executive Director Hazami Sayed and Hanna Khoury, Director of Al-Bustan Music Program, and grew out of Al-Bustan’s successful live music concert series, and their shared vision to use the performing arts to bridge the East-West divide.

“When I met Hanna in 2009, I was very eager to bring him on board. He brings an incredible talent on the violin and has a deep understanding of both Arab and Western classical repertoire.” recounts Sayed, whose West Philadelphia home serves as Al-Bustan’s cozy and understated headquarters. Khoury’s mixed disciplinary background matched Al-Bustan’s intercultural aims, and his experience helped nurture the growth of the Music Program into two community ensembles and a series of K-12 programs. It also nurtured the presentation of the multiple concerts that eventually coalesced into the Arab Music Concert Series in 2011.

Khoury is an accomplished and virtuosic musician in his own right (he has been featured on records by artists as disparate as Youssou N’Dour and Shakira). He and percussionist Hafez Kotain are founding members of the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, the resident ensemble that collaborates with featured guest artists.

“The takht is the ensemble that is typically used to perform the classical repertoire pre-1932. This is basically the ensemble that we would compare to a chamber orchestra,” explains Khoury.

Their blending of musical traditions is reflected in the instruments typically featured: violin and cello sit comfortably alongside Middle Eastern mainstays like the oud (similar to a lute), qanun (a large, plucked zither), and riq (a tambourine-like frame drum typically played with fingertips). The ensemble members’ resumes are replete with prestigious distinctions and international collaborations, but the real proof of their excellence is in the execution. Visit Al-Bustan’s YouTube page (, and you will see countless examples of their proficiency and expressive power at work. They can be understated and searing in the same section, and neither solo nor group melody can break the fierce gallop of each composition.

“It’s not easy to find a very high caliber of musicianship on these instruments and for this to work, you really need to have the best ensemble possible,” says Khoury. This concentration of talent allows for the concert series to function in the way it does, although Khoury notes the difficulty in representing the entirety of the Arab world – a world with immense internal diversity.

On “Words Adorned,” Al-Bustan is breaking even more new ground and expanding its conceptual reach. The production will bring the Takht Ensemble together with the 24-member Philadelphia choir The Crossing to explore the poetry of Al-Andalus (the lost Arabic/Moorish kingdom of Medieval Spain), called muwashshahat, which forms the basis of much Moroccan and North African music. 

“This type of poetry broke away from the rules of classical Arabic poetry of the Eastern Arab world, in much the same way that Andalusian Arabs formed their unique identities from those of Eastern Arabs,” says composer Kareem Roustom. Both Roustom and Takht Ensemble member Kinan Abou-afach are composing an original work for “Words Adorned.”

The new works present this poetry with a conceptual freshness unseen in other modern Arab musical works, as Al-Bustan engages with audiences of all backgrounds in a rare cultural exchange.

The Artists:

Kinan Abou-afach (Composer) is a cellist, oud player, composer, and recipient of the prestigious Pew Fellowship in 2013. The Syrian-born musician began his musical studies at the age of seven studying at the Arabic Institute of Music in Damascus, where he eventually joined the National Syrian Symphony Orchestra and performed with the Middle Eastern Ensemble. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in cello and oud performance from the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, and a Master’s degree in Cello Performance from DePaul University School of Music in Indiana.

Abou-afach has performed as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America with well-known musicians and ensembles such as the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Youssou N’Dour, Concertante de Chicago, and the Ducati Piano Trio. He has also appeared on recordings by Las Guitarras de España, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and Anne Harris, to name a few. He is currently a member of the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble.

He has composed for concerts, as well as film, live theatre, and visual art, including commissions by Live Connections for the Emmy award-winner Jason Vieaux; for Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture’s “Roads to Damascus”, "{De}Perception, and "Of Nights and Solace”; and for film, including for “The Long Night” (directed by Hatem Ali) and “Maskoon – Haunted” (directed by Liwaa Yazigi).

This is Abou-afach’s third commission from Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture.

Kareem Roustom (Composer) writes music for film, television, the concert hall, and album projects. His scores have earned him an Emmy nomination, a fellowship to the Sundance Film Composer’s Lab and other awards. Born in Syria, Roustom is steeped in the musical traditions of the Arab world and has trained extensively in Western music. He has collaborated with a wide variety of artists, ranging from the Philadelphia Orchestra, Latin pop star Shakira, the Kronos Quartet, Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and klezmer clarinetist Giora Feidman.

As a concert composer, Roustom has been commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, Daniel Barenboim and the East West Divan Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra (Education Department), The Boston Children’s Chorus, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and the Damascus Festival Chamber Ensemble, among others. Roustom’s works have been performed by The Philadelphia Sinfonia, Ipalpiti, The Firebird Ensemble, The Ibis Camerata, Lunatics At Large, In-Flux, The Golden Gate Men’s Chorus, Choir of the 21st Century, The Peninsula Women’s Chorus, Coro Allegro, Intercultural Journeys, the Alba Ensemble, Notes Inegales, L’Orchestre du Collège et des Jeunesses Musicales de St-Maurice, and others.

This is Roustom’s second commission from Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture.

Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble formed in 2009 as an initiative of Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, under the direction of Music Director Hanna Khoury. The Ensemble includes virtuoso musicians immersed in classical Arab music. All renowned musicians in their own right, three members of the ensemble are recipients of the prestigious Pew Fellowship for the Arts. Their individual experience crosses decades and continents, and includes touring and recording with prominent orchestras from both Western and Arab musical traditions as well as collaborating with folk and pop legends, from Marcel Khalife and Fairouz to Sting and Shakira. The ensemble represent the finest practitioners and scholars of both Western and Arab musical tradition.

The Ensemble: Music Director Hanna Khoury (violin), Hafez Kotain (percussion), Kinan Abou-Afach (cello/composer), Hicham Chami (qanun), and Wassim Odeh (oud).

Hanna Khoury (Music Director) is a violinist and music educator. A recipient of the prestigious Pew Fellowship in 2010, the America Israel Scholarship, and the A.M. Qattan Foundation Award. Khoury has extensive training in both Western and Arab music traditions. He graduated magna cum laude from UCLA with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Music Performance and received his Master’s degree in Music from Temple University in Philadelphia.

Khoury has served as principal violinist of the West East Divan Orchestra Workshop under the direction of Daniel Barenboim, and has performed with major artists including Lebanese superstar Fairouz, Iraqi singer Kazem Al-Saher, Grammy winner Youssou N’Dour, Algerian singer Cheb Khaled, and Tony award-winner Mandy Patinkin. As Music Director of the Arabesque Music Ensemble, he led nationwide tours performing traditional Arab music in major venues and universities and released two CDs.

He joined Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture as Director of the Music Program in 2009, leading the annual Al-Bustan Music Concert Series. Khoury also develops educational music programs for Al-Bustan, leading the community-based Arab Music Ensembles and school-based education programs. Khoury is pursuing a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Crossing is a professional 24-member chamber choir conducted by Donald Nally. Dedicated to new music, The Crossing is consistently recognized in critical reviews, hailed as “ardently angelic” (Los Angeles Times) and “something of a miracle” (Philadelphia Inquirer). Formed by a group of friends in 2005, the ensemble has since grown exponentially and “has made a name for itself in recent years as a champion of new music.” (New York Times).

Highly sought-after for collaborative projects, The Crossing was the resident choir of the Spoleto Festival, Italy in 2007; appeared at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre in the American premiere of James Dillon’s Nine Rivers with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE); joined Bang on a Can’s first Philadelphia Marathon; and appeared with the American Composers Orchestra, Network for New Music, Lyric Fest, red fish blue fish, Tempesta di Mare Baroque Chamber Orchestra, PRISM Saxophone Quartet, Toshimaru Nakamura, Dolce Suono and the Rolling Stones.

The ensemble has sung in such venues as LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They made their Lincoln Center debut in 2014 in a world premiere of John Luther Adams, a collaboration with the Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, eighth blackbird, Jack Quartet, and TILT Brass.

This is the first collaboration between The Crossing and Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture.

Dalal Abu Amneh is a renowned Palestinian singer who performs Arabic classical and folk music. Born in Nazareth, Abu Amneh came to national attention for her performances of the songs of the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. She later won greater fame for her ability to perform a wide variety of Arab musical styles, ranging from the classical tarab, Andalusian muwashshahat, and Sufi mystical repertoire. Her songs have been on Arab radio Top 10 lists and been selected for international music contests. She has appeared often on Arab television and in festivals around the world.

Throughout her career, Abu Amneh has focused on Palestinian culture and identity, including her most recent live show Ya Sitti, and has released two CDs, An Balady and Kareem Ya Ramadan.

Besides her musical career, Abu Amneh is completing a doctorate in Neuroscience in the Faculty of Medicine at Technion University in Haifa.

This is her first engagement with Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture and her Philadelphia debut.

About Al-Bustan:

Al-Bustan - which means “The Garden” in Arabic - planted their seeds in Philadelphia in 2002 with their ongoing summer arts camp for youth. They have since created educational programs on Arab arts and culture for adults as well as programs in several Philadelphia K-12 schools.

The organization is dedicated to presenting and teaching Arab culture through the arts and language and offers structured exposure to the language, art, music, dance, literature, and natural environment of the Arab world. 

Al-Bustan promotes cross-cultural understanding among youth and adults of all ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds through artistic and educational programs. Al-Bustan supports the pursuit and affirmation of Arab American cultural identity, while playing a constructive civic role within broader American society.

Words Adorned: Arab Music and Poetry is made possible in large part by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage with additional support from The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.