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New Sounds from Arab Lands onstage at the Freer Gallery

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Entertainment,Music,Marie Gullard

Five men, all celebrated composers, performers and improvisers, working and touring as a group with the intention of introducing American audiences to the musical richness of their cultural heritage is not a new concept in live entertainment.

However, New Sounds from Arab Lands, hailing from Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia, and performing Saturday at the Freer Gallery, may very well be the interesting exception.

"We represent a new generation of musicians from the Arab lands," said Jasser Haj Youssef, a Tunisian string player with the quintet. "Our influences are numerous -- Arabic music, European classical music, jazz, African music, baroque and other artistic forms."

Indeed, New Sounds represents a rising generation of cosmopolitan Arab musicians who infuse the melodic aspects of Arab music with the Western genres of jazz and classical music. What results is a mixture of both composed and improvised works that are very much in the present yet emblematic of the Middle Eastern influences and traditions born into each of the men.

Onstage
New Sounds from Arab Lands
Where: Freer Gallery, Meyer Auditorium, 1050 Independence Ave. SW
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Info: Free; tickets required; 202-397-7328; asia.si.edu

"Music, for me, is a form of expression in which the personal and the professional are inextricably linked," said New Sounds clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, a Damascus-born graduate of New York's Juilliard School. "After all, our instruments are our best means to express our individual voices ... and we try to merge the individual into the collective, which needs work, obviously -- a work we enjoy a lot."

In addition to Azmeh on clarinet and Youssef playing violin and viola d'amore, the other players include Syrian Basel Rajoub on saxophone; Feras Charestan, from Al-Hasakeh, northeast Syria, on the qanun (a traditional zither); and Khaled Yassine, a percussionist from Beirut. On tour, the gentlemen present 15 newly commissioned works created collectively.

New Sounds from Arab Lands is a project begun by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, a program of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which supports artists and artistic communities in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.

"Needless to say that the title of the project accents a fact that we do believe in, which is that Arabic music and culture in general is based on the incredibly rich heritage [that] is very much alive today," Azmeh said."

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