Oud to joy: Celebrating Arabic music in the GTA

The Canadian Arabic Conservatory of Music is teaching students to play the qanun and the tabla — and helping to “spread the culture”
By Josh Sherman - Published on Jul 24, 2019
a student performing music on an oud with a teacher looking on
A student performs at the Canadian Arabic Conservatory of Music’s summer recital, held July 7 at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga. (James Bombales)

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Learning the oud, a guitar-like instrument that originated in the Middle East, is a way for Toronto resident Hania Elayoubi to connect with her roots.

Born in the United Arab Emirates, Elayoubi emigrated to Canada 18 years ago, but it was only this winter that she took up the oud.

“It’s always been a fantasy,” says Elayoubi, 35, on a sunny Sunday afternoon outside the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga, where she is taking part in the Canadian Arabic Conservatory of Music’s summer recital.

When she heard that the Mississauga-established, Middle East-focused musical institute would be expanding to North York this February, she jumped at the chance to sign up for lessons. “The cultural connection to music is so deep. You can’t really explain it, and the music that I grew up with, the historical music — Arabic, Turkish, Persian — the oud is a big part of that,” says Elayoubi.

Elayoubi is one of about 150 students enrolled at the conservatory, which Lamees Audeh, 42, founded with her husband, Wafa Al Zaghal, 40, in November 2016. The school grew out of a previous endeavour, the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, which the two formed in 2013 — the year they moved with their three children to Canada from Palestine, where they’d been music instructors.

One of the orchestra’s main goals is “to spread the culture,” says Audeh, who was born in Canada but spent much of her childhood in Jordan. “You’re trying to make more people interested in Arabic music — and, of course, you’re trying to fulfill your own needs as a musician to express yourself.”

The conservatory builds on these aims, acting as a sort of farm team for the Canadian Arabic Orchestra. “The orchestra needs fresh blood to go into it,” Audeh explains.

Since the orchestra’s first performance here at the Unitarian Congregation in June 2014, it has grown from five musicians to 35 and embarked on countrywide tours. This year, it officially registered as a charity (the conservatory operates as a business).

Pupils are as young as four years old, and there’s at least one septuagenarian in the student body. “We have all ages,” says Audeh. For student Eman Abdel Khalik, 25, the conservatory has made adapting to life in a new country easier. Abdel Khalik, originally from Palestine, moved to Canada from the United Arab Emirates in July 2017 with her parents — her violin in tow. The next year, she started taking lessons in Mississauga.

“It was very useful,” says Abdel Khalik. “It helps us to keep our culture alive. At the same time, it can [help me] fit with the community faster,” she says, adding, “Mixing Eastern and Western music, it helps.” She plans to sign up for more lessons in the future

While the school offers instruction in traditional Arabic instruments, such as the qanun, a stringed instrument that’s plucked like a harp, and the tabla — “the basis for learning Arabic percussion,” Audeh explains — students can also learn clarinet, accordion, guitar, and piano. “The most important thing is,” she says, is that students “feel proud of what their music culture is all about.”

The blending of Eastern and Western music was on full display at the July 7 recital. There was a piano rendition of “Yankee Doodle” early on, and later, vocal student Rami Majeed belted out a cover of the late Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez’s single “Sawah.” Instructors backed his performance with guitar, violin, and piano.

“They’ll pick up on everything, because they understand the language, they understand the techniques for Arabic singing,” says Majeed, 29, of his teachers.

The decision to expand into northern Toronto was a result of interest from Arabic communities in North York, Scarborough, Richmond Hill, and Markham. The long-term vision involves opening schools all over Canada. Audeh and Al Zaghal briefly operated a satellite campus in Montreal, but it proved too difficult to manage remotely at the time.

Audeh says that her efforts to advance Arabic music have met with a generally positive response, although there have been some online trolls, and she continues to encounter cultural stereotypes.

“There’s always been this idea about Arabs and Arabic culture … that they don’t have music, that their music doesn’t exist, that they are barbaric,” Audeh says. “It’s kind of like trying to change the image of something that people have ingrained in their minds.”

Whether she’s faced with criticism or curiosity, Audeh says, her response is to invite people to performances and let them judge for themselves. She recalls promoting the Festival of Arabic Music and Arts, an annual event series that she and husband Al Zaghal organize in the GTA, with a sticker on her car: “This guy came up to me and said, ‘Oh, so Arabs have music?’”

Audeh’s response? “Yes, we do. Come and watch us.”

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