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Music Notes: the versatile charms of the qanun

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"My father is a classical violinist, and my mother paints," says Moroccan-born Hicham Chami. "They live for music. And they wanted their children to have a broad, cultivated upbringing." But violin or piano didn't seem right for their son, who had a birth defect. "My mother had an accident when she was pregnant with me," Chami says, "which left the fingers on my left hand stunted in their growth." Instead his parents thought he might like playing the qanun.

A plucked-string instrument that rests in the performer's lap, the qanun has a bright tone and a high pitch, traits that make it ideal for generating not only melodic lines but also embellishments. Combine it with an oud, a violin, a flute, and percussion and you've got a takht, the classic Arabic chamber ensemble. The qanun reached Morocco in the early 20th century, says Chami, and became popular in the 1940s, during a period of nationalist fervor that culminated in the country's independence from France in 1956.

Chami's parents enrolled him at the National Conservatory of Music and Dance in Rabat in the mid-1980s, when he was eight. He spent a decade there studying with two qanun masters. Much of the music he learned was imparted orally, a time-honored practice in non-Western traditions. "In all my years there, I got only two scores from my teacher," he says.

After graduation Chami went on to business school, where he earned a degree in marketing in 1999. "My father thought we should have a profession in order to support what we really want to do," he says. (His sister, who plays violin, is in law school.) Meanwhile he'd developed a reputation as an estimable qanun player, performing solo, with partners, and with full-blown orchestras.

When Chami came to Chicago three years ago to attend DePaul's MBA program, he lost no time making connections in his art. In 2000 he went to New York for an Arabic music retreat run by the Palestinian oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen, whom Chami calls the "Sammy Sosa of Oriental music." One day while browsing in the DePaul Music Mart he met clarinetist Eve Monzingo, who also plays qanun. And in 2001, at the second annual Genesis Project--a showcase of Middle Eastern music, dance, and poetry organized by physician Wendy Sternberg--Chami heard fiddler Stuart Rosenberg play with his ensemble, Titiko. He introduced himself after the show and asked, "You're six Jewish guys--do you want to work with a Moroccan?"

"A qanun player, heh? It's been years since we had one," was the answer. Rosenberg introduced Chami to cantor Alberto Mizrahi and pianist Howard Levy, and soon Chami had joined the ensemble. He's also played with local groups like Issa Boulos's Al-Sharq Ensemble and individual collaborators like percussionist Catherine Alexander. In January he and Monzingo formed a six-person instrumental group called Mosaic.

The qanun may be a symbol of national pride in Morocco, but the number of players there is dwindling. "The qanun literature is limited partly because in an orchestra it's a support player and partly because few pieces have been written down," says Chami.

So last year he set up a company that's part record label, part booking agency: "That's what my business degree is for." Xauen Music will put out CDs of traditional Middle Eastern music as well as commission pieces that fuse traditions. A February release, Promises: Oriental Classical Music, featured Chami accompanied by Alexander. He's got three more CDs and lots more projects--like a database of Turkish and Arabic music--in the works. "I hear there's a great Chinese pipa player in town," he says, eyes sparkling. "He and I should make interesting music together."

This Sunday, March 30, at noon, Chami will perform with Israeli multi-instrumentalist Yoel Ben Simhon and Lebanese drummer Nick Chbat as part of this year's Genesis Project. The event runs from noon to 6 at Preston Bradley Hall in the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Also on the program are performances by the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band at 4:30 and Shaheen with Bassam Saba, who plays oud, flute, and nay, at 3:45. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 773-929-0224 for more info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.

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