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Aswat Women’s Ensemble shows music’s power to share culture

The women's ensemble shares folkloric, classical, contemporary, and sacred Arab music with the Bay Area, and came to Mills to do the same. (Photo courtesy of Najib Joe Hakim)
The women’s ensemble shares folkloric, classical, contemporary and sacred Arab music with the Bay Area, and came to Mills to do the same. (Photo courtesy of Najib Joe Hakim)

As singer Samira Kharrubi’s voice rose to the rafter’s of the Student Union, the audience joined in making music by clapping along to the beat.

On Wednesday, April 12, Woman Power: A Musical Expression of Awe, the Aswat Women’s Ensemble (AWE) concert performance, was the third annual concert. The event was in celebration of South Asian, Middle Eastern, Asian, Pacific Islander (SAMEAPI) month.  The Muslim Student Alliance (MSA) of Mills College worked in collaboration with the Francophone Club, Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC), the Mills College ethnic studies department, and The Center for Student Leadership, Equity, and Excellence to organize the event.

“[This event] helps bring diversity to Mills. It helps students at Mills see something they might not see everyday, an aspect of Arabic culture they may not see everyday. It’s a cultural exchange,” AWE Artistic Director Basma Edrees said. “It’s always very nice, as an Arabic woman, to show my culture and different sides of my culture.”

AWE was started in January 2012 by Nabila Mango, and is part of the larger Aswat group that includes both men and women musicians. Aswat is an Arabic word meaning ‘voices’ and both groups are open to those who are non-Arab and have little to no musical experience.

“This is special to me because it’s part of my culture,” MSA Club President Sabrina Kohgadai said. “Seeing how much joy it brought to the people who didn’t grow up with it, and didn’t grow up with it the way I did, I think that was my favorite part about it.”

(Photo courtesy of Najib Joe Hakim)
(Photo courtesy of Najib Joe Hakim)

The sixteen performers curved across the space, divided by instrument. While other traditional instruments are used in the group, this event featured the ‘oud (lute), Kaman (violin), riqq/daff (tambourine), tar and darbukkah/tablah (goblet drum), as well as vocals. There were four violinists, two lutists, eight vocalists and three percussionists. Audience members were invited to dance to the program of sacred, wedding and line dance songs.

Rana Mroue, vocal director, introduced the performance in solidarity with the countries on the travel ban. Edrees followed, dedicating the first song to those who have been victims of war or racism, but also to the oppressors as well, so that they may change their ways.

“The Arabic people and Muslim people do get stereotyped a lot […] what people see in the media is not what we’re all about,” Edrees said. “It’s always nice to see the humanity in the other.”

Edrees believes that music can show that humanity.

French and Francophone Club President Alexa Barger agrees.

“Music is a universal language,” Barger said. “It’s a chance to engage with another language, and to work with artists and activists in the Bay Area.”

(Photo courtesy of Najib Joe Hakim)
(Photo courtesy of Najib Joe Hakim)

All of the vocalists had their own personality. Edrees opened with a piercing song that seemed sad and contemplative, while at the same time as being defiant; Jumana Zahid had a low, rich voice, easily conveying complex emotions; Samira Kharrubi was a performer, powerful and experienced, with a sassy edge; Hannah Doughri had a distilled, grounding singing presence, and an honest melancholy; Mroue’s warm, full voice calmed and focused the audience’s energy.

Edrees broke Arabic music down to three defining parts: the system of notes, the traditional set of rhythms and the style of playing.

“We have notes that are nonexistent in the Western world,” Edrees said.

Edrees, percussionists Susu Pampanin and Monica Berini demonstrated the traditional beats, and then Edrees explained the style of playing.

“Arab musicians tend to use ornamentation,” Edrees said, playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” two ways, showing the addition of trills and different patterning. Ornamentation is not limited to the music, but extends to the instruments as well, such as one of the drums that Pampanin played, plated with reflective shards.

This ornamentation showed up in the vocal vibrato that many of the singers displayed, the complicated rhythms the percussionists settled into and the violin solos, eliciting hoots and applause.

(Photo courtesy of Najib Joe Hakim)
(Photo courtesy of Najib Joe Hakim)

Mills student Amanda Lezra heard about the event from Mills Professor and MSA and French and Francophone Advisor Brinda Mehta.

“I was blown away. My family is Moroccan, so I grew up listening to that kind of music, but I had never heard it live, ever,” Lezra said. “There’s something in that music that communicates such depth of emotion I’d never really heard. I loved it.”

Aswat’s performance, aimed at dispelling and combating misconceptions about the Muslim American community in light of the travel ban, brought a greater awareness to Mills.

“Joy and awe, and above all, hope,” Barger said, about what the songs made her feel. “Hope that we can all bring good into this world, and that we can overcome darkness.”