*Editor’s Note: 10:05 p.m. Nov. 20 – This story has been edited throughout.
The Meadows World Music ensemble took an intimate audience of about 60 on an international musical tour Sunday evening in the Bob Hope Theater of the Meadows School of the Arts.
The ensemble is comprised of Meadows music students, and the group has been part of the Meadows music program for over a decade. The ensemble blends eastern and western music by incorporating sounds from both classical western and authentic eastern instruments.
“I take the music from the various cultures and I arrange it for western instruments,” ensemble director Jamal Mohamed said. “So we will be playing the traditional folk music from those particular countries, but we will be using for the most part, western instruments mixed with authentic percussion instruments.”
Mohamed has gained international acclaim for his work on various percussion instruments, and even has a specific type of drum named after him, the “Jamal Doumbek,” which was introduced in 2010 by Toca Percussion.
Mohamed played as a guest artist with his students during the performance, and he explained before the show how he gives his students access to music form the Middle East, Africa, and Asia without requiring them to learn a whole new instrument.
While the students may have the comfort of playing the instruments on which they have trained their entire lives, Mohamed challenges the students through the improvisational nature of the folk music they perform. The students spontaneously composed many of the rhythms heard in the show. They had to play off of their fellow performers and create a coherent sound in the moment.
“When you go to these countries and listen to their folk music, it’s highly improvisational; they don’t have a conductor or music stands, but I know students here are used to learning through sheet music, so I do arrange the tunes and put them on paper,” Mohamed said. “A lot of the students by the time they are in their second or third year have the melodies memorized, then they are able to improvise more freely with the tunes.”
Jay Appaji, who is in his fifth semester with the ensemble, specializes in classical Indian percussion.
“Jamal has been a mentor to me, and I have learned a lot about the stylistic features of the different traditions of music we play, as well as how to play other percussion instruments,” Appaji said. “This semester, we have a great group of musicians and I have really enjoyed getting to know them and perform with them.”
While Appaji was able to show his skills on multiple percussion instruments throughout the show, fellow SMU student and sister Varsha Appaji, performed for the first time with the ensemble as a vocalist.
Her diverse presentation of songs, from traditional British music to obscure Slavic folk tunes, stole the show. Each song that she sang was received with enthusiastic cheers from audience members, who were impressed by her versatility.
“Varsha is a classical Indian singer,” Mohamed said. “But she is for the first time performing in Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic, to name a few. In India the vocalists are expected to improvise, so that is really cool because after a guitar solo for instance I can just say, “okay vocal solo here,” and she will just be able to improvise, which is a totally new element to the show.”
Haley Tripp, a third year double major in Mechanical Engineering and Dance Performance, was most impressed by the singer’s vocal performance in the show, and the versatility of all of the performers involved.
“The fact that Varsha learned all of those different languages and sung with such ease and confidence was so impressive,” Tripp said. “Overall, all of the musicians really amazed me with their precision and their ability to manipulate their instruments to create such a variety of sounds.”