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Sonia M'Barek, Spring 2012 Tour Revolutionizing from the Roots:
Tunisia’s Sonia M’Barek Makes Arab Traditions Sing with Full, Feminine Richness in Rare New York Concert, March 23, 2012

Tunisian vocalist Sonia M’Barek can sing a centuries-old song from Andalusia, and just as nimbly reframe the words of radical 20th-century poets. She hears the ties of mode and rhythm linking Tunisia’s prized classical traditions, Egyptian cabaret music, and Ottoman court pieces, evoking the diverse musical variations around the Mediterranean with a sultry, supple voice.

Defying tradition while savoring it, M’Barek dug deep into the history and musical potential of maluf, Tunisia’s music heritage with roots in the Arab culture of southern Spain. With a unique approach to her nation’s music, M’Barek will perform at the CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue, between 34th and 35th in Manhattan) on March 23, 2012, in a concert sponsored by Alwan for the Arts, New York’s Arabic culture hub (

Though M’Barek has performed with notable Arab and other musicians in New York in recent years, this will be a rare opportunity to hear her unfolding the repertoire that has brought her unflagging respect throughout the Arab world and on European stages. She will be supported by a quintet of master players with strong backgrounds in both Arab and Western Classical music, musicians able to match M’Barek’s own trademark versatility and flair.

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M’Barek is a rare musician: A woman specializing in a predominantly male genre, a highly contemporary musician drawing on songs first crafted in the 15th century, a performer who breaks down boundaries between classical tradition and popular song, between nations and eras.

M’Barek was first inspired to sing by her grandmother, who would leap into stunning renditions of Tunisian folk songs or Umm Kulthum hits. “She had no formal training, but had a very beautiful voice,” M’Barek recalls. “She made music part of her life and passed that down to me.”

The young M’Barek took this inheritance and made the most of it, beginning her education at the Tunis Conservatory at eight years old, and her performing career at nine. At the Conservatory, she first encountered maluf, a style of music with roots in Al-Andalus, the medieval Muslim state the once dominated much of Southwestern Europe that allowed the cross-pollination of European, Arab, and Jewish culture. After the Spanish Reconquest in 1492, Muslims and Jews fled across the Mediterranean, planting the seeds for a new flourishing music across North Africa. In what is now Tunisia, the music evolved over centuries and under diverse influences into a body of classical works.

Traditionally sung as a call and response between a male soloist and all-male chorus, M’Barek, under the guidance of leading maluf expert Tahar Gharsa, delved into the extensive history of the genre. Over the course of years, she explored works, finding pieces and approaches suited to a female voice and reimagining the usual accompaniment of a large orchestra and choir.

“My approach was to look at entire repertoire and find the ranges that would fit my voice,” M’Barek explains. “I then went into the underpinning maqam [mode] of the tradition. I would improvise and play with it, to mesh with my vocal range. As I engaged with the repertoire in more depth, I was able to open new places in my own range as well.”

Yet M’Barek is not simply an innovator of one tradition; she is a broad thinker, able to clue into and emphasize the shared sonic and poetic ties that bind musical forms from Tunisia and Spain to Turkey and Egypt. Elements of popular cabaret forms, like raqs sharqi (so-called “belly dance” music), and moments from Turkish classical music weave together in M’Barek’s work, and 10th-century Arabic poetry might follow songs with words by Spanish great Lorca or Turkish romantic socialist poet, Nâzim Hikmet (known in the West for poems like “I Come and Stand at Every Door”).

“Once you know the grammar and understand the tenets of a musical language, you can open to other traditions like Western classical or jazz,” M’Barek muses. “Music becomes a way of speaking to other traditions, not only those in the Arab world, but in the West as well.  I’ve incorporated many Western concepts into my performance and delivery, into my stage presence.”

This flexibility and openness serve to bring new life to a genre burdened with a long, complicated role in Tunisia’s identity at this crucial moment in the country’s history. “This is a very evolutionary period in Tunisia, after dark and oppressive decades of dictatorship and corruption,” reflects M’Barek. “I hope that the space opens up so that we can revolutionize our creative endeavors, whether we’re talking about Arab classical musicians or young rappers. Music and art by their nature are meant to create new things, including to present tradition in more creative, new ways.”

M’Barek will be joined on March 23 by violinist Hanna Khoury (a Pew Fellow who’s played with Fairuz, Youssou N’Dour, and Mandy Patinkin); percussionist Hafez El Ali Kotain (fluent in Arab and Latin rhythms); master cellist and oud player Kinan Abou-afach; Kinan Idnawi (an oud [Arab lute] player for both Marcel Khalife and the Qatar Philharmonic); and Hicham Chami (a skilled qanun player and music scholar who founded the Arabesque Music Ensemble).


Since 1998, Alwan for the Arts has played a leading role in promoting the diverse cultures of the Middle East in New York City and the tri-state metropolitan area. Located in Lower Manhattan, Alwan is a cultural and aesthetic hub that presents 100 events a year, from concerts and dance performances to film screenings and book readings. As a creative space, Alwan presents traditional culture with a contemporary flare, commissions new works that investigate cultural identity, and provides artists, filmmakers, writers, intellectuals, and activists with a forum for their creative projects in a setting that promotes cross-cultural collaboration. Alwan's curatorial perspective casts a critical eye on current events and trends in arts and culture related to the Middle East.

Amir ElSaffar, Alwan's music curator, draws on his experience as a composer and performer of jazz and traditional Middle Eastern forms, to design a concert series that is simultaneously innovative and honoring the traditions of the greater Middle East. This music programming includes weekly concerts that take place at Alwan's space in lower Manhattan, in addition to marquee events in larger spaces throughout the City. For more information, visit