How often do we get to hear Middle Eastern music melded into an American pop tune?
It's a very rare treat, but those who saw the MusiCares Person of the Year ceremony last Friday during Grammy Week in Los Angeles heard Boston's Berklee College of Music student Ahmad El Haggar sing and play a piece he had arranged with award winner Carole King.
El Haggar, a vocalist and oud player from Egypt, and King performed a Middle Eastern-style arrangement of King's song "Home Again."
King was honored as the 2014 MusiCares Person of the Year in recognition of her extraordinary creative accomplishments as well as her significant charitable work, which has included an impressive range of philanthropic activities over the years, in addition to her continuously evolving musical career. She is actively involved with environmental organizations in support of forest wilderness preservation as well as a range of political causes.
Berklee student El Haggar, from Cairo, met King last spring when she received an honorary doctorate at Berklee. He was assigned to be her chaperone and they immediately connected. When King learned that El Haggar is Egyptian, she shared with him her interest in Arabic music and said she wished someone would create an exchange in which Middle Eastern and American bands perform together in each other's countries.
King was inspired by the MusiCares honor to invite El Haggar to write and perform the new arrangement with her at the event. Berklee's president Roger Brown said "Carole wrote me to appeal for more scholarship support for Ahmad when the trouble in Egypt caused his family to suffer difficulties that threatened his ability to stay at Berklee."
"I saw the MusiCares event as a perfect opportunity to introduce both Ahmad and the idea of multicultural musical collaboration to the music industry and the world," King said. "When I asked Roger if he would facilitate Ahmad's participation, he sprang into action."
Once the performance was confirmed, King came to Berklee to rehearse with El Haggar. While he was nervous, she put him at ease. "The most amazing thing is how she gave so much energy and effort," he said. "She was really passionate about the idea and the collaboration and always spoke so positively. I'm just excited that finally there's a chance to show a little bit of where I come from at such a venue."
El Haggar's goal is to improve opportunities for Middle Eastern music to reach a wider audience. "I'm really hoping that Arabic music would be presented better to the world and that it could have a space in mainstream music," he said. "Few crossover artists from the Arab world have really made an impact in the Western world. I'm hoping that there can be a basic understanding of the music."
"Music has the power to reach people acrtoss political and cultural differences," King added. "I'm hoping that someone with organizational talent will be inspired to create an ongoing musical bridge to connect cultures around the world through a series of collaborative concerts."
This isn't the first time El Haggar has put his stamp on a pop favorite. His Egyptian rendition of Gnaris Barkley's "Crazy" has over 100,000 views on YouTube. Before coming to Berklee, he attended the Higher Institute of Arabic Music where his education focused on traditional Middle Eastern and Western music.
The celebration culminated with the 56th annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center last Sunday, January 26, which was telecast live on the CBS Television Network.
Berklee College of Music alumni were nominated for 36 Grammy Awards this year.
Established in 1989 by The Recording Academy, MusiCares provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need. MusiCares' services and resources cover a wide range of financial, medical and personal emergencies, and each case is treated with integrity and confidentiality. MusiCares also focuses the resources and attention of the music industry on human service issues that already impact the health and welfare of the music community.
You can watch a video of the performance here:
Video of performance: http://vimeo.com/bounceaeg/review/85017735/808f5df7a2