Sowing the Seeds of Culture

Music graduate student Hanna Khoury turns Philadelphia into a locus for Arab music.
November 15, 2011

In Tarshiha, the tiny Arab Israeli village where music graduate student Hanna Khoury grew up, Arab music was a way of life. He would perform with relatives, many of whom were musicians, at home gatherings, as well as with Firqat Tarshiha, a local ensemble that specializes in classical Arab music. But the music lessons Khoury took were all in Western classical violin—an education he furthered at University of California, Los Angeles,UCLA as a music performance and economics major.

“The resources for learning the technical facility of the violin are much more well-researched and defined in Western violin,” Khoury says, “partly because Arab music has always been heavily based on oral traditions.”

Khoury, winner of a prestigious Pew Fellowship in the Arts, credits the combination of his technical expertise, acquired through Western training, and Arab music performing background with opening the doors to his high-profile performance career. His worldwide tours include concerts with the renowned Arabesque Music Ensemble and West Eastern Divan Orchestra, and he has collaborated with Grammy-winners like Shakira, Beyoncé and Youssou N’Dour as well as Arab pop music royalty like Kazem Al-Saher and Cheb Khaled. Khoury also contributed instrumentals to the pop hit “Beautiful Liar” and recorded strings for award-winning films such as Amreeka and Budrus. But despite this success, Khoury was troubled by the fact that classical Arab music did not seem to have many official outlets.

“Providing access to high-level Arab music performances right in downtown Philadelphia will showcase a fuller view of Arab culture. This is especially needed in light of recent political events, which have led to many people having a one-sided perception of the Arab world.” – Hanna Khoury

“When I first began touring with the Arabesque Music Ensemble,” he says, “a lot of our concerts were sold out. The venue for this music was so limited, and I realized the need to establish a home base for Arab music through institutional partnerships and strong community work.”

For the past few years, Khoury, who came to Philadelphia to earn his master’s degree at Temple University, has been spearheading efforts to make this city a locus for Arab music outreach and education. He is a violinist and Arab music adviser for Intercultural Journeys, a local music non-profit that aims to bridge cultural divides through music and art.


An Intercultural Journeys ensemble of Khoury, cellist Udi Bar-David and violinist and Rolando Morales-Matos performs at the 2009 Concerts for Life and Peace in Jerusalem.

In 2009, he began working with Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, a local non-profit dedicated to presenting and teaching Arabic language, arts and culture. As director of its music program, he launched an Arab music concert series featuring a resident music ensemble performing a classical Arab music repertoire with various guest soloists.

“Providing access to high-level Arab music performances right in downtown Philadelphia will showcase a fuller view of Arab culture,” Khoury says. “This is especially needed in light of recent political events, which have led to many people having a one-sided perception of the Arab world. My goal is to take this concert series model nationally.”


Al-Bustan presents a concert featuring Khoury, his brother Maron Khoury, a Metropolitan Opera flutist, and members of the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble.

Khoury has also developed initiatives that partner Al-Bustan with area schools and community organizations to develop the type of education in Arab music that was never available to him. With master percussionist Hafez El Ali Kotain, and cellist and composer Kinan Abou-afach, Khoury has been offering weekly and after-school programs to the public as well as training in the theory, repertoire and culture of Arab music to musicians and music educators. Many of these programs are centered around residencies by visiting artists, such as acclaimed UNESCO Artist for Peace Marcel Khalife, who worked and performed with Al-Bustan students.

“Just this past spring, we got more than 100 musicians from Al Bustan’s various programs to perform on stage with Khalife,” Khoury says. “They came from all backgrounds and most of them were not Arab. It was the most inspiring concert that I have ever been a part of, and it reinforced my belief in the need for developing pedagogical material for Arab music.”


Khoury leads an Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture concert honoring UNESCO Artist for Peace Marcel Khalife.

The drive to further develop an educational infrastructure for Arab music led Khoury to Penn this fall. Conversations with Associate Professor of Music Director of Graduate Studies, Timothy Rommen, convinced Khoury that the ethnomusicology concentration offered by the Department of Music would help him in his pursuit. Khoury was especially drawn to the caliber of Penn’s music faculty and the plentiful opportunities to work across disciplines with programs such as the Middle East Center. He is also bringing his own expertise to the department, teaching its Arab music ensemble.

Khoury hopes eventually to gain the expertise to develop a large body of pedagogical materials and make them accessible to musicians and educators across the globe. “We really need to document Arab music and develop the tools to teach it,” Khoury says. “Otherwise we may lose some of it and it may never get the exposure that it really deserves.”