Staying musical, even at a distance
“While we're looking forward to making music together in person as soon as we can, it's wonderful to expand our skill set so that we can stay musical, even at a distance," said Anne Elise Thomas.
Thomas is director of Itraab, an ensemble at Virginia Tech dedicated to learning and performing Arabic music. Translated as “creating enchantment through music,” Itraab performs traditional and contemporary Arabic songs and features qanun (78-stringed table harp), oud (11-stringed lute), nay (end-blown reed flute) cello, violin, voice, percussion, and dance.
Itraab has become a community. The group met throughout the academic year for afternoon rehearsals every Sunday in the Moss Arts Center, preparing for its year-end performance in May.
"When classes went online halfway through the semester and it became clear we wouldn't be able to perform in May as scheduled, we decided to try making music remotely,” said Thomas, who has directed the ensemble since it was founded in 2014 as part of the Moss Arts Center’s Islamic Worlds Festival. “Making music as a virtual ensemble is very different from preparing for live performance, and the musicians learned from the process of practicing individually and recording their parts without the sense of security that comes from performing as an ensemble. We were fortunate that our percussionist, Virginia Tech graduate student Sam Salous, had skills in audio and video production to edit the videos we each made at home into a cohesive piece.”
The result was a socially distanced performance of "Ah Ya Zayn" (آه يا زين), a folk song known throughout the Arab world.
Composed of Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, and members of the local community, Itraab fosters musical connections between people who might not otherwise meet.
“Itraab provides the opportunity for me to introduce some of the music that I grew up with to new, diverse audiences,” said Salous, a Ph.D. student in civil engineering. “Playing with Itraab gives me a stronger feeling of belonging on the Virginia Tech campus.”
“This has been a very intriguing musical journey for me,” said Virginia Tech alum Woody McKenzie of his involvement with Itraab. “I am not formally trained in music, but am a traditional folk musician who plays fiddle. Arab-style music was literally foreign to me and while I am very much a novice, I feel that it has actually improved my overall approach to my instrument and offered insights into both melodic structure and techniques that can be used in other contexts. I have gained insight into a people and culture that I really didn't know before. During one online session, we were able to get an update from Jordan from a former member of Itraab who now lives there. Itraab is larger than just learning music - it's a vehicle for sharing music and culture on campus, in the community, and even worldwide.”
Itraab played a pivotal role in the Moss Arts Center’s project “SALAAM: Exploring Muslim Cultures.” Designed to build knowledge about the diversity of Muslim identities and cultures and encourage a more inclusive community among individuals from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, the multiyear project included performances, visual arts exhibitions, workshops, and residencies.
Itraab worked closely with the project’s visiting artists and participated in its culminating performance in March 2018.
The ensemble is free to join and open to participation for all. While music experience is a plus, it is not necessary. Virginia Tech students may participate in Itraab for credit through the School of Performing Arts. Those interested in joining can contact director Anne Elise Thomas at email@example.com.