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Breaking down Arab stereotypes through music

Sep 11, 2015

Members of the National Arab Orchestra rehearse in Director Michael Ibrahim's (far right) living room in Dearborn Heights.
Credit Emily Fox / Michigan Radio

Metro Detroit has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation, and it's also home to the National Arab Orchestra. That group is trying to preserve Arab culture and build bridges through music.


Michael Ibraahim directs the National Arab Orchestra. His parents are from Syria, but he grew up in Metro Detroit. He sometimes holds rehearsals with a few key members of the orchestra at his home in Dearborn Heights.

At those rehearsals Arabs and non-Arabs gather to play music. Some are first, second or third generation Arab Americans from countries such as Palestine and Israel. One member has roots in India, and another in Europe.

Usama Baalbaki sings with the orchestra. He’s Lebanese-American, but grew up in Kuwait. He says this music is helping bring people from all backgrounds together.

“In the Middle East and all over the world people are divided somehow,” Baalbaki says. “When you talk about religion you will find division. When you talk about politics there is division.”

Think about recent headlines involving the Islamic State, the European migrant crisis, or the Iran nuclear agreement. But Baalbaki says all those walls are broken down when there is music.

“I find the music uniting people,” Baalbaki says. “Even in the same country people are divided, in the same village people are divided. But when you play the music people are all out there dancing and clapping and enjoying.”

Director Ibraahim says that unification through music allows for a chance to break down barriers, which is something Ibraahim and a few members of the orchestra have already done. They will be going into local schools for a third year for a program to teach students about Arab music and culture.

“We are teaching non Arabs in Detroit, [where] let’s face it, probably their only experience they’ll have with an Arab is at a gas station and it’s usually not really pleasant,” Ibraahim says.

Ibraahim says sharing the culture through music is helping break down stereotypes.

“We teach them about how to sing it, how to perform this music, what are they singing, they take something with them. You transform their way of thinking because you’re giving them a different angle, a different perspective,” Ibraahim says.

This year, the group will be working with the Detroit School of Arts and with Dearborn schools.

“We’re here to preserve a culture or leave a mark or an imprint in this country about the positive things of Arab culture,” Ibraahim says.

Ibraahim and members of the group say they want this music to reach all types of people. The National Arab Orchestra will perform for the public at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts in Detroit on Saturday. 

Support for arts & cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.