May 6, 2009

Boundary-Crossing Music

With roots in Syria and the United States, Kareem Roustom brings his musical vision to films, the concert hall—and Grammy winners

By Kay Hardy Campbell

Kareem Roustom, G07, was finishing a commission for the Philadelphia Orchestra in late 2006—it was a work for cello, klezmer clarinet, orchestra and oud, the short-necked unfretted lute common in Middle Eastern music—when his cell phone rang. It was a friend from California saying that pop singer Shakira was looking for someone to add more Middle Eastern flavor to some of her work, and wondering if Roustom was interested.

“It just happens that Arabic music is a key part of my identity, and it’s something that I love deeply, and it will be part of what I do, in one way or another, for a very long time,” says Kareem Roustom. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“At first I thought it was a joke,” says Roustom, a lecturer in the music department and director of the Tufts Arabic Music Ensemble.

It wasn’t. Within days he and three colleagues were at work in Shakira’s home studio in the Bahamas. There, he composed and recorded violin arrangements for the live performance of her global hit Hips Don’t Lie at the 2007 Grammy Awards. He later wrote Middle Eastern-flavored string arrangements for Beautiful Liar, a 2008 Grammy-nominated duet by Beyonce and Shakira.

Roustom hasn’t always had pop stars calling, of course. And, despite his roots in the Middle East—he was born in Syria to an American mother and a Syrian father, and didn’t come to the United States until he was 13—his music has only recently taken on a Middle Eastern hue, but it’s one that’s distinctly his own.

In school, he took up classical and jazz guitar, and after completing his B.A. at UMass–Lowell, he worked briefly in the music distribution business and started composing. He won a prestigious Pete Carpenter Fellowship for film composers in 1996, and moved to Los Angeles to work with award-winning film and television composer Mike Post, and began composing for films and television.

But when Roustom visited his relatives in Syria in the mid-1990s, his musical world changed: he discovered his Arabic music roots. He taught himself to play the oud, and joined a long-running Middle Eastern music ensemble at UCLA, where he delved into the theory and repertoire of his Arabic heritage. By 1999, he was ready for a change.

“In Los Angeles, I realized you have to write in so many styles that you lose any semblance of voice,” Roustom recalls. “You spread yourself so thin that it becomes difficult to write music that comes from the innermost reaches of your heart. It can be extremely well-crafted, but in some ways it’s disingenuous.”

Roustom moved back to New England and plugged into the local music scene. While still composing for film projects, he recorded Almitra’s Question, a CD combining jazz and Arabic music, and joined Sharq, a Boston classical Arabic music ensemble, serving as its musical director. He also went back to school, earning a master’s degree at Tufts in composition and ethnomusicology to develop his voice as a composer. “The Tufts M.A. really opened new avenues of thought,” says Roustom, “and exposed me to different ways of looking at musical problems and issues.”

Purity Isn’t the Point

Roustom has developed several compositional voices, born of his varied background. His use of the traditional Middle Eastern sound is most evident in his film work, especially in the documentary film Encounter Point, about Israelis and Palestinians meeting face to face, which won Best Film Score at the 2006 Bend Film Festival. The music features subtle and lyrical tracks of oud, buzuk (a long-necked fretted lute), nay (an end-blown flute) and klezmer clarinet.

Other film projects followed. Roustom wrote the music for Amreeka, a film directed by Cherien Dabis that premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and explores the struggle of a divorced Palestinian mother who moves to rural Illinois with her teenage son. It is scheduled for a theatrical release this fall. He also wrote the score for Mosque in Morgantown, which chronicles the confrontation of the journalist Asra Nomani with the status quo at the mosque in Morgantown, W.Va. It is set to air on PBS in June.

Click the play button to hear an excerpt of Kareem Roustom’s soundtrack to the documentary, Mosque in Morgantown.

But Roustom is not limited to composing for the screen, small or big. He’s equally at home composing for the classical concert stage. In that genre, he draws on elements of Arabic music and literature and invents something new. Listeners experience these elements, deconstructed and rearranged, in music that is complex yet accessible.

In 2008, he completed his first commission for the Boston Children’s Chorus, Hot Tea, Mint and Olives, set to the verse of the Palestinian-American poet Ibtisam Barakat. After running through the piece in rehearsal, the singers were invited to ask Roustom questions. They focused on his creative process. Did the lyrics bring the melodies to him? How long did the composition take? 

Then one singer asked, “If there is no harmony in Arabic music, why put harmony into your piece?”

Roustom nodded and responded, “This is not pure Arabic music.” He explained that he took several musical concepts from the Arabic tradition and wove them into something in his own voice, his own vision, into a format the chorus needed.

The music does not sound traditionally Middle Eastern, but the Eastern elements—the rhythms, the tonal centers and the sentiment of the poetic lyrics—are presented clearly to the listener.

Click the play button to hear an excerpt of the Boston Children’s Chorus singing from Kareem Roustom’s Hot Tea, Mint and Olives.

That same approach is evident in another piece for mezzo-soprano and string trio that Roustom composed for the cellist Jason Calloway and his sister, vocalist Rachel Calloway. Based on lyrics translated from five Arabic poems from Spain and North Africa from 1100 to 1400 A.D., That Which Is Adorned uses traditional rhythms as well as a Middle Eastern tonality.

Rachel Calloway points out that while the piece is not traditional Arabic music, Roustom presents Arabic literary and musical ideas in a way that the audience can hear clearly. “New music can be alienating to audiences,” she says, “but Kareem always gives his audience something to hold on to. He finds a way to create a beautiful melody and rhythms, while still having depth, complexity and craftsmanship.”

The Trip Home

Roustom returned to Syria in 2008 as one of four featured composers of new classical music in the festival titled “Damascus: Capital of Culture 2008.” His composition Buhur al-Kamel premiered at the Dar al-Assad Opera House and was performed by the Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and a string trio.

Click the play button to hear an excerpt of Kareem Roustom’s Buhur al-Kamel performed live in Damascus.

The festival’s artistic director, Azmeh, said that of the four compositions played, Roustom’s piece felt the most Eastern, the most attached to what is familiar to the Arab ear. And that seemed remarkable to him, given that Roustom was the only composer from the United States.

“Yet it was the most innovative,” Azmeh says. “It’s easy to do something totally new. It’s harder to take something close to tradition and do something new.”

Roustom says he was thrilled when Nuri Iskandar, a former director of the prestigious Aleppo Music Conservatory, approached him after the concert and said, “Your music is the closest thing to our heart.”

Branches and Roots

Working in multiple genres doesn’t faze Roustom. It’s a necessary part of freelancing, he says, and he’s come to enjoy the variety. How far can this musical combination take him? “The roots of Arabic music are deep,” he muses, “but the branches can go in many directions.”

Back at Tufts, teaching is a welcome challenge for Roustom. “It keeps me on my toes and can often get me to think about a particular musical issue in any number of ways. Creatively, it is vital for me to maintain an active connection with classical, folk and popular music from around the Arab world. This connection informs all aspects of my creative work from concert- and film-music composition to pop-music arranging,” he says.

“I try my best to be a craftsman,” he adds. “It just happens that Arabic music is a key part of my identity, and it’s something that I love deeply, and it will be part of what I do, in one way or another, for a very long time.”

To hear more of Kareem Rouston's music, visit his MySpace page.

Kay Hardy Campbell is a freelance writer and member of the Tufts Arabic Music Ensemble. Her website is

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