THE PERCUSSION VIRTUOSITY OF SOUHAIL KASPAR
By Karl Sprowl
This celebrated Lebanese-born concert percussionist, was conservatory trained in Aleppo, Syria, both in classical and ethnic Middle-Eastern rhythm patterns and percussion techniques. Although his primary style is Arabic, he is also expert in various Persian and Turkish rhythmic styles. Proficient on most percussion instruments, his primary instrument is the dumbeg, or tabla.
In his career, he has performed in Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, Athens, Cyprus, Turkey, London, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South America, and Australia. He has performed in the United States for 17 years, most extensively in New York and California. He has worked with such well-known artists as Faiza Ahmed, Abdoud Abdel-Al, and his orchestra, Sabah Fakri, the beloved Feiruz, and Farid Al-Atrash. He will perform next month with Wadir Al-Safri. He has also performed with the world famous Hanni Mohanna ensemble, in Egypt. His proficiency and versatility are such that he is able to meet any performance demand in concert, nightclub, or media situations.
He is a featured guest artist on numerous recordings, the latest being Earthttribe Rhythms, a very recent release by Brent Lewis.
Famed concert oudist, composer, and arranger, John Bilezikjian, with whom he regularly works said, Souhail is what I would call a trained drummer. He not only knows the rhythms, but also the history, ethnic background, and technical language of the music. I particularly enjoy working with Souhail, because I feel that he has a special talent and sensitivity for anticipating a primary instrument. He anticipates the direction that the melody-line will take and selects and varies the choice of rhythm from his very broad repertoire. He is particularly accurate in his timing. He has a special talent for embellishment and ornamentation, to enhance the melody. His phrasing is perfect. He is also a pleasure to work with because of the professionalism of his attitude toward the other musicians with whom he works.
Souhail Kaspar has performed frequently with the prominent ethnomusicologist, Dr. Jihad Racy. Dr. Racy is the chairman of the Ethnomusicology Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. The department offers a highly prestigious doctoral program. Mr. Kaspar and Dr. Racy have worked together in a variety of cultural events and workshops, throughout the country.
Dr. Racy says of him, Ive worked with Souhail for 12 years, and hes been very important to my performance career. He epitomizes professionalism in its best sense. He is one of the finest drummers in the world. Souhail is a musicians musician. He is on a level that musicians admire and strive to attain. Hes technically impeccable. His performance is so solid, and so simple in its complex way, that it makes an entire ensemble play comfortably. When he performs with me, I feel very safe. His good nature communicates itself to the audience in his music.
Ive traveled with Souhail to major universities and to theaters in most major cities. I present my Panorama in Sound Arab music on folk and urban instruments. I demonstrate different musical styles and improvisations. Souhail has always made me feel solidly supported in my performance.
Souhail is asked to perform each spring, in the ethnomusicology concert series at U.C.L.A., with the Near-East Ensemble. He is a musical role model for students, as well as other professionals
Souhail Kaspar was recently involved in a presentation by Al-Funun Al-Arabiya, a newly incorporated organization for the promotion of the Arab and Arab-American arts (see article, page 44 News Circle Magazine, August-September, 1992). The organizations board of directors consists entirely of respected artists in various media.
He is invited every year to teach and perform at the Mendocino Middle-Eastern Music Camp, in California. This week-long cultural event, includes instruction and performances by some of the brightest lights of Middle-Eastern music, such as Jelalledinn Takesh, Faruk Tekbilek, John Bilezikjian, Ergun Tamer, Cengiz Gokcen and Salaheddin Takesh. The camp is prestigious, and highly demanding. Six hours of instruction on various ethnic instruments are given to students, each day. At night, there are lectures on the styles of music from different countries and regions, followed by concerts.
One doesnt necessarily expect an outstanding artist to also be an outstanding instructor. But, this highly regarded Lebanese performing artist is gifted in both areas.
His instructional style can be described in one word- exacting. Hand positions are carefully watched. His sensitive ears are constantly alert for the tone and quality of ones dums and teks, for appropriate accenting, and for timing precision. In his group classes, each student receives so much personal attention, that it feels like private instruction.
Teaching students to pound out a rhythm pattern on a drum is not enough, for Souhail Kaspar. He teaches, and expects his students to know the academics, including considerable amounts of Middle-Eastern music theory. He will often, without warning, ask an individual student to execute any one or several of a number of rhythm patterns in front of peers. Or, the student will be challenged to identify a pattern that he will play with such speed and elaborate ornamentation, that the obvious is obscured (listen for the dums and the accented teks). The student will also be asked at any moment, to discuss the ethnic origins and applications of any given rhythm. And, the student must be ready to explain, in technical terms, how one rhythm pattern differs from another.
There are exercises to develop strength and coordination (developing a strong and precise left-handed tek is especially difficult). Souhail Kaspar teaches the impressive ornamental technique that so often characterizes Middle-Eastern percussion. He also teaches the incredibly complex art of the drum solo.
Many of his students are Western. The challenge of learning to produce the complicated, compelling, rhythm develops, in Westerners, an acquired taste for Middle-Eastern music. This, in turn, often fosters a wish to understand Arab culture. Many Westerners have developed an appreciation for the Middle East based on a love of the music. (Is there a greater international language than the arts?).
The rewards for the students are many. In addition to added depths of understanding of and appreciation for the music, and increased vocabulary, there are practical rewards. After three lessons, some students have been functional enough to accompany a primary instrument, utilizing several different rhythms, for dance and music classes, and friends parties. After seven lessons, the students had learned 20 rhythm patterns, with ornamentation plus variations. These include: beledi (masmoodi al-salir), ayoub, Saidi, malfuf, debke, (Lebanese and Iraqi), al-wahada al-maksoomi, jazaari, masmoodi al-kabir, khaliji, bolero, chifte teli,semai, foks, hatsha, mohazhar, valo, Saudi 6/8, al-wahada al-taweela, and Bedawi. And this is only the beginning of the instruction.
Souhail Kaspar takes genuine pride and pleasure in the progress and accomplishments of his students. He impresses his students with the confidence that with practice and hard work, they can eventually become, if not great artists, at least highly skilled technicians. If the commitment, the motivation, and the self-discipline are there, instruction by virtuoso performing artist can be an intensely enriching and expanding experience.