Ali Jihad Racy was five years old, at his mother's knee, when he fell in love with music. "She played the violin. She used to help me put my fingers on the right spots." A smile rounds his square face. It was from those gentle first lessons that Racy set off on his continuing exploration of traditional Arab music.
Now, the 51-year-old University of California ethnomusicologist is regarded as one of the world's top experts on Arab music, credited with the preservation of centuries-old regional traditions. More than that, he is a composer and musician in his own right. His performances on the 'ud, buzuq and nay throughout the United States and the Arab world have introduced traditional Arab music both to western audiences and to a new generation of Arabs.
The list of Racy's achievements suggests a high-energy personality: advanced degrees in musicology from the University of Illinois; hundreds of performances, including at New York's Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; compositions for films and television, including the 10-part British series The Arabs; and countless articles on Arab music.
Yet just hours before a recent performance in New York, Racy, gray-haired and stocky, is serene. Wearing a muted sport coat, tie, and a crisp ivory shirt, he looks as if he belongs on campus in Los Angeles, rather than on stage.
He talks about his childhood in south Lebanon, where his mother and two uncles were violinists. "In my village there were many musicians. And my father, Salam al-Rasi, was a storyteller, and he had enormous influence on me," he recalls. His father was also a folklorist, author of 10 books on folk literature, much of it collected locally. With his two brothers, Racy performed on Lebanese television and radio for several years.
War dispersed his family to England, the Arabian Peninsula, and the United States. "When I play in the Middle East now, a lot of older musicians who come to listen see that I am preserving traditional music that they feel is endangered in their own countries." Racy's voice is matter-of-fact. "But I also see a lot of the musical tradition still thriving, and younger generations of Arabs, all over the world, do appreciate their musical heritage."
Racy matured as a musician in Beirut, where one of the most valuable lessons he learned, he says, was how, during a concert, improvisation flows from the relationships among the performers. Just as important, he adds, is the rapport between musicians and audience. In Arab concerts, he explains, listeners participate with delighted cries and exclamatory gestures, creating a sort of dialogue, or even communion. "In our tradition, these music connoisseurs were called sammi'ah. Without such individuals to respond, an Arab-music concert loses its soul," Racy says.
His doctoral dissertation looked at the impact of the recording industry on the musical life of turn-of-the-century Cairo, a time when the recording of Arab music began to alter what had been largely an unwritten tradition. "A lot of musical traditions stay alive without musical notation—some, in fact, despite notation," Racy smiles. "Ironically, traditions that have notation seem to have changed more than those that are oral."
A few years ago Racy and his wife, Barbara, a dance ethnologist, clinical psychologist and photographer, recorded music and folkloric traditions in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, at the invitation of the Arab Gulf States Folklore Center in Doha. His work included research into a traditional healing ritual that uses music and dance.
That led Racy to his current examination of the ways music is used to create and sustain altered states of consciousness, or ecstasy. For the last few years, he has been at work on a book about the art of tarab, which deals with the emotional effect of music.
Racy's subdued manner becomes animated when he turns to his instruments. He cradles them like children. Rising from his seat, he lifts his honey-colored buzuq off the bed and clasps it to his heart. His strong fingers hover over the instrument's taut steel strings and, as he strums, the rich sound fills the room. Resonant chords hang for a timeless moment before they fade.
"I perform two particular music traditions," Racy says. "One is the rural folk music I learned as a child—poetry singing and folk instruments played at weddings. And the other is the urban music one finds in the eastern Arab world."
In composition and performance, Racy also enjoys fusing the traditional Arab sound with other musical traditions through concerts and recordings with groups from diverse traditions. Recently, the distinguished Kronos Quartet, a Grammy-winning experimental ensemble, premiered Racy's "Zaman Suite," which he wrote specifically for Kronos based on the ageless traditions he knows so well. "It's amazing how these world blends are bringing vitality to the music scene," Racy says. "I have never recorded with such a variety of musicians—jazz artists, rock groups!—as I have in the last few years."
All this cross-pollination indicates to Racy a broadening of American musical taste. "We're living in a very interesting and lively time for all music," he says.
Hours later, night has fallen and a run-down church off Washington Square is filling with aficionados who have come to hear Racy perform with Simon Shaheen and Mansour Ajami, both also noted Arab musicians. Taking the stage, Racy sheds his sedate professorial air like an old skin; he even appears taller, more imposing, as if he has expanded physically. No longer shy and mild-mannered, Racy the performer radiates, captivating his audience and sweeping it with him on his musical journey. It is a journey he began a long time before this night, and which he will continue long after we have all gone home.
Susan T. Rivers is the publisher ofMaghreb Report, a newsletter about North Africa. She wishes to thank Mansour Ajami for his assistance with this article.