After the highly successful Christmas Concert that I participated in over four months ago, the choir was shifted around a little, started going by its official name of “Dozan wa Awtar” which I had never heard of before until that point, and started practicing much harder songs. This weekend, our hard work paid off with the Easter concert held at a local Maronite parish, St. Charbel’s church, located a few miles outside of town and, interestingly enough, under large-scale construction.

If we hadn't had a tarp over the huge hole of the front door, the performance nights would have been MUCH colder

If we hadn’t had a tarp over the huge hole of the front door, the performance nights would have been MUCH colder

Shireen explained to us that there were two reasons why we were holding the concert in this particular parish. For one, she was happy to help the new church by making a large percentage of the proceeds going to fund the construction of their new building, and even happier that we could “show off” the half-made building to the audience members so that they could see what their money was going to. But, on a more negative note, other ministers and priests that had worked with Shireen before turned down the choir from performing in their churches because of one particular piece: Zahret al-Mada’in.

The name of the song means, “Flower of the Cities” and it was composed by a Lebanese woman named Fairuz back in the 1970’s. Fairuz is a Christian, and meant her song to be a wistful ballad of love, compassion, and all religions coming together in the holy city of Jerusalem, or Al-Quds as it’s known in Arabic. The song came to be one of the most famous pieces in the Arab world, and Fairuz’s beautiful voice and message of an end to violence to the Holy Land will get a cheer from any Arab audience it’s played for. However, this particular arrangement of the piece by Edouard Toriguian was meant to expand upon Fairuz’s theme and be like a walk down the street in Jerusalem, hearing Christian and Muslim prayers in Syriac, Greek, Armenian, Latin and Arabic. This version also contains the Takbiir as the final words; known more specifically to the Western world as “Allahu Akbar,” God is the Greatest. Because this phrase has been so strongly associated with Islam for so long, every other minister that Shireen spoke to apologized and said they couldn’t afford to risk alienating their congregations by using a phrase that, for some Arab Christians, is offensive. So, St. Charbel’s became our venue of choice.

The church itself, when we first practiced inside of it a few days before the concerts, came as a little bit of a shock. Shireen had already told us that “it’s not quite done yet,” but when I first saw a pile of concrete covered in scaffolding, I realized what she really meant was, “it’s a construction site.” Once we got inside though, most of us found the cool concrete walls, the huge uncovered windows and the chirping of the birds flying around us quite pleasant and we agreed that this would be a unique and special place to perform. A smaller chapel connects to the half-built church by means of an underground passageway, so we knew that if the weather turned out to be unfriendly towards us, we could always relocate if we had to.

Our entire concert repertoire contained only one song in English, but neither was Arabic the primary language; Zahret al-Madain was the only piece. Out of the five other songs, three of them were in Latin, one in Spanish, and the one in the video here, “Oremus,” was simply humming and vocalizing, representing the motion of the planets. We also had a special guest soloist performing with us, a young Jordanian opera starlet named Dima Bawab who studied in Paris. Between our songs and Dima’s two solo pieces, we had an excellent show lined up for our guests. I dutifully sold my tickets to my colleagues at both the Christian academy and at EGT, and on Wednesday, my fellow choristers arrived early to put the finishing on touches on things before our guests started arriving.

The church was decorated with white silk draperies, artfully draped along the bare concrete columns and walls and twisted with icicle light cords. Red carpeting now covered the floor, hiding the bare gravel. And, best of all, dozens of tiny candles in little bags glowed from niches all over the room. On a more practical note, the still-chilly Jordanian nights were subdued by a dozen spindly “mushroom heaters” which are commonly used for outdoor functions here (we also had told guests to dress warmly, just in case). Shireen ran us through a few of our pieces up there in the chilly air as the gas heaters slowly expanded their field of warmth, and our vocal cords crackled into usability with some difficulty, but as the guests were already arriving early, we adjourned to the basement chapel area to continue with the warm ups.

Dozan wa Awtar in the church's trancept, ready to start!

Dozan wa Awtar in the church’s trancept, ready to start!

Both nights of concerts went great, with an almost-full to capacity turnout at each, except for Jeff, Aaron, and Lillie who got lost and couldn’t find the place and arrived late. I didn’t blame them though, as for some completely unfathomable reason, the combination English/Arabic signpost off the highway that showed which road to turn onto had been removed and replaced with an Arabic-only sign instead; my group of carpooling choir members had gotten lost as well for a few minutes. Both nights received standing ovations and of course, the loud cheers for Zahret al-Madain. The chief priest was in attendance both nights and he was so pleased with our rendition that he made sure that we did encores of the second half of the piece, including the takbiir. After the concert on Thursday night, most of the choir group headed back into Amman together to have a celebratory dinner together at an art gallery/bar/restaurant in Jebel Webde named “Canvas,” Shireen came out with us too and as the night went on we even launched into several of our songs. The employees of Canvas seemed unperturbed, which makes them a lot more friendly in my book than the stick-in-the-mud management of the Marriott that had told us we weren’t allowed to sing.

Our director is the best!

Our director is the best!

Shireen designed our last concert for Friday afternoon to be a special performance, more suited for families and children. Bringing children to choir music is one of her specific goals, and here in the Arab world where organized choral music is still relatively unknown, it’s a particularly important goal. It’s weird to think about, but Dozan wa Awtar is kind of the unofficial “national” choir for Jordan – it’s one of the oldest (if not the most) at 7 years old, and is certainly the best organized. In the hour leading up to the performance, Shireen approached myself and Hala, an alto, and asked us for a special task. As two “theatrically-minded” people in the choir, would we mind doing some fun rhythm games with the kids during our upbeat English piece, “Turn the World Around”? Of course, the thought of dancing about like a nutcase and making silly faces in front of children was completely within my abilities, so I agreed on the spot.

The final concert itself was much more sparsely attended, probably because it was billed as a children’s concert and it was at 2 PM instead of 8. Shireen brought the little ones to the front of the audience and seated them on the floor, and did her hardest to engage them with questions and fun exercises, like defining how the choir was separated into parts, which she had us sing separately. (I think a little boy in the corner started crying with fear when the basses went off; why am I not surprised.) Shireen introduced Hala and myself before “Turn the World Around,” and explained to the audience everything that we did, everyone else should mimic. It was our job, then, to come up with hand gestures that the kids could emulate, without making them totally confused. I would do the first half of each measure, and Hala the second. Now, the trick to this piece is that it’s in 5/4 time, which makes division difficult, especially when you can’t see the conductor behind you. Or at least that’s the excuse I’m sticking to, as to why Hala looked over at me a few times with the, “what are you doing??” look on her face. Needless to say, the kids seemed to really get a kick out of the tall goofy guy making goofy faces and patting himself on the head, or the belly, or his cheeks, or sides, or just clapping and grinning. Afterwards, Hala commented, “you did great out there with them, but did you notice how near the end of the song, all your kids had completely blanks look on their faces?” I replied sheepishly, “well, Shireen did say do whatever we did, so they were probably just copying the blank look on my face!” I wish there were some pictures to show of this performance, but perhaps someone in the audience recorded that particular bit. Or, frankly, maybe I wish it wasn’t recorded! In any case, the second show was filmed by Jordanian television stations to be replayed on Easter itself, just like with the Christmas concert. Of course, since we still haven’t gotten our DVDs from that show either, my confidence in their ability to do that before I leave the country is rapidly waning.

We’ve got the next 2 weeks off from practicing, which is a little bit of a relief because in those last weeks before the concerts, we were getting together every night which put a real damper on other activities, and I actually think that some of us got sick from it; there was a pretty nasty bug that took out a lot of us, including myself, in the last few days. I only was just barely well enough to sing on the first night, and that was after downing mugs of green tea and lemon every day during class. After these two weeks of rest, though, we have an even bigger event before us – the concert of national choirs from all over the Middle East, coming together in Damascus, Syria for one big event. It’ll be my first journey out of Jordan, and I’m really excited for it – how often does an American get the chance to sing with an ensemble of national Arabic choirs?

In other news, now that the concerts are over and I don’t need to worry about looking entirely presentable, I’m wondering if it’s about time to brave the possibly horrifying world of Jordanian barbers. I’ve heard plenty of pessimistic stories about them from friends and colleagues, and that was why I didn’t want to venture into a shop before I had publicly presented my woolly, sheepdog-like self. Sometime within the next couple days, though, I’ll go under the knife and insha’allah won’t come out bald, or worse, with scissors stuck in my head.

(Note: if the videos don’t work and you’re using Firefox, try using Internet Explorer instead. This is a known flash glitch in Firefox 2 and 3.)

(Update October 31, 2016 – replaced old Facebook embed code with whatever they’re currently using. I’m sure they’ll change it without telling me in another year or two. Ugh)