New York Arabic Orchestra stops in Detroit this weekend

The New York Arabic Orchestra is coming into town this week, but their colorful musical performance will be far from what you might expect when you think of an “orchestra.”

Invited by the Arab American National Museum, which is the only one of its kind in the country, the New York Arabic Orchestra will be playing for the gala performance at the Max M. Fisher Music Center on Saturday October 27 at 8pm. Guest vocalists for this event include classically trained lyric soprano Ghada Ghanem and Naji Youssef, a Lebanese jabali tenor in the style of Wadi Assafi. The New York Arabic Orchestra was co-founded by Bassam Saba, a world renowned multi-instrumentalist virtuoso, conductor and teacher of Arabic music; and April Centrone, the orchestra’s lead percussionist.

The New York Arabic Orchestra presents selections of classical, contemporary and popular Arabic vocal music of Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. The NYAO has performed at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Contributing to the unique, intricate sounds of this orchestra’s performance are unique instruments such as the oud (Arabic lute), nay (Arabic reed flute), the qanun (Arabic zither), Arabic percussion, strings, woodwinds and chorus.

“We have the oud,” says Centrone, “It’s an 11-string lute, and it’s considered the grandfather—the first lute that gave way to the European lute and eventually the modern guitar. It’s fretless, so you need to spend time learning the different hand positions.”

The orchestra also features the nay, which is one of the oldest instruments known. “It’s a form of the flute,” Centrone says. “ You can finding drawings on the pyramid walls from more than 6,000 years ago. It’s a very simple reed instrument, but not so simple to play.”

The orchestra uses traditional violins, but players tune them GDGD. “It better accomplishes the music, the quarter-tones and the styles and forms,” says Centrone. The percussion also differs from most Western orchestral arrangements in its musicality and sensitivity. Feathery strokes grow to resounding beats in a dynamic range.

“One of the things that makes our job harder—not that it’s hard work, but it takes more time and more effort—is that we can’t just sit in front of sheet music and that’s it. You can invite Yo-Yo Ma, and he would need to spend a few months at least just getting the basics down of what is not written in the sheet music,” Centrone says. “We read western notation but what’s not written there is the ornamentation.”

While Centrone played percussion her whole life and was exposed to different kinds of music, she didn’t encounter traditional Arabic music until much later. “I always felt like I was subconsciously searching for something else. When I discovered this, I just fell in love. It felt like a home I never knew I had,” she says. Since then, she co-founded the New York Arabic Orchestra and works to promote this kind of music all over the world.

If you’re interested in attending, you can find more information at their website or at


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