Ethnomusicologist George Sawa delivers the Lise Waxer Memorial Lecture

Arabic music master, historian and performer George Sawa is the featured speaker for the 2010 Lise Waxer Memorial Lecture hosted by the Graduate Program in Music, Faculty of Fine Arts. He will give an illustrated talk on the rhythms, instruments, melodic traditions and structures of Egyptian music and dance.

Titled “Three Generations of Arabic Qanuns (Psalteries): Construction, Tuning and Performance Practice”, Sawa’s talk is based on his latest publication, Egyptian Music Appreciation & Practice for Bellydancers. His presentation takes place today at 5:30pm in the Sterling Beckwith Studio, 235 Accolade East Building on York University’s Keele campus. Admission is free and all are welcome.

Right: George Sawa

A qanun is a psaltery (stringed musical instrument of the harp or zither family) with a right-angled trapezoidal shape and 26 sets of triple strings. The instrument underwent a transformation in the early 20th century when it was modified with levels to allow the player to perform western-inspired sharps, flats and quarter tones. Sawa trained in both the old and new styles of playing, but went to great lengths to purchase and restore an earlier period style instrument. He believes he may be the sole remaining player who owns and performs with an instrument of this kind.

Egyptian Music Appreciation & Practice for Bellydancers is a two-CD, four-chapter book combo that explains the concepts, melodies, instruments and general forms of traditional Egyptian music. While Sawa wrote the guide to help dancers and choreographers deepen their understanding of this art form, his lecture is aimed at a general audience, bringing an ancient musical tradition to contemporary listeners.

Sawa was born in Alexandria, Egypt, where he studied voice, theory, and qanun. Emigrating to Canada in 1970, he earned a doctorate in historical Arabic musicology and has taught medieval, modern, and religious music of the Middle East at the University of Toronto and York University. He held the Noor Visiting Professorship at York 2006-2007.

Sawa’s publications include the seminal study Music Performance Practice in the Early cAbbasid Era, 132-320 AH/750-932 AD, Theories of Rhythms in Arabic Writings, 750-950 AD and some 40 articles on Arabic music history.  Parallel to his scholarly work, he is acclaimed performer and recording artist with concert credits on three continents. He is co-founder and director of the Toronto-based Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble, dedicated to the performance of traditional Arabic repertoire, folk melodies and classical dance music. The ensemble has appeared in venues across Canada, the USA and Europe and has been featured in numerous CBC broadcasts.  Its recordings include The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun Volumes 1 & 2, the first of which received a Juno nomination in 2009.

Sawa is the recipient of the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture for his research in Arabic music history, and was recently honoured with the award of excellence in the arts and culture category by the Canadian Arab Federation.

The Lise Waxer Memorial Lecture commemorates musician, ethnomusicologist, author and educator Lise Aerinne Waxer, an alumna of York’s music program who died in 2002. Waxer’s work in ethnomusicology included producing and hosting one of Toronto’s first world music radio programs on CIUT 89.5 FM and conducting fieldwork on salsa music in Cali, Colombia.

She was the editor of two books: Situating Salsa: Global Markets and Local Meaning in Latin Popular Music (Routledge 2002) and the authour of The City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves, and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), which received the 2003 Alan P. Merriam Prize and the 2003 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for popular music. At the time of her death, Waxer was a faculty member in the Music Department at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Waxer’s family, friends and colleagues established the Lise Waxer Memorial Lecture at York University to celebrate her love of the music of all cultures and her joy in sharing that passion with others. Previous speakers in the series include Caribbean music icon Desmond Waithe; Canadian jazz artist Jane Bunnett; York music Professor Michael Marcuzzi; T.M. Scruggs, professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Iowa; and Gage Averill, then Chair of the Music Department and director of the Program in Ethnomusicology at New York University