Shaheen, Simon (1955–)

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Shaheen, Simon

An internationally known virtuosic musician, composer, and teacher with wide-ranging interests, Simon Shaheen is probably the most famous and accomplished Arab-American musician of the twentieth century.


Shaheen (also Shahin) was born to a Christian Palestinian musical family in Tarshiha, in Israel's northern Galilee region in 1955. The family moved to Haifa in 1957. Simon's father, Hikmat Shaheen, was an accomplished composer, performer, and teacher, whose musical work profoundly influenced the young Simon. Hikmat's children learned to play instruments early in their lives. At the age of five, Simon started playing the ud (also oud; English: lute) and then violin along with his brothers Najib and William, whose musical lives remain intertwined.

As a young man, he attended the Academy of Music in Jerusalem where, in 1978, he earned degrees in Arabic literature and musical performance, focused not only on Arab musical traditions but also those of the West. He became a virtuosic violin player in both arenas. He was appointed to teach in the Academy and then, in 1980, went to New York for doctoral study in music performance and education at the Manhattan School of Music and at Columbia University. New York has been Shaheen's base ever since.

In New York in 1982, Shaheen established the Near East Ensemble, which he continues to lead, composed of some of the best musicians from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine who are currently residents of New York. Formed along the lines of the larger instrumental ensembles that became popular in the Middle East in the mid-twentieth century—consisting of multiple violins, sometimes cellos and string basses, and running to ten to twenty members—the group played classical Arab music and emerging classics from the twentieth-century Arab world. Shaheen also wrote his own compositions for himself and the group.

A voracious musician, Shaheen pursued interests beyond Arab music, contributing to soundtracks for The Sheltering Sky and Malcolm X, and the entire score for the United Nations-sponsored documentary For Everyone Everywhere. He established a second ensemble, Qantara, designed to draw jazz, Latin American, Western, and Arab classical musicians into the domain of Arab music. His commercial recordings bespeak his eclectic interests, including a duo performance with vina player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (Saltanah, Water Lily Acoustics, 1997) and Blue Flame (ARK21, 2001), perhaps Qantara's most successful work that garnered eleven Grammy nominations.

In addition to concerts, Shaheen also offered private lessons and, eventually, lectures, lecture-demonstrations, and classes about Arab music. His influence and effectiveness within the larger community grew steadily. Working in the New York Arab American community, Shaheen created New York's Mahrajan al-Fann (Festival of [Arab] Arts), held annually since 1994.

In 1996 Shaheen established the Arab Music Retreat, which is held for one week in August in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and is an annual event that remains ongoing. Working with long-time friends and colleagues Dr. Ali Jihad Racy (a professor of ethnomusicology and a well-known musician and composer at the University of California, Los Angeles) and Dr. George Sawa (an award-winning artist and teacher in Toronto, Canada), Shaheen conceived a teaching and performing experience that would select and encourage emerging students of Arab music through intensive study with established and expert artists. This event, now much a part of the Arab musical landscape, in fact draws many accomplished professionals together as well, who learn from each other and teach the less-experienced members.


Without fail, Shaheen identifies his father, Hikmat, as his most important influence. While acknowledging the value of his academic degrees, Shaheen says his real education was working with his father.


Name: Simon Shaheen

Birth: 1955, Tarshiha, Galilee, Israel

Family: Single

Nationality: Palestinian; American citizen

Education: Private music lessons with father Hikmat Shaheen; B.A. (Arabic literature and musical performance), Academy of Music in Jerusalem, 1978; graduate study, Manhattan College of Music, Columbia University


  • 1980: Immigrates to New York City
  • 1982: Founds the Near East Ensemble
  • 1994: Receives National Heritage Award, National Endowment for the Arts, Washington D.C.
  • 1994: Founds the annual Mahrajan al-Fann (Festival of Arts) in New York
  • 1996: Founds the Arab Music Retreat
  • 1999: Founds Qantara

The virtuosity he developed in both European and Arab classical music clearly informs much of his work. More than simply applying virtuosic gestures, Shaheen's understanding of the theoretical bases of the two systems and his extensive repertoire allow him to tack back and forth between the systems and to create an informed and intelligent fusion of the two that is musically interesting and well worth attention.

The results of his efforts within broader communities, with the Mahrajan al-Fann in New York, the Retreat in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and his willingness to work on the projects of others, have already rippled throughout American society in unpredictable ways. Shaheen has modeled self-respecting artistic accomplishment for evergrowing American audiences.


Shaheen attained world recognition relatively early in his career with invitations to perform in highly visible venues including Carnegie Hall, the Cairo Opera House, and the Palais des Arts in Belgium. Qantara has appeared at two World of Music, Arts & Dance (WOMAD) festivals, the Newport Jazz Festival, the Monterrey Jazz Festival, and many others worldwide. In 2000, a group led by Shaheen backed up Sting and Cheb Mami at the Grammy Awards, and Qantara opened for Sting at a Jones Beach, California, performance. Major grants have supported some of his work. In 1994, he won the prestigious National Heritage Award from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.


It is not too much to claim that North American understanding of Arab music proceeds from the concerts and teaching of Simon Shaheen, his colleagues Ali Jihad Racy and George Sawa, and their students. Shaheen's prodigious work within the North American community in concert halls, at music festivals, at college campuses, and within his community have established the musical style and repertory of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt as the model of Arab music familiar, to the extent that any Arab music is familiar, to the ears of American listeners. Students in college Middle Eastern music ensembles play the repertoire that he and his colleagues have advanced and Shaheen himself, through his personal appearances and recordings, serves as a model of virtuosity and musical accomplishment in the domain of Arab music.

Part of this legacy derives from Shaheen's talent and the visibility he and his ensembles have attained. Another part rises from his consummate skill as a teacher and his devotion to the musical enterprise. He has paid close attention to students at many levels of experience and has given generously of his time and skill, regardless of the prestige of the venue.

His work beyond the domain of Arab music—in particular his infusions of Arab music into syncretic styles—may be less well recognized as such, which will be unfair to Shaheen and unfortunate for musical culture if it persists in this way. For Shaheen's creativity, personal learning, and musical curiosity have ranged widely, and they advance musical thinking and virtuosity internationally in a way that merits continued attention.

Working as he has in an environment that can be inhospitable to Arabs, Shaheen's teaching and other educational efforts have helped sustain Arab art in a foreign land and encourage Arab and non-Arab artists to draw from its resources. The results of this effort will outlive Shaheen and form an important aspect of his legacy, as well.


Campbell, Kay Hardy. "A Heritage without Boundaries." Saudi Aramco World Magazine, May/June 1996. Available from

Shaheen, Simon. "Beyond the Performance." In Images of Enchantment: Visual and Performing Arts of the Middle East (Cairo, Egypt 1998).

                                         Virginia Danielson


Think with your voice when you listen to Arab music. It has a linear quality like the voice. Concentrate on its melodies and listen to how they interact with the rhythm. Arab music is characterized by the use of quarter-tones, which lie between the half-steps of western music. They have a quality that you may not be able to hear at first. Don't think of them as out-of-tune notes. They are deliberate. The more you listen, the more you will begin to hear them and come to love them, for it is the quarter-tones which distinguish many beautiful maqams [melodic modes] in Arabic music.