“Mouraba’ Dance” Celebrates My Lebanese Heritage 

This piece is cleverly written, combining elements of traditional Arabic Maqamat, or scales, and Western classical writing

By Noémie Chemali | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

As a first-generation French Lebanese American, I began playing this piece as a part of a project that was important to me following a devastating explosion in August 2020 in the seaport of Beirut (the Lebanese capital), which destroyed my family’s home and injured many friends. In 2020, I set out on a mission to discover works for solo viola and chamber music by Lebanese composers to provide solidarity during this tumultuous time. I also wanted to record these works and perform them with the intention of raising funds for the rebuilding of Beirut. A few months later, I met Wajdi Abou Diab, who at the time was a composition professor at the Beirut Conservatory, and he wrote the Mouraba’ Dance for me.

Player: Violinist Noémie Chemali studied at McGill, Mercer, and the Juilliard School and spent her summers at such festivals as the Music Academy of the West and Orford Musique. She co-founded the Hildegard Project, which brings music written by women to women’s shelters, and Music@Daybreak, which brings music to homeless shelters. Her debut album, Opus 961, was released in January 2024.
Instrument: A viola by Denis Cormier
Strings: Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Gold
Title of Work Being Studied: Mouraba’ Dance
Composer: Wajdi Abou Diab
Date Composed: 2020
Name of edition studied: Own edition 

I recently played it at the launch of my debut album, Opus 961, at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York City.


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This piece is so cleverly written—it combines elements of traditional Arabic Maqamat, or scales, and Western classical writing. The combination is like nothing I have ever heard or played before! It has really reshaped the way I think about music and has opened my eyes to other modes of musical expression. I am now studying Arabic music to learn how to play in this style so that I may someday, too, write music with this blend of modes!

There are several extended techniques required to play Mouraba’ Dance. The viola in this piece is tuned like the ancient Arabic instrument the rababa. From bottom to top, the strings are tuned CGCG. This makes the instrument sound much more open and resonant. Wajdi is very creative with imitating the rababa with the bow as well—sections where I move my bow in a circular motion around the sounding point imitate the breathiness of the instrument. Wajdi composes with Maqamat, which often have quarter tones that sit between our Western half steps. This gives the piece a very traditional Arabic feel, though it’s fully notated.


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Mouraba’ Dance is very rhythmic and dance-like, which appeals to our human instinct to groove! Mouraba’ refers to the rhythmic pattern of the music, which is the equivalent of our western 13/4. In Arabic mythology, this rhythm was used to make the camels dance!

Because of my background, I find it difficult to “fit in.” This repertoire is so meaningful to me because it’s a mix of both my cultures, expressed through the universal language of music. I very much enjoyed learning about Arabic music and meeting Lebanese composers throughout the world who passionately embraced the project.

If you learn this work and, like me, come from a classical background, do your homework and listen to some of the great oud players for inspiration on phrasing. Practice Maqamat like you would practice scales. I think training my ear to hear and play microtones in tune was the most difficult thing about this piece. I read a few books, including Inside Arabic Music by Johnny Farraj and Sami Abu Shumays, which helped me understand this system, and also watched Shumays’ YouTube videos.

As a result of this journey discovering music, I was able to form Ensemble Phoenicia, a contemporary music ensemble specializing in music by Middle Eastern composers. I would absolutely recommend this piece to my fellow string players, especially those who are interested in other types of music and opening their ears to new tonalities and new modalities of expression. It has really enriched my perception of music as a whole.