Interview answers for a thesis project by Ribal El Kallab

A couple weeks ago I was approached by Lebanese cellist, Ribal El Kallab, to answer some questions for a thesis project on Arabic music that he is working on. I’ve been given permission to post his questions and my responses. If you are interested in my general background in music from the Arabic and Middle Eastern world, please visit this link.

For some information on the usage of cello in Arabic music, please view my blog post Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: The Cello in Arabic Orchestras.

*image credit: Jon Silpayamanant performing with Ahel El Nagam at Road to Morocco in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by


1) At what age have you started learning the Cello?

I started playing the cello when I was 6.


2) Who was your Professor from the Start? (Local or foreign Teacher)

My first private lesson teacher was Debbie Caruso, a member of the Louisville Orchestra.


3) How did you learn Arabic Music on the Cello?

I first started learning Arabic Music from recordings and learning by ear. Eventually I started taking workshops in Arabic Percussion and then starting finding sheet music so I could learn more.


4) Was it easy for you to learn Arabic music (playing quarter tones) why? or what was the difficulties

It was fairly easy to pick up playing the quarter tones. By the time I graduated from music school, I was already playing works by Western Composers that used microtones (like Harry Partch), and I grew up listening to Thai Music which is a completely different scale system than Western or Arabic Music. It was easy to adapt. What was difficult was figuring out fingerings for the maqamat when I first learned–especially before I learned about Arabic tuning for stringed instruments.


5) Who are you inspired by (singers/musicians/instrumentalists) when you play Arabic music on cello? Why?

I’m always inspired by Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, and Mohamed Abdel Wahab. They are the masters. Lately I’ve discovered cellist, Emad Ashour, and love the ease of his playing and how fluid and concise his technique is!


6) Do you have the same feelings when you play western music /Arabic Music? What’s the difference? Do you prefer one over the other?

No, I don’t. I’m not really sure I can really describe the difference, but no two musical systems feel the same to me. They all have their own wonderful way of expressing emotions and moods. I can’t say that I prefer any one over the other.


7) Is it for you easy to improvise (Taqasim) on the Cello?

At first, no it wasn’t. Even though I had already been improvising on the cello for more than ten years when I started playing Arabic Music, I wasn’t familiar enough with maqamat and how they worked. I had to learn the vocabulary and paths of the different maqamat, and then needed to get more comfortable with using good fingerings for them too. I’m much better now than I was when I first started playing Arabic Music 14 years ago, but I’m still learning!


8) What do you think of the Cello role in Arabic music? Is it important? Or it doesn’t have any feature role?

I think the cello helps fill out the role of the string section in Arabic Music–at least for the larger orchestras. It might not be as necessary for Takht ensembles, but having the cellos double the violins/violas at the lower octave gives us that distinctive full string sound we’re so familiar with in firqat. And with cellists like Emad Ashour, we now see that the cello can play a solo role in Arabic Music too!


9) Is it possible to play all the Maqamat on the Cello?

Yes. Since the cello is unfretted, all the Maqamat can be played on the cello very easily.


10) Why do you think there was no methods until now written for the Arabic Cello.

I think that like a lot of non-Western music, much of this music used to be taught aurally and by ear. I think now that we have larger Arabic Orchestras and with Arabic Music starting to be taught in Universities, it will become more common to have method books.


11) Any Arabic Composer you like to play his melodies on the Cello? Why?

Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Zakariya Ahmad, and Abdel Halim Hafez. They wrote some of the most beautiful and iconic Arabic Music melodies!


12) Which Arabic music Arranger you prefer playing  his arrangements written specifically for the Cello? Why you like it?

Most of the arrangements and sheet music I’ve encountered are written in Treble Clef, so not typically written for cello range. I’m not familiar enough with those who arrange traditional melodies for the cello. There are, however, some modern Arabic Music composers that have written specifically for cello and other string instruments that I enjoy, such as Ali Jihad Racy and Gamal Abdel-Rahim. I also love some of the arrangements that Rahim AlHaj has on his latest CD “Letters from Iraq.”


13) living in Europe, the United States, or anywhere outside the Arab world, is oriental cello a better source of income than playing western music?

Unfortunately, I would have to say no at this point. While it is much better now than it was, say, ten years ago. Most of the better paying, and better funded, musical opportunities in the US and Europe is still dominated by Western Classical and Pop.