Christmas carols, Arabic instruments

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Anne Azéma , left, artistic director of The Boston Camerata , leads the rehearsal of "The Play of Daniel" at Trinity Church.

By Zoë Madonna Globe Staff 

In late 2002, the Boston Camerata was scheduled to tour a program of medieval Spanish music, “Cantigas de Santa Maria.” Artistic director Joel Cohen had already made a recording of the program with the Camerata’s sister ensemble Camerata Mediterranea and a Moroccan ensemble, Abdelkrim Raïs Andalusian Orchestra of Fès. But a few short weeks before the tour, disaster struck.

“It was right after 9/11, and our collaborators could not get their visas,” explained soprano Anne Azéma, a member of the Camerata at the time and its artistic director now. “Except for the director. We could never figure out why.”


With time running out, the Camerata looked in its own backyard and found Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble, headed by an energetic young percussionist named Karim Nagi. That stroke of fortune led to a longstanding partnership. Since that emergency, the two ensembles have been regular collaborators on multiple programs, including “Mediterranean Christmas,” which will be performed in the Boston area this December.

Nagi came to the United States from his native Egypt in junior high, and lived with his family in Brookline. He worked in several glittery Newbury Street boutiques once owned by his mother, Laila Kolodny, before turning his attention to music. He organized the monthly Arabesque Mondays series at Harvard Square’s Club Passim, bringing in artists from all over the Arab world and having his local musicians act as their backing band. “[Passim] really made the connection for people that, yes, folk music, they know it as an American art form but folk music is all over the world,” said Nagi in a telephone interview.

Nagi was already neck deep in music, but the events of Sept. 11 gave his music a new impetus. “The political climate in the United States gave me new motivation to create outreach for people, to use Arabic music and dance as a way to help Americans get comfortable with people from the Muslim world,” he explained. “A way for that to be the cultural aspect of our people and not only the political fixation that the news media is focused on.”

He started making a name for himself teaching workshops on Arabic music and dance at high schools and colleges all over New England. An October 2002 Globe article on Nagi’s journey brought him to the Camerata’s attention. Nagi had never heard of the Boston Camerata before the ensemble contacted him, and he and Azéma estimated that the two groups met for the first time only a week before embarking on tour.

For the Mediterranean Christmas program, Nagi plays the Arabic tambourine called the riqq and various types of frame drums. Other Sharq musicians play the the end-blown reed flute called the nay, and the lute’s ancestor, the oud. “They’re all still played today in the Arab world, but they also have a lineage to medieval times,” he said.


But Mediterranean Christmas isn’t only medieval; in fact, it’s one of the most culturally and temporally diverse programs in the Camerata’s repertoire. Some of the 13th-century Spanish cantigas will be performed, being seasonally appropriate songs of praise to the Virgin Mary. Other sources include Spanish, Italian, Sephardic Jewish, Moroccan, French, and Lebanese music. If the Mediterranean Sea touches it, it’s fair game.

For Azéma, whose first encounter with the Camerata was an early version of this program, there is great beauty to be found in the parallels and connections in the repertoire. “Those are powerful ideas coming from Christianity, of course, but they have their echoes in all those cultures,” she said. “You do connect very deeply with those everlasting themes, and you realize that you’re embarked on that same journey, so to speak, musically, poetically, and perhaps in other ways, that to each is their own.”


Dec. 1, Follen Church, Lexington, 8 p.m. Repeats Dec. 2 at First Lutheran Church, Boston, and Dec. 3 at First Parish Church of Newbury, Newbury.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at
Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.