Bassam Saba, famous supporter of Arab music, dies at 62


This obituary is part of a series on people who died during the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Bassam Saba, a prominent Lebanese musician who promoted Arab music in the West before returning home at the end of his career to take charge of the National Conservatory of Lebanon, died on December 4 in Beirut, Lebanon. He was 62 years old.

The cause was complications from Covid-19, said her daughter, Mariana Saba.

A skilled violinist trained in Western music who also played the nay (an Arabian flute), the Western flute and the lute-like oud, Mr. Saba worked hard to spread the appreciation of Arabic music internationally, helping to launch the New York Arab Orchestra and perform with the Silk Road Ensemble, created by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. His official biography lists many other collaborations, including with Sting, Alicia Keys, Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones as well as with international orchestras.

Mr. Saba has performed with some of the greatest cultural figures in the Arab world, including Fairouz, the famous Lebanese singer, and Marcel Khalife, the songwriter and oud player.

Bassam Saba was born on October 26, 1958 in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, to Antoine Saba, an oil company worker, and Delena Saba, a housewife. He grew up in a family of amateur musicians; his older siblings taught him to play the no.

He left the country as a teenager in 1976, the year following the start of 15 years of civil war in Lebanon, and studied music at the Municipal Conservatory of Gobelins in Paris and at the Gnessin School in Moscow before moving on. install in the United States. He lived in Northport, NY, on Long Island.

Ms Saba, his daughter, said his love for Arabic music was contagious: he introduced art to people whenever he could, once volunteering to teach his high school choir how to sing muwashahat, a genre of Arabic song that dates back centuries.

“I just remember how happy he was to do that,” she said. “He gave so much without expecting anything in return.

Ghada Ghanem, singer, vocal coach and friend of Mr Saba, said he was one of a handful of musicians who sought to elevate the reputation of Arab music in the United States, efforts that led him to co-found the New York Arabic Orchestra in 2007.

that of Mr. Saba final performance, playing the flute in a chamber room by German Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann, was on October 17 at a church in the town of Bsharri, as part of an effort to raise funds for the conservatory and other efforts rescue.

Ms Ghanem said he caught the coronavirus at a conservatory board meeting three days later. “The day after the meeting someone said to her, ‘I tested positive, take care of yourself,’” Ms. Ghanem said.

With his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Diala Jabner.

Ms Ghanem said he was known to be down to earth despite his many musical accolades.

A veranda parking attendant repeatedly thanked Mr. Saba for helping him get a raise. Ms. Ghanem said: “I remember him saying to me, ‘Ghada, please tell him to stop trying to kiss me! You have to help me!'”


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