Demiana Ibrahim ’24 has been playing the violin since she was five years old. “Since I began learning, I’ve only fallen more and more in love with the craft and have realized how special music-making is to me,” she says. “Looking back, it feels like destiny!”
Now, Ibrahim is combining her appreciation of the violin with another childhood favorite. This summer, she is conducting Scripps-sponsored research into mid-20th century Egyptian classical music. The genre’s distinct features include long and winding songs, orchestral accompaniment, and repetition of particularly enjoyable segments, all of which create “an almost meditative listening experience,” Ibrahim explains.
“Growing up as a first-generation Egyptian American, the most beloved Egyptian musicians’ music always filled our home,” she says. “I’ve always had a deep attachment to it but never had the opportunity to explore it further. I believe mid-20th century Egyptian music is so special and beautiful, and I wanted to find a way to help it reach a broader audience.”
Ibrahim also wanted to delve more deeply into the music itself, “both technically, on the violin, and theoretically, through my research.” Now that she’s halfway through her degree at Scripps, Ibrahim feels that she’s equipped with the technical skills and theoretical language needed to study this genre of music in the detail it deserves.
By the end of the project, she hopes to have a more comprehensive understanding of how to play the violin in a “distinctly ‘Egyptian’ style,” in addition to finding form patterns within different songs. Along with the frequent use of slides and ornamentation, Ibrahim explains, one of the most distinguishing elements of the Egyptian style of music is the use of quarter tones—notes that do not exist in the Western musical canon and may sound out of tune to musicians trained in the Western classical tradition. “In reality, these tones are precise and intentional notes that can sometimes add a nostalgic quality to the music,” she says.
Ibrahim is also seeking new connections between musical elements of the East and West, and to better understand how mid-20th century Egyptian classical music contributed to the development of all classical Arabic music. Broadly speaking, there is a great deal of overlap between Egyptian and Arabic styles—not just in music, but in movies and television shows—since Egypt serves as a major media center for the Middle East.
In particular, Ibrahim is studying three Egyptian musical superstars whose composition techniques have affected all aspiring musicians in the Arabic-speaking world. She’s hoping to trace the ways in which they’ve inspired Western musicians as well.
“Arabic music has been interchanging with European music at least since the Crusades in the 12th century! And yet, contemporary Arabic music, and especially Egyptian music, is unfamiliar to many European and American classical musicians,” says Rachel Huang, a senior lecturer in music at Scripps and Ibrahim’s research advisor. “Enter Demiana, a skilled classical musician in the Euro-American classical tradition, and also deeply, meaningfully involved with the music of her family’s heritage. What a wonderful agent of interaction she can be, bringing a taste of Egypt’s complex, subtle and beautiful traditional music to a wider audience.”
Ibrahim’s project is supported by the Mellon Interdisciplinary Humanities Initiative (MIHI) Summer Fellowship, awarded to students pursuing interdisciplinary, faculty-mentored summer research in the humanities. Ibrahim has used the funding from the award to purchase professional recording equipment and to focus entirely on her summer research, which she describes as a “unique situation” for a researcher at the undergraduate level.
“The MIHI has helped immensely with this project, as the recording equipment included in my funding will allow me to produce professional-level recording sound quality,” Ibrahim explains. She also lauds the mentorship she’s received from Huang as “amazing,” adding: “I’m able to work closely with a trusted professor that can help me unpack discoveries and produce a refined quality of work.”
Most importantly, the equipment she purchased with the MIHI Fellowship funds will help Ibrahim share her recordings with a wider audience on music streaming platforms.
“The songs that I am recreating are iconic melodies that have remained popular in Egypt for more than 70 years, and for good reason,” she says. “I hope my recordings will be a stepping stone to exploring more music from this region, and expose people to the deeply emotional and at times transformative qualities of this music.”