Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Old Town School of Music

The Old Town School of Music is a treasure in Chicago.  This school was founded in 1957 and quickly grew to teaching 150 guitar and banjo students a week.  At the onset, the school was attracting artists such as Pete Seegar and Mahalia Jackson to both give concerts and workshops.  After an enrollment stump in the 1970s which almost led to bankruptcy, the Board of Directors placed an emphasis on fundraising and restructured management to improve operations saving the school and providing a basis for sustained growth.  Around the same time, the School bought the old vacant Hild Library, 43,000 square feet, in Lincolnwood as the third and current home while keeping the old Armitage location as a satellite location. Since locating in Lincolnwood, the School grew and expanded both in terms of size and offerings.  The School grew and acquired even more space across the street  from the old library.  Thus, the Old Town School of Music has three locations.
The Old Town School of Music is an exemplary school of its type in the US.  6,600 students are enrolled and pay for classes and lessons per week, 48 weeks per year, 7 days a week.  2,700 of the students are young people.  The classes have expanded from just American folk to a wide variety of music, art, and dance classes that include American, Latin American, Native American, and an impressive offering of what is called World Music.  One can take lessons on Accordian to Voice, including Harmonica and dulcimer.  The genres and style range from Blue Grass to Folk and from Middle Eastern to Latin.  Any day of the week, the rooms are all in use.  There are lessons and jam sessions of a variety of folk styles, rhythm and blues, Latin and Middle Eastern.  There are lessons and jam sessions for beginners and for intermediate students.  Especially in the evening, people are walking the streets with gig bags and instrument cases.  There are restaurants and bars with both neighborhood and Old Town School patrons making Lincolnwood a pretty lively and a most cool place to hang out.  
Besides lessons. renown artists are brought in for concerts and workshops attract over 85,000 people per year for these events.  Here is a sample of upcoming concerts:  A honky tonk group - The Hoyle Brothers, an Indian centered fusion ensemble - The Sufi Gospel Project, an Afro- Colombian band - Las Alegres Ambulancias, and pop folk singer Melissa Ferrick to name a few.  The run a weekly concert series called World
A Strum-a-Long Class
Music Wednesdays.  
The Old Town School of Music has a music store.  It is full of all kinds of instruments including guitars, banjos, mandolins, violins, ukuleles, violins, percussion of all types, and ouds.  It has strings for all these instruments.  The even sell oud picks or mzrabs.  The have a selection of different brands of oud strings for both Arabic and Turkish tunings.  The have Turkish ouds made by Sandi that set a very high standard for entry level instruments at $400.  They even have a Godin Multioud wjth a cedar top for an outrageously low price of $675. If I didn’t place the oud, I would definitely buy a good mandolin, take lessons, and get into either bluegrass or old time music.
Clearly, the middle Eastern programs attract me.  Ronnie Maly and Wanees Zanour teach oud, percussion, and ensemble playing.  They even teach a course on maqam theory.  I know both fellows but have not had the occasion to take lessons from either.  John Berberian has performed at the Old School to rave reviews. Earlier this year, Simon Shaheen, another oud virtuoso, performed.  Recently, the Old Town School has announced a new three year program: Ojala!: Presenting Muslim Voices and Connecting Diverse Communities.  This program that includes artists in shortly residencies presenting workshops, leading jam sessions, and giving concerts is “presented in partnership with Chicago's Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) and funded by a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.”  These programs are all gratis to the public and a wonderful offering to the world music community in Chicago.  I plan on taking advantage to as many of these as I can.  Here are four that have already attended.
May 22:  Zafer Tawil presented a Oud Workshop. He gave tips and techniques on picking as well as improving everyone’s tonality in two different maqams.  
May 23:  Fathy Salama and Amir El Saffer.  Arab music jam session.  Fathy, a composer who expertly melds maqam and jazz, taught the whole class a melody line in rast and then how to modulate to other maqams adding more melody lines.  This was the groove we played and improvised off of.  Amir El Saffer is a gifted trumpet
Arap Saz Semai with Cafer Nazlıbaş
player who plays the intricate tonalities of maqams on the trumpet.  He was the musical lead of the jam session.  It was amazing how good the end product sounded.
June 19:  Two conservatory trained musicians Ismail Lumanovski (clarinet - Julliard) and Cafer Nazlıbaş (kemane - spike fiddle Devlet Turkish Music Conservatory) gave a workshop on the Turkish Roman music styles. People brought ouds, clarinets, violins, dumbeks, and a mandolin.  We learned a Roma a 9/8 melody in hicaz and how to modulate to other modes while improvising.  It was a lot of fun.
June 20:  “Resident artists Mercan Dede (Electronics, Frame Drum), Mert Elmas (Percussion), and again Cafer Nazlıbaş (Kemane - Spike Fiddle) for an ensemble workshop combining mystical Islamic Sufi music with electronica and traditional Turkish instruments.”  The predominant maqam and rhythm was again 9/8 and hicaz
In September, Erkan Ogur the famed turkish folk and pop musician will in residence September.  The invention of the fretless guitar is attributed to him.  He plays a variety
of guitars, sazes, kopuz, and sings.  He has written a variety of songs, the one I know best is rewriting of the words to Achilles Poulos’s ballad Nedem Geldim Amerikaya (Why Did I Come to America) as Neden geldim İstanbul'a (Why Did I Come to Istanbul).  In 2001, he collaborated on an album, Fuad, with Djivan Gasparyan.  
Looking forward what else the Old Town School has planned for the next three years.

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