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How the Arab Spring inspired jazz composer Todd Marcus to explore his heritage through music

Todd Marcus | Photo by Gary Young
Todd Marcus | Photo by Gary Young

Many of us watched, enthralled, as the Arab Spring swept through Egypt in 2011. But the protests and violence took on an even deeper resonance for Baltimore-based composer and bass clarinetist Todd Marcus. The son of an Egyptian father and an American mother, Marcus knew the country firsthand from visits to family in Cairo.

“I watched things happen in 2011 and ongoing with cautious enthusiasm or optimism,” Marcus says. “There’s been a lot of nervous anticipation as well as fear over some of the challenges. I was able to have conversations with family there and see the impact on them of the transition from what was normalcy to the breakdown of a lot of basic services. Things remain very precarious now. It’s been tough.”

Watching events unfold from afar, Marcus has channeled that range of emotions into a new composition, the “Blues for Tahrir Suite,” which he’ll perform on Friday night at Chris’ Jazz Café, a few days prior to recording the music for a new album in a Washington, D.C. studio.

Named for Tahrir Square, the locus of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo, the suite continues Marcus’ fusion of jazz with Middle Eastern music inspired by his heritage.

“I grew up in northern New Jersey without any Middle Eastern or Egyptian community or culture around,” Marcus recalls. “But as I got a little older and more mature, I started to take my heritage a little more seriously. As a musician, the prime area for that was to explore Middle Eastern music, and I found that I really liked the epic compositions and arrangements of Middle Eastern classical music, which tend to have a lot of different movements that really take you on a journey.”

The “Blues for Tahrir Suite” is meant to exhibit multiple facets of the Arab Spring; it starts with a movement inspired by the Islamic call to prayer which is sung through loudspeakers five times a day in Muslim countries and, according to Marcus, “is such a fabric of the landscape.” The piece then cycles through a more aggressive section entitled “Protest” and a contemplative movement, “Reflections.” Marcus says, “I guess it’s the power of music, the ability to take a lot of those tensions and find some beauty in them. It’s been my goal to try to put those different moods into music and then let it speak for itself.”

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