Arts in Lockdown Part 5: Ziyad Marcus, Gen-Y World Music Musician & Teacher

By Joanne A Calitri   |   September 3, 2020
Ziyad Marcus plays the Middle Eastern oud, as well as the Arab tablah and the North Indian table (Photo by Sophia Aira)

Ziyad Marcus is a world music musician with a diverse background and education. Recently appointed as a music educator for the Santa Barbara Charter School, he draws upon Sri Lankan and Jewish cultural roots in order to share an unfiltered view of the world with youth, something he cherishes and takes seriously. At 27, his prodigious journey as a musician of 20 years, a recording artist of 10 years, and ethnomusicologist brings us to a valuable conversation concerning current global conditions. He has a Bachelor of Arts in ethnomusicology, scholarly research from UCLA, a Master of Fine Arts in world percussion performance from CalArts, and a Master of Arts in teaching in music education and social justice pedagogy from Longy School of Music of Bard College. Also, a quarter-abroad study at Universidad de Belgrano, Argentina informs Ziyad’s teaching of English as a second language. He plays the Arab tablah, the North Indian tabla, and the Middle Eastern oud

Here is our Zoom interview:

Q. What is your Gen-Y view of the world?

A. In line with the need for societal change as evidenced by the pervasive climate of the violent police state placing American lives in danger, I believe educational reform coupled with social reform should precede political and/or economic reform. Heavy-handed policing is often reflected in our public schools, whether students in inner-city schools are expected to enter their institutions through metal detectors or students of color face the danger of falling prey to the school-to-prison pipeline.  

In academic discourse, scholars debating the shortcomings of our educational system often pinpoint the neoliberal nature of schooling as detrimental for the aspirations of our youth. Neoliberalism in education often manifests a top-to-bottom meritocracy that fashions a one-size-fits-all caricature for students following the path toward higher education.  

Music and the arts, in particular, are of undeniable importance especially when they function in diversifying and redefining traditional notions of success. In this way, my teaching philosophy through excellence in performance and pedagogy empowers me to reform our school system from within and ultimately inspire youth to model the change we desperately need for our nation’s future.

Joanne A Calitri’s Zoom interview with musician Ziyad Marcus, recently appointed as a music educator for the Santa Barbara Charter School

During lockdown, is music a plus or minus?

Music is a huge plus for me during lockdown, as it has been all of my life. Music is meditation as my mother and my biggest life supporter always says. Music may bring the practitioner to a centralized state of being. I find this to be true in the expansive tradition of North Indian music in that the musician is but a vehicle for greater, inspired artistic expression. Just like in meditation, one must strive to let go of emotional baggage in order to best cultivate a practice of music that elevates oneself above the mundane aspects of the human condition.  

Is that different for music and art?  

I believe music and art are mutually exclusive, that is to say, they exist in their own domains of experience. However, music and art both belong to the field of humanities so indeed, there is much that they share. Our society generally relegates a backseat to the pursuance of humanities-based disciplines. But the reality of the matter is that there are endlessly exciting things we can learn through humanities-based studies such as music and art.  

Any anthro-social-economic-political issues influencing your experience as a musician right now?  

One genre of music I study is Arab music. I have found that sometimes my audiences attribute contemporary, politicized understandings of the greater Middle East to my performances. While I have full-heartedly embraced the educational aspects inherent in my performance of Arab music, I believe that audience members exhibit great respect and appreciation when making the extra efforts to educate themself about the actual origins of the music. This may include but is not limited to, researching the relevant culture, history, customs, language, etc. To this end, I am grateful for my tenure with the UCSB Middle East Ensemble and all that I have learned concerning how to best present my music before local audiences.  

What can we learn about world culture through music?

I find that we can learn a lot about cultures from around the world by listening to the amazing, creative, and collaborative work published through various online platforms. I often find myself going down the Spotify rabbit hole whether I am listening to podcasts, radio programming, or the music of selected artists. On Instagram, I like to tune in to the media content of superstar artists like Anoushka Shankar as well as a host of Arab-American artists and social advocates. There is inspiration all over; we just have to find what artistically inspired-work best suits our individual temperaments and dispositions during this time of lockdown.

Ziyad Marcus teaching Chamber Music at the Longy School of Music, Bard College in Los Angeles (Photo by his teacher, Joseph Jackson)

By giving back or paying forward?

My recent Master of Arts in teaching degree with the Longy School of Music of Bard College encompassed both music education and social justice pedagogy. It enabled me to work with underprivileged communities in Los Angeles. In the past, I have worked with underprivileged communities both locally and internationally in avenues of music education and youth empowerment. For this, I have relied primarily on my knowledge of pre-composed musical repertoire from the Middle East and North India. Working as an independent teaching artist, I now find myself creating curriculum and engaging world music pedagogy in order to institute the kind of change I want to see in the world.

I am also working with the UCSB Middle East Ensemble and Chorus during this lockdown quarantine. Upon returning home for the final quarter of my Master of Arts in teaching, I joined my father and brother in leading the UCSB Middle East Ensemble and Chorus rehearsals, a group of 20 to 40 musicians. We started up via Zoom during the spring quarter with weekly back-to-back rehearsals. We then continued with a summer quarter of teaching and we look forward to transitioning seamlessly to our fall quarter in early October. We have managed with an online Zoom platform where ensemble and chorus members play or sing along. While we have extensive repertoire to choose from, one of the more exciting projects we are currently pursuing is the group learning of instrumental Egyptian music composed throughout the 20th century.  

Are you seeking new ways to create your music?  

I have only recently started creating my own music. I am currently waiting to hear back from the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture regarding a grant awarded for original music compositions. My residency at California Institute of the Arts really cemented new ways for me to create my music. What struck me most was that each of my professors was well versed in the nuances of music traditions from around the world. Whether through composing their own music, collaborating with musicians of different genres and artists of various disciplines, or working with me individually, these role models pushed me to question why not further push the boundaries of my music making.  

Tells us about your work with the nonprofit Midan Elmusica.

Midan Elmusica, Inc is dedicated to education, music recording, local politics, and media production with special regard for Egyptian cultural preservation. Its singular mission is to “support the United Nations’ call upon its Member States for the need to understand and strengthen the role of the ‘creative worker’ and to recognize the need to improve the professional, social and economic status of artists in the United States of America and throughout the world.”

In joining this ambitious start-up, I now understand my role as helping to create a social media platform promoting dialogue, community collaboration, and interviews with experts in the field. 

What’s next for you?  

I have just started working with the Santa Barbara Charter School as a fourth-grade teaching aide. My employment facilitates the creation of a world music program. Students enrolled in the Charter School attend online and students of essential workers attend the after-school program in person with social distancing and precautions as directed by the state.

I feel greatly privileged that I am in a position to give back to the youth of my community. Please support us as our program develops.  

Any advice for musicians going forward? What is their role right now?  

I would advise musicians to take this time to materialize a steady routine of practice, social media production, and creative collaboration. Although musicians often struggle to sustain their work, now more than ever, musicians can fine-tune their craft. Music can serve as a vehicle through which we may foster self-growth. This can lead to an incredible, communal effect of synergy. When I see a musician grow in their practice, I then feel inspired to transform myself when pursuing greater levels of technical competency and creativity. It is in the face of today’s adversity that we can reach unprecedented levels of artistry and community building.  

411: Follow Ziyad Marcus on Instagram:


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