When Music Director for Dance Shamou was a child growing up in Iran, his family would often go to hear live music. At summer music festivals, social gatherings or formal concerts, Shamou would hear and see all types of instruments and was fascinated by them. Around six years old, he received his first instrument: the Darbuka, a hand-drum commonly played in Persian Classical music. He was hooked. Soon after, he started on the piano and it was clear that music would remain part of his life forever.
“I played for hours,” Shamou said. “I would sit behind the piano and improvise, play melodies from popular songs at the time or from Western songs. I would play piano and my brother would sing. That’s the one time you could find us siblings hanging out together because the age gaps were big.”
Shamou was self-taught on the Darbuka, learning the tapping and snapping techniques from listening and watching other professional musicians in Iran. His father was a big fan of Persian Classical music and was one of the main reasons Shamou was able to acquire some of his musical abilities.
“My father loved music,” Shamou said. “Once in a while to amuse us kids, he would let out an operatic phrase to make us laugh…he had an incredibly, powerfully beautiful voice.”
Shamou is one of several dance accompanists in the UNC Charlotte Department of Dance. An accompanist plays music for the dancers in a dance class, providing the class with tempo (how fast or slow the dancers should move), dynamics (how loud or soft) and overall musicality.
“Our role as musicians is support,” Shamou said. “I am all ears and eyes.”
Accompanying dancers is a particular skill different from concert-style music performance. While many accompanists study music in higher education, accompanying is not really a “degree-track.” Dance accompanying, like many artistic disciplines, is most commonly learned through apprenticeship. Shamou was at the Berklee College of Music studying as a percussion major when he was first introduced to the idea of accompanying.
“A friend of mine [who teaches dance] from the Boston Conservatory and I were talking, just in a cafe or something, and she says, ‘Wait, you’re a percussionist aren’t you? You should come play for one of our classes!’ I thought, ‘Oh, okay. Brilliant!’” Shamou said.
On a whim, he decided to attend and observe one of the dance classes at the Boston Conservatory. As soon as he walked in, the class’ accompanist handed him a shaker (a percussion instrument) and welcomed him to join in.
“His generosity and his openness was so fantastically welcoming that it pulled me in,” Shamou said. “And the rest is history.”
Shamou began accompanying classes at the Boston Conservatory and was soon offered opportunities to collaborate with dancers not just in class but in performance. Diane Arvanites, an artistic director of the Boston-based company Prometheus Dance, asked Shamou if he would compose music for one of her dance pieces. The piece was developed and taken to Spain (among other places) to be performed.
“A lot of compositions would come while I’m in class,” Shamou said. “Most compositions are a culmination of some length of time…which becomes a painting. A lot of these initial charcoal sketches, which later became compositions, were created while I was working with dance.”
Shamou has since composed for dance-makers throughout the world, including the Sacramento Ballet, San Francisco-based choreographer Robert Moses, award-winning choreographer Stephan Koplowitz and Mexican choreographer Claudia Lavista (whose collaborative piece with Shamou, “PROW,” was performed by the UNCC Department of Dance this past fall). Shamou has also accompanied around the world, including for internationally-acclaimed companies such as Alvin Ailey American Modern Dance, Mark Morris Dance Company and David Dorfman Dance. It was with renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones that Shamou sort of reinvented himself, transitioning from solely acoustic instruments and singing to electronic sounds.
Dance, as well as music, has always been a part of Shamou’s life. In fact, as a child and teenager, Shamou trained at the Iranian National Ballet as a ballet dancer, even dancing with the professional company at as young an age as 14. While he didn’t remain a professional dancer, accompanying has allowed him to continue his love for dance.
Much of accompanying is about being able to feed off of and provide for the dancers through active listening and watching. The musicians and dancers rely on one another for cues and quality. Shamou learned a lot of this skill not only in the classroom but on the streets of Boston as a street musician.
“When I went to Berklee, I still went and played on the street with my compadres,” Shamou said. “We would go and be street musicians in Harvard Square and people would come and dance. We had all walks of life who would come and listen and get up and dance. It was a street party. That relationship between music and dance has been around a long time.”
Shamou is currently working on collaborative projects nationally, including a theater piece with Assistant Professor of Physical Theatre Carlos Alexis Cruz entitled “Picaro.” This work was recently performed at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and will continue to be performed in the near future.
Above all, Shamou is determined to keep evolving and learning. “The day I stop learning, I might as well park it and pack it and be no longer,” Shamou said.
Music and dance have been fundamental to his life, and Shamou sees the art forms as fundamental to the lives of others as well. Whether playing for a formal audience, a dance class or passersby on the street, Shamou sees music and dance as keys to community building.
“Thinking back, I remember how important music was in bringing people together,” Shamou said. “Drums are very much a means of bringing people together. Everybody loves banging on something, playing drums, [or dancing along to it].”