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Nadeem Dlaikan

by Yvonne Lockwood
Michigan Traditional Arts Program
Michigan State University Museum

Nadeem Dlaikan working on a nye.

A virtuoso nye player (reed flute), nye maker, and master musician, Nadeem Dlaikan was honored with the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship in 2002 and the Michigan Heritage Award in 1994. As a leader of Arab musicians and one of the primary forces in maintaining a thriving local and national Arab music scene, Nadeem has greatly influenced the shape of musical life in Arab America.

Greater Detroit is home to the largest, most concentrated Arabic-speaking population in the United States. It represents some twelve nations, Shia, Sunni, and Druze Muslims, and different Christian denominations. The first emigration from the Arab world arrived in the mid-1800s; however, more sizeable numbers arrived during the first decade of the 20th century and after 1960 until very recently. Despite the diversity of this population, they constitute a community.

The Arab community supports several groups of musicians. They play primarily at concerts, as backup for touring foreign artists, festivals, wedding receptions, and in restaurants and bars. Nadim plays with all the groups. The musicians in any given group are from different nations, and they are expected to be able to play not only their own music but also that of others. The more acculturated second- and third-generation and older Arabs prefer folk, older popular and classical music played on traditional instruments, which Nadeem and his group occasionally play in homes for such groups. Unlike boisterous clubs and weddings, everyone listens intently and appreciatively. However, modern hybrid music played in the Arab World and the U.S. on western instruments with the keyboard and electric guitars attracts larger and larger numbers.

Born in 1941 in Alye, Lebanon, a mountain resort community close to Beirut, Nadeem’s first contact with the nye occurred when his brother brought one home. Nadeem secretly tried playing it. When denied further access to the instrument, he found reed growing locally, made a copy of his brother’s nye, and taught himself to play. His parents, however, disapproved of Nadeem’s obsession with the nye, because of its popular association with shepherds. He, nonetheless, persisted, and when Lebanon’s foremost flutest, Naim Bitar, was featured on national television, his parents relented. Nadeem enrolled in the National Conservatory of Music. For seven years he attended school during the day and the conservatory two evenings a week, studying with Naim Bitar and other respected musicians.

After graduation, Nadeem moved to Beirut to begin his career as a professional musician.
He played for Lebanon’s folk dance ensemble and toured the Middle East. While playing at the United States Embassy for a July 4th celebration, a staff member was impressed by Nadeem’s playing and the nye and urged Nadeem to go to United States where he said the nye is not heard. In 1969 the opportunity presented itself, and Nadeem accompanied Samir Tawfik, a popular Lebanese singer, to the states. They performed in a nightclub in New York City owned by an Arab, who invited Nadeem to stay in the states. The nightclub was unlike anything Nadeem had known, featuring the music of many ethnic groups, e.g., Armenians, Greeks, Turks, and Jews. Because of the flexibility of the nye, it was not long before Nadeem was playing with many different groups. “It was like a piece of cake for the other instruments. Mine is the most popular in the Arab world. . . .I started to work with all of them. I learned so much music. But all these cultures are so close to our culture.”

After a year and a half in New York City, Nadeem moved to Detroit where the Lebanese community is the largest and most concentrated. He married and took a day job, playing music in his free time. Concerned about the lack of other nye players, he looked for students. However, the nye is difficult to master, and no one was immediately interested in learning, but in the past couple of years he has had a number of hardworking individuals.

As a premier craftsman, Nadeem also continues to make and repair flutes for himself, his students, and other nye players who have since immigrated to the United States and Canada. He grows reed in his back yard from which he makes mijwiz (double reed), munjarah (5 hole, single reed), and the nye (9 hole, single reed), and on occasion, the oboe-like mizmar. Arabic music with its half and quarter tones has more keys than western music; therefore, Nadeem travels with a brief case containing 12 different flutes, each in one key, that together cover the entire scale.

Over the years, Nadeem has worked with highly respected musicians in the United States and Middle East and is himself respected as a talented defender of traditional and classical music. He plays a leading role in bringing musicians and Arabic music to new audiences while continuing to perform for appreciative Arab audiences. At the 2004 Homegrown Concert, Nadeem appeared with the Dearborn Traditional Ensemble, consisting of the 2006 Michigan Heritage Awardee Abdul Karim Badr (oud), John Sarweh (qanun), Ossama Najah (durbeki), and Ibrahim El Saghir (tamburine).

Last Updated:
February 4, 2009

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