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Bassam Saba, Prominent Figure in Arabic Music, Dies From COVID-19 Complications

Bassam Saba
Courtesy: Ghada Ghanem

Bassam Saba, a notable figure of Arabic music and once a part of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road artists and Global Musician Workshop faculty, died from complications due to COVID-19 on Dec. 4.

He was transferred to the non-COVID ICU in the American University of Beirut Medical Center after he was no longer deemed infectious. Days later, he was intubated after going through septic shock from contracting a superbug, and later died, his wife Dr. Diala Jaber said from the couple's home in Northport, New York.

“He had overcome the hard part of the COVID, but his lungs of course were very weakened by the COVID ... and then when he got the bacteria, his immune system was too low to fight the bacteria even though he was put on the proper antibiotics for the bacteria and his septic shock was too strong,” Jaber said.

A gifted multi-instrumentalist and teaching artist, Saba lived in the Long Island town with his wife and their daughter Mariana for almost 30 years. The Lebanese-American musician played the nay, oud and violin, among other instruments, and directed the New York Arabic Orchestra with fellow musician April Centrone and in addition to having his own ensemble. His performances had been described as “rousing” and another having “captivating, shape-shifting improvisations on reed flute.”

An important memory his colleague and friend Centrone, 36, remembered about their work together was when the New York Arabic Orchestra was asked to play at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park to a packed audience in New York City in the summer of 2011.

“There were people down past Sixth Avenue. There were no more chairs,” Centrone said, explaining that it showed that the fruits of their labor of bringing Arabic music to people had finally been seen and making an impact. “It’s not just maybe an exotic food or hummus. It’s like this incredible art people want to be a part of, and I found that it didn’t matter if they were Jewish, Muslim or rich or poor…it just spoke to everyone.”

In addition to Saba's work as a dedicated artist and teacher, he left New York in 2018 after accepting a role as president of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music, once a music school started around a century ago that later became the Conservatory. It was later learned that, due to what a Lebanese official blamed on bureaucracy, Saba was never paid for his work at the Conservatory before his death.

One of his last performances was documented in Bsharri, Lebanon, back in October as a part of an online fundraiser benefiting the country following the warehouse explosion on Aug. 4.

“He’s the one who reached out for these musicians to raise funds for the Conservatory in these difficult times through the Music Outreach Program that he was trying to establish,” said Ghada Ghanem, Saba's assistant in the Conservatory’s Music Outreach Program. She added that there will be several upcoming concerts planned to honor him.

Saba's wife said his impact goes further than the music he plays, but in how he takes the time and goes beyond himself to share it with others.

“His vision is to really bring music to everyday life and to everyone and not let it be confined to the walls of the Conservatory or universities but to really spread that he wanted to spread the music to villages to public schools,” Dr. Jaber said. “He had a Music Outreach Program where he wanted to do this in Lebanon, and he actually started it here with April Centrone with workshops that they did in public schools in New York and all over America.”

“He wanted to send ensembles to the hospitals, to the orphanages to the nursing homes to bring music to all these people who are suffering. He had so much to give,” she said.

NBC News' Mustafa Kassem contributed to this report

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