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Salaam Syria: Musicians show a different side to their war-torn country

19:02 14/03/2017
Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra plays BOZAR on eve of first anniversary of Brussels bombings

The annual springtime Klarafestival, dedicated to classical music and musical theatre, is taking over the Belgian capital for a multitude of concerts and performances on the topical theme 'home sweet home'. Addressing pressing social and political questions such as migration, dislocation, exile and identity, the highlight of its varied programme is Salaam Syria, a joint concert by the Belgian National Orchestra and the so-called Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra (SEPO) at BOZAR on 21 March.

The latter consists of Syrian musicians who were forced to flee their home country due to the continuing war. Festival artistic director Hendrik Storme says: “We want to address current events with Klarafestival, and this concert does this very strongly. It is not meant as a political signal but a positive message that invites you to look positively at migration. Migration can bring about beautiful, cross-cultural creations.”

Salaam Syria is an example of this, offering a much-needed message of reconciliation and solidarity. Fittingly, salaam is not only a greeting but the word for peace in Arabic. Plus, the chosen date of the performance couldn’t be more symbolic; it is scheduled for the eve of the commemoration of the 22 March 2016 attacks in Brussels, an event that is at risk of being exploited to create division and fear.

This is exactly what SEPO’s founder Raed Jazbeh, a Syrian exile now based in Germany and classically trained bassist, wants to fight against, making a positive impact through music. “When I first had the idea for the orchestra, my main goal was to give hope. Not only to me, but also to the musicians, and all Syrians in or outside of Syria”, he says.

Instead of misery and suffering, Jazbeh, who sees himself as a cultural ambassador, presents a different side of Syria, putting forward its rich musical history. That is also why performances always feature a mixed programme, fusing classical European and Arabic music. Accordingly, the concert in Brussels includes not only pieces by Giacomo Puccini and Pablo Casals, but also creations by contemporary Syrian composers, ranging from Suad Bushnaq to Dia Succari and Kareem Roustom.

Since its formation, which was preceded by several months of intense search for musicians via social media, the unique orchestra has performed to great acclaim in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. With its members scattered all over Europe, organisation is not always easy. “We can't do rehearsals every week because we live in different countries, and some of the musicians need to apply for visas. So we meet for every project, rehearse for few days, and then give concerts with the new repertoire.”

The performances don’t only have a healing potential for the public, but also for the musicians themselves. Some of them have already performed together in their home country, at the Academy of Music in Damascus. These reunions have represented a return to a bit of normality. “We lost our existence, not only privately but also professionally. In a sense, playing together gives us back our (musical) home”, Jazbeh explains.  

The Brussels-Capital Region celebrates diversity in the city and has invested in the festival to reinforce its position as a major cultural pole. 2017 is a programme of events organised by the region’s tourism office, honouring Brussels’ unique blend of cultures.

Salaam Syria, 21 March, 20.30
Klara Festival, until 24 March


Written by The Bulletin