Oriental Jazz with a Touch of Classical Music

Hewar, "Dialog," is the name of a group of young Syrian musicians. The name of the ensemble is program: the encounter of wildly different musical styles and artist personalities. This dialog is worth hearing. Wera Reusch takes a look at "Hewar."

photo: Hewar
Kinan Azmehr and Issam Rafea of Hewar

​​"We met as students in Damascus at the music institute. Later we all played for the Syrian Symphony Orchester and met on the side because we enjoyed experimenting and improvising." That's how the soprano Dima Orsho describes the origin of "Hewar".

The initiative to start the ensemble came from Kinan Azmeh and Issam Rafea. Kinan Azmeh studied clarinet in Damascus and is currently doing his doctorate in New York. He composed pieces for the ensemble together with lute player Issam Rafea, head of the Arab department at the Damascus Music Institute.

Western classical music, Arabic music and Jazz

In their compositions and improvisations, the musicians combine elements of western classical music with Arabic music and jazz influences. The result is a fascinating mixture. "What we create is not Arabic music, but it's not classical music either. It is a mixture of everything we like listening to and what we feel musically reflects our everyday lives", explains Kinan Azmeh.

"I've spent my life studying western classical music, but I live here, in Syria, where Arabic music is played everywhere. So of course it automatically flows into my improvisations."

Stylistic diversity

Classifying the music of "Hewar" is not easy, says Azmeh. Even listeners have different perceptions. "Some see it as jazz; other say, no, it's Arabic music no, classical music, no, avant-garde or modern twentieth-century music."

The stylistic range of the group can even be seen in its composition, the mixture of "western" and "oriental" instruments: clarinet (Kinan Azmeh) and lute (Issam Rafea), accompanied by percussion (Badi Rafea), drums (Simone Mreysh) and double bass (Khaled Omran).

"Understanding the nature of the music"

Dima Orsho, the band's singer, studied in Syria and in the Netherlands and is as comfortable with opera singing as with Arabic singing techniques. "Of course, each music genre has its own technique. But the important thing is to understand the nature of the music. Because underlying each style is a specific idea; once you grasp it, you can sing the music", explains the soprano. "In jazz, you are really free, in Arabic music, passionate. And in opera, you play a role!"

Whether contemplative or dance pieces – the repertoire of the ensemble is diverse and fascinates not only with the passion and playfulness of its improvisations. "Our original idea was one of a musical dialogue: that anyone can pick up relatively simple musical material in their own way and further develop their vocabulary", says Kinan Azmeh.

The musicians' preference for variations and improvisations derives not only from jazz, it is also characteristic of the Arabic music tradition.

At the end of March, "Hewar" performed its first concert in Germany in Cologne and was enthusiastically received by the public. The Syrian musicians had just returned from their first foreign tour in the USA. In June, a few performances are scheduled in Japan. Their first CD will soon be released.

Wera Reusch
© 2004

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

Kinan Azmeh

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