London Syrian Ensemble brings sounds of the diaspora to the UK

Classically trained musical collective living in exile performs new repertoire at Shubbak festival

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Nostalgia reverberated throughout the concert hall in Kings Place in London as a group of Syrian classical musicians took audiences on a melodic tour of their homeland.

It was the band's first performance since Covid-19 shuttered live events 16 months ago.

Ten years on from the start of the Syrian war, the London Syrian Ensemble last week played a concert at Shubbak, Europe’s largest festival of Arabic culture and arts.

Led by composer and ney [flute] soloist Louai Alhenawi, the London Syrian Ensemble is a collective of musicians trained at the eminent Damascus Conservatoire, all of whom left their war-torn home to resettle in the UK and Europe.

The festival was a chance for the group to perform Sounds of Syria for the first time, a repertoire that included new instrumental arrangements by composers from Syria and its diaspora in direct response to the decade of war and its profound effect on their musical endeavours.

The London Syrian Ensemble, founded by flautist Louai Alhenawi, poses at Kings Place in London before the 'Sounds of Syria' performance. Marsm Events

The alternating empty rows and seats were a reminder of continued capacity restrictions but belied the eager audience. By pandemic standards, the concert was a triumphant sell-out.

Working in Arabic modes known as maqam, the group performed on a range of classical instruments, including the kanun [zither], daf, riqq and darbuka [percussion], violin, viola and double bass.

New sounds of Syria's diaspora

Euphrates by Muhammad Othman, a young composer living in Lebanon, is one of five specially commissioned pieces from Syrian composers living in exile. Ensemble founder Alhenawi said it was an ode to Othman's frolics on the banks of the famous river.

“He used to swim and to fish there and this just brings up his memories. There are other pieces from different areas that reflect different moments of their lives,” says Alhenawi who has recorded and toured worldwide with many artists including Fairouz, Shakira, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Terry Hall, Gabriel Yared and Natacha Atlas.

Recently, the former student and teacher at the eminent Damascus Conservatoire was the musical director for Arabic musical Umm Kulthum, the premiere of which took place at the London Palladium, and directed The Mediterranean Dimension Ensemble in Malta in 2019.

Other original works presented for the first time included, Fajr [Dawn], also by Othman, Nadam [Regret] by Elias Bachoura and White Gold by Anas Murad.

From Sweden to Switzerland to Belgium, the disparate locations of the composers reveal the far reaches of the post-war Syrian diaspora, echoed fittingly in the piece Safar [Travel] by Feras Charestan.

A collective for Syria's exiled musicians

These unique melodic journeys are a departure from what the London Syrian Ensemble played when it was first formed by Alhenawi in the summer of 2017 when a few acquainted musicians found their way out of Syria to the UK.

We have a certain image because of the war and we are trying to show the real culture.
Firas Hassan

An undoubtedly comforting lifeline to the new arrivals fleeing the peak of the war’s violence, the musical troupe, which is managed and produced by Marsm, spent its first few years focusing on introducing classical, popular Arabic – mainly Syrian – music to a Western audience.

“When we moved here, we kind of lost a bit of our identity,” said Raghad Haddad, from Yabrud, a city 80 kilometres from the Syrian capital.

“The London Syrian Ensemble represented the good side of our culture,” the viola player told The National during rehearsals.

The London Syrian Ensemble on stage. Khalid El-Awad

A player with the collective since its early days, the former member of the Syrian National Orchestra admitted it had been quite a challenge to build her musical career "from scratch" after moving to the UK.

“But gradually you build up some connections and we started to stand up on our feet again,” said Haddad, a full-time, self-employed musician in London.

Sitting among his many percussionist instruments – including the darbuka, a beat-bouncing cultural favourite – Firas Hassan is in tune with the progression Alhenawi and other Syrian musicians are making. The seasoned musician said it was "totally emotional" to perform the original works of his Syrian colleagues.

Firas Hassan performs on various percussion instruments with the London Syrian Ensemble in London as part of Shubbak Festival. Marsm Events

“It's my aim to show our culture and our talented composers to the rest of the world,” says Hassan, who was a teacher at the Damascus Conservatoire for many years and now lives in Belgium.

“I want to show just how productive we are and that we aren’t stuck in tradition only. We are up to date, we have our new ideas and our new current identity.”

He hopes to tap into Western curiosity of the Syrian sounds. “We have a certain image because of the war and we are trying to show the real culture,” he says.

Alhenawi hopes the Shubbak debut and the approaching end to restrictions will herald a new dawn for the London Syrian Ensemble. Sounds of Syria will be performed at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival in November and there are plans to record an album of the original works, including a couple of pieces that did not make the performance.

Despite the musicians' modern outlook, the concert betrays a lingering look back at their native home. A 10-minute rendition of Ibatly Gawab [Send Me An Answer], a classic and popular Syrian song about longing and staying in touch, closed the evening with a reminder that, regardless of the progression of new lives elsewhere, the essence of a lost Syria is never too far behind.

Updated: July 12, 2021, 10:42 AM