18 June 2009
It is 11am on 16 June at the Dar Al Assad Opera Theatre and 20 young musicians are busy rehearsing their set for the last time before taking to the stage alongside world renowned oud player and violinist, Simon Shaheen. The young musicians are part of the Nimreen Children‘s Ensemble, a group of Palestine refugee children, whose proficiency on classical Arabic instruments belies their years.
Although a handful of the Ensemble‘s younger members appear slightly nervous at the prospect of performing in front of a packed house, the same cannot be said for all. Muhanad Suleiman explains, "Nervous? Not really. This isn‘t the first time I have played here. Some of us have performed in over 15 concerts, both here in Syria and abroad." At 17, Muhanad is the eldest in the ensemble, and holds an impressive track record of performances; ranging from gala evenings in Amsterdam to high-profile public performances in Damascus and Lattakia. "I became interested in the oud through my uncle, who played very well. Once I began, my family really encouraged me to pursue it", he says.
The success of the Nimreen Ensemble belies the fact that it has existed for only a relatively short time. In 2004, UNRWA recognized the dearth of opportunities for artistic expression available to Palestine refugee children. To address this, the Agency, with the support of Dutch NGO, Music in Me, launched the Nimreen Children‘s Music Centre, a three-year pilot project aimed at providing 40 children with professional training on the lute (oud), flute (nai), percussion (iqaa) and zither (qanoun). The training was provided by the Sulhi Al Wadi Institute and took place twice a week, at UNRWA‘s Nimreen School, in Yarmouk refugee camp.
Since 2007, new batches of students have begun musical training at the Nimreen Children‘s Music Centre and the success of the initial pilot project convinced UNRWA and Music in Me to establish five more music centres in other refugee camps in Syria. Currently, over 260 youths have since benefited from the project, and the intention is to increase this number with the creation of several additional music centrrs in the coming years.
Back at the Dar Al Assad Opera Theatre, it is now 8:45pm and the Nimreen‘s Children Ensemble has just come off stage with smiling faces all around as the echoes of the audience‘s rapturous applause still ring in their ears. What makes their feat all the more remarkable is that 12 of tonight‘s 20 child performers only have one year of professional music tuition under their belts, having joined the Nimreen Children‘s Music Centre in 2008. Tonight, under the guidance of their more seasoned peers, they have delivered a flawless musical performance which leaves no doubt that, when Simon Shaheen eventually retires from the stage, his musical legacy will rest in capable hands.
UNRWA also got a chance to talk to Simon Shaheen at the concert. The interview is below.
How would you describe yourself in two sentences?
Musician and composer: two words
You have become more visible to an international audience in the last two years…
I am not aware of the last two years in particular. I and my ensembles have been visible since the early nineties, given the quality of our performances and educational programmes that are associated with them. Programmes such as workshops, master classes and lectures facilitate the comprehension of Arabic music and make it more enjoyable. We have been doing this for so many years now, definitely it expanded the audience. Wherever we perform, in Europe or the US, we always have a good audience.
You studied in Jerusalem. What are your memories of Palestine?
It was my home. Since I left for the United States of America, I have been living in New York, so that became my new centre. From New York, I was able to travel all over the world; I wanted to visit the Arab countries. Living back home, this wasn’t possible because of the political situation. I came to New York, obtained US citizenship and then visited the Arab world.
What does Palestine still mean to you?
It is my home, my people, my relatives and where I started playing music at an early age. Yesterday, I was in Neirab Camp, Aleppo, and I met some people from my village, Tarshiha in Palestine. It was interesting, with a lot of closeness and emotions, beautiful. Palestine means a lot to me. I am constantly there, at least twice a year giving performances and working on youth programmes. I did not disconnect at all; but I feel that moving around from New York is much easier.
What do you think about UNRWA and UNRWA @60?
Since I am in Syria now, let’s talk about UNRWA in the context of Syria. I think UNRWA is doing a fabulous job. What I saw is amazing: their support, their help, and training for the displaced Palestinian community. At the beginning, when former UNRWA director Angela Williams and I were talking about this project, I suggested visiting the camps, and working with the kids there and performing with them. The idea started almost two years ago, and now it is happening for real. I think Palestinians from the various camps are benefiting a great deal from UNRWA programmes.
How do you create awareness about the Middle East and Palestine?
I play my music, which is fantastic and it is part of the awareness process. I have programmes that contain performances and education, and this definitely brings awareness too. I always talk about the first time I performed in New York, when I had an audience of 30 people. The same organization that organized this concert presented another concert last November, with more than 2,500 people in the audience. The jump from 30 to 2,500 is drastic. We work hard in trying to reach out to communities, especially through universities, colleges, musical institutions and so on.
How does being Palestinian influence your music and work?
I can talk about my family and immediate people around me, they definitely influenced me. As far as my musicianship goes: is this Palestinian? I think yes, we can call it that way. Usually when people ask, how being Palestinian affects you, I say: in music, you have nationalistic songs, but these are songs with lyrics. In order to spread something nationalistic, you need lyrics; thus it should be songs. But I play only instrumental music, which has nothing to do with singing. I don’t deal with an aspect of music where folkloric songs and nationalistic songs would affect or influence my work. But sometimes I can choose a theme, a folkloric theme from the Palestinian repertoire, and incorporate it into a larger scheme. Here in the Opera House, Damascus, for example, I was playing a concerto for oud and orchestra with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra. The last movement is based on a theme inspired by Palestinian music, so it became a theme with variations.
You have been working with young people for a long time…
It is enjoyable, and I feel they benefit from the work I do with them. Whenever I work with young people, they push to the next level, which is excellent. I guess they become more committed, become more respectful of music. You just meet them and you listen to their questions, and it’s effective. Somebody asked me: how I can be like you as a musician? Youth programmes became high in my priorities. I do this kind of programmes wherever I go, including the West Bank and Gaza. It is a matter of responsibility. There are musicians who like to be great musicians, but they don’t take responsibility in terms of educational programmes. I am the type who likes to be socially responsible besides my musicianship and my performances.
Any final words?
I hope the younger generations get involved in music, because with music they can do even better in other aspects of life. Music definitely gives them the ability to concentrate. Music is an art, it is about love, and there is nothing better than music.
So as much as I can help younger generations to become aware of this, I will definitely help.
Text by Valere de Riedmatten
Interview: Eva Pilipp
Photos: Alexander Binek and Thidrik Emilsson