A lyrical dialogue between two cultures

Syrian and American jazz musicians engage in their own kind

The small audience settled down, unaware of what was to follow. The Hot House jazz trio from the United States - billed as the Jazz Ambassadors - was performing a string of typical American tunes.

But then the band - playing the clarinet, guitar, and tuba - was joined by a trio of top-class Syrian musicians, playing clarinet, guitar, and the classical stringed Arab instrument, the oud. As they sounded the first bars of Duke Ellington's haunting, Middle East-toned "Caravan," the audience was transported to an entirely new reality.

Pushed forward by the rhythmic pooh-ah, pooh-ah of the tuba, which mirrored the steady step-by-step progress of a camel caravan loping across a scalding desert, guitar styles played off one another. The oud provided an even more ancient Arabian feel, and the clarinets dueled at one point, sounding exactly as if two members of the caravan had begun a shouting match that peaked with near-violence, only to deflate to remorse and apology.

Then the moment of catharsis came. Syrian guitarist Tariq Salhia began to sing, wordlessly, a heartfelt wail - a mixture of despair and irrepressible joy.

"I was crying," Mr. Salhia said later. "It came from inside. I just felt something, and the audience listened to every detail, and understood what we were doing. Music is like an international language, and a point for understanding between us."

The Hot House band is one of a very select number of jazz troupes traveling worldwide as part of a US Information Service program to expose non-Western audiences to traditional American jazz. Syria was the first stop on a month-long Mideast tour for Hot House. Besides a number of performances there, that meant workshops with the Syrian musicians, who are associated with the Higher Institute of Music.

On the geostrategic gaming board, Syria is still on Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism. For decades, Syria was a Soviet client state that has faced off militarily with US-backed Israel on several fronts, and the two sides have yet to make peace.

But music is a universal language. And such cultural exchanges are intended to erode the kind of antagonism and misunderstanding that years of diplomatic efforts often fail to achieve.

"From hearing about [Syria] in the press and what I had made up in my own mind, the warmth we felt was just surprising," said the American clarinet player, Paul Butler. "It's about the world coming together."

The bonding between the local and visiting musicians was obvious. Besides personal contacts that may yield a Syrian trip to the US, or another Syria tour for the band, local students got to know some Americans.

"These young [Syrian] musicians are attracted to American music, and through that to the American people," says AbduRaouf Adwan of the American Cultural Center in Damascus. "The students see that they are good people, and say, 'We didn't know that before.' "

Part of the success with blending the two musical styles is that jazz and Arabic music both rely on improvisation. The Syrian students and graduates had a classical music education, and the American professionals also had a broad range that enabled a perfect fit.

"The oriental scale of 'Caravan' was very suitable. It was a conversation between the two cultures," says Kinan Azmeh, the award-winning Syrian clarinetist who has played since he was seven years old. "It was the musical experience of my life."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.