The concert isn’t exactly about paradise lost.
But A Letter from Syria, an evening of music Saturday at the Painted Bride by Philadelphia composer Kinan Abou-afach, looks back at pre-civil war Damascus with a kind of longing that hasn’t had much of a place in news reports from the Middle East tinder box.
“The concert is not newly commissioned music, but old pieces … all written eight years ago, before the war,” said the composer, who is a fixture at concerts at West Philly’s Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture and who also has composed for the new-music chamber choir the Crossing. “In the news, they just show you destroyed houses. Anyone can trust me when I say that Syria was a fine place to be 10 years ago. The ones who are now fleeing as refugees? These are the people who would invite you into their homes 10 years ago.”
Nostalgia may seem like a radical emotion in this context, one that’s as startling, in its way, as news of airstrikes and refugee crises — while also raising questions of what such a concert might look or sound like.
Presented by A Global Week for Syria, the evening may have a video element. Musically, the program is similar to one Abou-afach presented in March in Germantown. His primary instrument is the western cello, which is in many ways the emotional center of an ensemble rounded out by pianist Julian Horner, bassist Dave Brodie, percussionist Hafez Javier Kotain, and drummer Doug Hirlinger.
Any Arabic-influenced music has to be melody-oriented — often in traditional music, that’s all there is. One point of liberation Abou-afach experienced when arriving in the United States was the use of harmony.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said. But his cello solos — which often explore the wailing upper range of his instrument — also embrace the microtonal quality in Arabic music. Though Western scales are divided into 12 notes, Arabic music often has 24, giving the melodies a serpentine quality that’s unmistakably part of his cello playing. He also plays the oud, a lutelike instrument that often has no frets on the fingerboard, allowing an endless variety of pitch.
Influences from American jazz for Abou-afach are an inevitability. “America is jazz,” he said. “I loved it before I came here. In the middle of ‘Stranger Tale’ [one of the pieces on the program], it goes into straight jazz swing. Jazz harmony is complicated and advanced.” So is rhythm, which gives the impression that Abou-afach’s music exists on a constantly shifting floor plan.
Having arrived in the U.S. in 2000 to study at DePaul University in Chicago, Abou-afach, 40, has played some 100 concerts in the last five years with groups such as the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and Yo-Yo Ma’s crosscultural Silk Road Ensemble, and, locally, with the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, which drew him to Philadelphia in 2011.
Living in Upper Darby with his wife and two children, he admits his life has become circumscribed. He sticks to the communities that already know him. Though he speaks English well, he says, “I try not to be in a situation where people say, ‘You have an accent. Where are you from?’ I don’t want to open a can of worms. Some people make fun of my accent. This is fine. This always happens. But nobody has called me a terrorist in the past year or so.”
The concert may take him a bit out of his comfort zone. “I’m not a good speaker,” he said. “But I do like to talk, because every piece has a story.”