Syrian-American musicians raise voices as homeland suffers
By JEFF KAROUB
Oct. 18, 2017
DETROIT (AP) — When Samer Saem Eldahr finished university, he was ready to spread his wings and start his career. He planned a month away from home to discover and pursue his craft.
It's a similar story to many college graduates, with a notable exception: There would be no realistic option to return from Lebanon to his home in Aleppo, Syria, which was descending into war. He left behind his music and art studio containing most of his equipment and paintings.
Five years on, Eldahr has been rebuilding his life and art as a permanent U.S. resident, living in Minneapolis with his wife and a child on the way. Under the name Hello Psychaleppo , he recently completed an album and is playing shows, including one Friday at the Arab American National Museum in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn.
Hello Psychaleppo is among several Syrian-American acts on the road, sharing music and messages about their homeland as the conflict rages on. The Arab museum on Monday will host Amplify Peace, a national tour presented by the Syrian American Medical Society. The concert, which aims to raise money for Syrian relief efforts, includes rapper/poet Omar Offendum, funk and soul outfit Bassel & The Supernaturals and others.
Eldahr combines styles just as he does worlds. He describes his sound as "electro-tarab," blending electronic music with the ethos of "tarab," an Arabic word describing music's emotional, ecstatic effect often associated with traditional artistic forms.
"I tried my best to separate those two worlds, my music and life ... but a certain point they do meet," he said.
While he describes his art as expressionistic, he believes it incorporates "a certain sentiment of longing." It's a theme within his album, "Toyour," inspired by a book called "The Conference of the Birds" by 12th century Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar.
"Birds symbolize lots of stuff — freedom of expression, freedom of movement," he said. "I believe that kind of relates to our destiny as Syrians. ... We have big questions right now."
In performance, he uses synthesizers, not traditional Arab instruments, but manipulates them to provide the "microtones" — pitches between those found in Western scales and common in Middle Eastern music — by using an effects machine called a "talk box."
"I'm trying to find the link between our music memory back home and the new modern tools and what can adapt," he said.
Bassel Almadani is a first-generation Syrian-American, born and raised in Ohio and now living in Chicago. The Bassel & The Supernaturals frontman helped organize the Amplify Peace tour, whose other stops have included Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and New York. He wanted to support the medical society, which he said is doing "substantial" humanitarian work and can help rebuild Syria's infrastructure.
For Almadani, the war has hit home: A cousin died on a bus a militant fired upon and many relatives have lost their homes. The conflict also has drawn him closer to his heritage: His band has a new song called "Aleppo," a soulful celebration of his ancestral homeland. He's proud of the 5,000-year-old city, once a cultural and artistic center with many kinds of musical influences.
"Our music is very multi-faceted," he said. "It's just like my own identity is a blend of my Syrian heritage and my Midwestern roots."
Offendum , a Syrian who was born in Saudi Arabia and came to the U.S. in the mid-1980s as a young boy, also feels deeply connected to his parents' birthplace. However, he said, the crisis should concern everybody: Some 5 million Syrians have fled their homeland since conflict there erupted in 2011, including his relatives. On his new song, "Years," he intones, "Speaking about my people and what six years cost them/Syrian bodies strewn ashore/families who've lost them."
"This is the world's problem, it's not just a Syrian problem," he said, adding that the tour aims to connect cultures and he's proud to be "using hip-hop, rock-and-roll and even traditional music to bridge that gap, make it more relatable for people — more real."
Hello Psychaleppo's Eldahr knows art can only go so far to help Syria. Still, he's proud to represent it and raise awareness of a place to which he longs to return.
"I believe artists ... want to reach places that people don't reach," he said. "Sometimes, we just dream big."