Syrian jazz fusion band to play at refugee relief concert in Chicago

By Ryan Connelly Holmes

The Syrian band Hewar is scheduled to play at a concert in Chicago on Saturday to benefit Syrian refugee children. All proceeds will go to Save the Children, an aid organization that focuses on children across the globe.

“They’re all just amazing musicians of extraordinary caliber, so just to have that evening out as a cultural experience would be a treat,” said Elaine Waxman, one of the organizers of the event, “and then made that much more meaningful by the opportunity to raise money for the Save the Children relief effort.”

Hewar was formed in 2003 as a collaboration between Kinan Azmeh, a clarinetist and composer, and his colleague Issam Rafea, an oud player, an instrument in Middle Eastern music similar to the lute. Both Syrian, Azmeh and Rafea met each other while in school in Damascus.

Azmeh and Rafea added Dima Orsho, a lyrical soprano, to the band after its inception. On Saturday, they will play with special guest percussionist Omar Al-Musfi.

A classically trained clarinetist, Azmeh has a doctorate from City University of New York, or CUNY, and a master’s from the Julliard School. He has played concerts in countries such as Lebanon, France, England and the United States. Saturday would be his first benefit concert in Chicago for humanitarian relief.

Since March 2011, Azmeh has been playing concerts all over the world to benefit Syrian refugees. He has performed for refugees in Jordan and taught music in the camps as well.

But it didn’t happen immediately. It took Azmeh more than a year after the Arab Spring to feel emotionally ready to write music again.

“After a year I realized that I owed it to myself to write and to keep my voice loud,” Azmeh said in a phone interview.

“I’m lucky that I have an instrument that actually can be quite loud if it needs to be, and I felt, you know what, that me making music is an act of freedom and I want to practice that.”

The name Hewar means “dialogue” in Arabic, which is an essential part of the band’s mission.

“The whole idea is that a conversation between two people is larger than the sum of their individual ideas,” Azmeh said.

Collaboration is what made the concert possible. One of Azmeh’s music students actually suggested the idea to him, and then got to work in her congregation to make it possible.

Katia Waxman, Elaine Waxman’s daughter and a 17-year-old junior at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, met Azmeh in 2012 at Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music in New Hampshire.

He was Katia Waxman’s teacher for the clarinet, and the two quickly formed a friendship and a mentor-mentee bond. For years she was looking for the right event to bring him to Chicago. When reports about the refugee crisis started coming in the last year, she pitched the idea to her mother, her congregation Tzedek Chicago, and Azmeh.

They all emphatically said “yes.”

“I’m so excited,” Katia Waxman said. “He’s been a really important part of my musical growth, so I’m excited to introduce him to the rest of my musical world.”

The high school junior and her mother belong to the Jewish congregation Tzedek Chicago, which shares a space with Luther Memorial Church, a Lutheran parish in Lincoln Square. Luther Memorial Church was excited to share its 340-seat church for a concert by candlelight, Elaine Waxman said.

The two congregations are joint sponsors of the event.

Once the space was booked and Luther Memorial and Tzedek were on board, Elaine Waxman contacted Save the Children, which immediately agreed to be the concert’s beneficiary.

Azmeh said he likes working with organizations where he knows all the money will go directly to the relief efforts. As for the concert itself, he hopes it provides a muse for giving.

“I hope the outcome of this is that is inspires people,” Azmeh said.

“If it makes people feel happy, that’s a great reward for us if people just simply enjoy the concert,” he said. “But also we’re hoping for something more immediate that people do feel inspired to act and do something.”

Saturday’s concert is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church, located at 2500 W. Wilson Ave., in Chicago.

Photo at top: Kinan Azmeh in concert. (Kinan Azmeh/Courtesy)