Syrian Trio To Play Michigan Festival of Sacred Music
Syria has been in the news since war broke out there roughly five years ago. While the conflict was once a distant thought in many Americans’ minds, the reality of the war is sinking in as Syrians seek asylum in the United States. Last month, 12 refugee families relocated to Kalamazoo. Unfortunately for some Americans, the war is all they know of Syria, but members of the Syrian-American group the DIO Trio hope to change that.
“They hear about Syria, they hear about the war. They hear about again people killing each other but they don’t know about our culture, about our music," says Omar Al-Musfi, percussionist for the DIO Trio.
The trio will perform a concert at Western Michigan University’s Heritage Hall Tuesday night at 7 p.m. as part of the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music. The name DIO Trio is an acronym of the musician’s first names - vocalist Dima Orsho, oud player Issam Rafea, and percussionist Omar Al-Musfi.
Each member of the group is a renowned musician in their own right. Between the three of them, they’ve collaborated with famous artists like Yo-Yo Ma, Shakira, Sting, and Gorillaz.
All three members of the group now live in DeKalb, Illinois. Al-Musfi moved there in 2000 to get his master’s degree at Northern Illinois University where he now teaches. Orsho and Rafea joined him there in 2010 and 2013 respectively.
Orsho first came to the United States to study at the Boston Conservatory of music in 2005. She says once she left school, she found the music scene in the United States to be much more competitive than in Syria. Orsho says the Syrian conservatory in Damascus is fairly new compared to music schools in Europe and the United States. When she studied there people were still excited about it.
“So they were all really interested to know what is happening. To see what kind of music these people are working on. People will attend a lot of concerts and you will really be under the spotlight in a very very easy and positive way because everybody is supporting you and everybody is trying to build this musical scene,” says Orsho.
On Tuesday, the trio will perform traditional Syrian music as well as their own compositions. Just like music in many other Middle Eastern countries - traditional Syrian music is known for its complex time signatures and sometimes impossibly fast percussion.
"The name of the rhythm could be the name of the composer of the piece or the region, the area that that rhythm came from,” Al-Musfi explains.
For example, in Arabic music there are different variations on a rhythm called “baladi” which means “of the country” or “of the people.”
Orsho says the trio’s own compositions are more experimental and bring in a lot of Western styles - like classical, opera, and jazz.
“I studied opera so I have the technique of the Western style so I try to mix this sometimes with the Arabic style of singing which is using more chest voice, throat voice," she says.
Al-Musfi says the trio often draws on its classical training:
“The idea is to let the Western audience understand our culture and our music through the way how we merge these two styles together. So that we can merge the Arabic maqam (scale) that Issam is playing with opera nd use rhythmic patterns that actually work in Western music and Arabic music.”
Orsho says Tuesday’s concert will also the first time the group has had a chance to play religious music.
“We rehearsed this especially for this festival and it was fantastic to really put all this program together,” she says.
Orsho says she and the other members of the DIO Trio haven’t been to their homeland of Syria for at least three years - but they have been active in organizing fundraisers for refugees:
“I had the chance to go to Jordan to one of the camps and worked with the kids and sang for them and sang for their mothers - who maybe this was like the first chance for them to hear live music or to see…to work with small instruments like percussion or recorders that we managed to take with us there. It was really a relief time for them. Just a small - like two days to make them feel that they are still alive, that there are a lot of things in life that is beautiful still. That life will go on that they have really to enjoy. They are kids and kids are meant to play and grow and be happy."
Orsho says with the war going on, it’s hard for the group to perform the music that reminds them of home. She says the repertoire for this upcoming concert is particularly touching.
“Every time I try to rehearse these songs by myself, I always remind myself not to cry in the concert. This is a concert, it’s not me singing by myself," she says.
"You cannot stop thinking of this, it’s like in our everyday life I think.”
You can see the DIO Trio perform Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at Western Michigan University’s Heritage Hall. Tickets are $15 for the general public and $5 for students.