Jazz Singer Rasha Rizk in Damascus, Syria.

Remembering Syria and Syrians — The Jazz Duo Rasha Rizk and Ghazwan Zerkli

I wanted to share a moment in time from Damascus in 2009 for the third part of our series reflecting upon Syria and the Syrians we knew before the Civil War. That was the last time we visited Syria, to work on a handful of stories for magazines. We were also developing a book project that we postponed due to our 2010 Grand Tour, something we regret terribly now.

Syria in 2009 was a very different place to the city we experienced on our first holiday to the country in 1999, when we visited Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra. Syria has always been cultured and Syrians have long been considered some of the finest educated in the Arab World, its universities some of the most disciplined, especially when it came to studying the classics, including classical Arabic.

Yet in 2009 Damascus was cultured, as well as increasingly sophisticated and urbane. There were boutique hotels, restaurants, bars, and clubs to rival anything in Beirut, but being Damascus, they were different. And don’t get me wrong, we had loved Damascus a decade earlier as much as we did on that last trip to Syria, it was just different, but we’ll save that for another post.

Syrian Jazz Duo Rasha Rizk and Ghazwan Zerkli

At first, it appeared to be an unusual experiment by an oddly matched couple — an acclaimed Syrian concert pianist teaming up to perform jazz with a gorgeous young soprano and professor from the Opera Department at the Higher Institute for Music in Damascus.

Could a classical pianist really go from Chopin to Cole Porter and an opera singer swing from Bizet to Billy Holiday? We were about to find out.

While it was a departure for pianist Ghazwan Zerkli and singer Rasha Rizk, their passion for jazz and accomplished musicianship proved a potent mix during their first concert together as part of Art House hotel’s 2009 summer concert series in Damascus.

“Yesterday I was playing Chopin, today I’m playing Cole Porter,” Ghazwan told us, grinning happily during rehearsals at the stylish Damascene hotel’s atmospheric gallery-cum-performance space.

“I think every pianist has the right to play jazz. It’s just a matter of education whether he does or not. In classical music, you can’t change the pace much, but I like that you can do this in jazz. I feel freer playing jazz,” he confided, “And it’s a lot more fun!”

Opera singer Rasha Rizk was also relishing the freedom of the form. “In opera and classical music, we have to eliminate improvisation. This is something I love about jazz,” she confided, almost bouncing with enthusiasm. “When I was only singing opera, I felt I needed more… jazz was the answer!”

“I love its richness,” Rasha continued, “Every musician can put their own stamp on jazz. It is freeing,” she agreed.

The birthplace of some of the Arab world’s greatest musicians — Farid Al Attrache is the first to spring to mind for most — and with a long, rich music history and culture, Syrian music has always been synonymous with classical Oriental music. Few think of jazz when they think of Syria.

“There was a big jazz movement here in the 1950s, then in the 1960s it was more of a youth-led movement”, Ghazwan revealed. “We have around eleven jazz bands now.”

“Jazz isn’t new at all in Syria,” Rasha agreed. “Duke Ellington even played here in Damascus with his big band!”

“Arabic music is not just about quarter tones — Arabic music has octaves divided into 24 equal steps, not the Western twelve,” Rasha explained. “There’s an Arabic way to play Western music, such as jazz.”

“For instance, I do a salsa-inspired piano composition with an Arabic influence,” Ghazan added. When he played it later that evening he was true to his word. It was an intriguing piece of fusion music with distinctive Arabic motifs.

While Rasha and Ghazwan’s new jazz project may only have been an experiment for the pair, the Art House gig was jam-packed with an audience appreciative of their performance, especially their romantic versions of jazz standards.

Singing classics such as The Very Thought of You and The Touch of Your Lips in a floor-length red satin evening gown, Rasha reminded us more of Hollywood musical starlets of the Golden Age than a torch singer. But she had a huge voice, and had no hesitation in using it to support her genre jumping.

But what of the Damascus jazz scene at the time? While venues such as Dome, Backdoor and Zodiac hosted jazz bands there wasn’t a dedicated venue where musicians could perform regularly. Nor were there music labels willing to produce jazz recordings.

“Part of the problem,” Rasha explained to us, “is that we don’t have a jazz department at the Higher Institute.” Ghazwan agreed, “They spend money on activities and events, but we need jazz teachers.”

“We also need more courageous music producers,” Rasha added, “The music business is the second most profitable after cinema, so why not?”

Rasha was speaking from experience. Her project with Ghazwan wasn’t her first jazz foray. Rasha and guitarist husband Ibrahim Sulaimani had played an experimental fusion of Arabic-jazz, funk and soft rock as Itar Shameh, self-financing their first CD Beitna (Our Home), released in 2007. They were recording their second at the time.

“We have a contract with a Lebanese distributor,” she told us excitedly, “But what we play is alternative music and the big companies are only interested in pop. So now we’re marketing and selling our music on the Internet and at festivals. We really need a courageous production company because what Arabic music really needs is a new wave.”

Terence took the portrait of Rasha, above, just before her performance with Ghazwan at Art House that summer in 2009. 

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