By Lilianne Fan
On 29 June, the second day of the visionary and vibrant Refugee Festival at Publika’s Black Box, Kuala Lumpur, Syrian musicians Omar Alkhammash, 20, and Majd Hass, 27, unveiled their new musical initiative ‘The Ishtar Project’. Joined by Iraqi Dalia Esam, 18, on piano, and fellow Syrian Tara Ahmad, 34, on violin, these young musicians took the spellbound audience on a 45-minute musical voyage from the Levant across the Mediterranean to the coasts of Sicily and Andalusia, with a range of original compositions as well as new renditions of classical, modern and flamenco pieces.
The band is named after ‘Ishtar’, the ancient Goddess of Love, Beauty, Desire, War and Justice, the worship of whom flourished in the Mesopotamian region since the time of Sumerian civilisation (3000 BCE) through to that of the Assyrians (1300-612 BCE). The Ishtar Project co-founders Omar and Majd chose this name in recognition and reverence of the singular power of music to summon a presence of ‘the sacred’, in what master pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim calls “the finite being’s attempts to become infinite”. At the same time, music can evoke the most raw, complex and subtle of human emotions, from love to despair. The ancient name also plays on the idea of making the past present, as the band explores creatively through oud and flamenco guitar, the ensemble’s primary instruments, how culture emerges through history, journeys, interactions and exchange, as in the musical migrations and influences of Arabian music on Andalusian music.
Creation on the Move.
All members of Ishtar are all professionally trained musicians who started learning music in their childhood years. They also all originate from countries torn apart by war– Syria and Iraq– and all now live as refugees in Malaysia. The Refugee Fest in Kuala Lumpur, founded by passionate artist-activist Mahi Ramakrishnan and now in its third year running, has provided a platform for talented refugees like the Ishtar musicians, as well as artists such as filmmakers and photographers who work with refugees, to share their artistic initiatives. For Ishtar, the festival was the perfect place to launch their initiative and share music, not only to entertain the audience but also to express their experience of being affected by war.
The first piece performed was an original composition by Omar and Majd entitled ‘Shami’ (meaning ‘My Syria’, using the old name for the region ‘Al Sham’), with the powerful Arabic-rooted music accompanied by a video montage of images from Syria before the war, devastation during the war, and images of daily life in refugee camps across the region. This was followed by a second original composition, a delicate and moving piece written and arranged by Dalia, called ‘Hope’. Omar and Majd then performed their new interpretation of Malagueña flamenco, followed by a lively and innovative adaptation of Beethoven’s ‘Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor’, commonly known as ‘Für Elise’. The duo then warmed the audience with the theme from ‘The Godfather’ by Nino Rota, before ending with a stunning version of the legendary Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola’s ‘Mediterranean Sundance’.
Resonance and Rebirth.
For the musicians, the initiative is deeply transformative and fills them with artistic excitement. For Majd, performing professionally in front of a Malaysian audience is an act of restoring dignity, as it allows people to recognise them as more than refugees but as people with their own unique gifts. “We may be refugees here in Malaysia, but we are all more than refugees. We want people to see that, and to realise that we have talents, that we have dreams.” Omar highlighted the pleasure of playing with such professional musicians, which allows them to “be harmonious and spontaneous while also experimenting and improvising”, generating a dynamic of dialogue, interdependence and openness to expression. For Dalia, music was ‘a great language’, one that is both universal and uniting in its force. Tara, who has lived in Malaysia for 25 years and speaks fluent Malay, agreed: ‘music brings us all together and tells us that we are all one.’
Ultimately, Ishtar Project is testimony to the power of music to traverse boundaries and bring into being new experiences of listening, sharing, belonging and creating. In a well-known myth, upon Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld to seek reunion with her husband Tammuz, the goddess passes through seven gates. At each gate, Ishtar must strip herself of her regalia until she is left naked and exposed, stripped of all defenses and forced to face the darkness in her full vulnerability. Like their namesake, the musicians of the Ishtar Project confront their origins and the violence of the wars that ravage their homelands– the bombing of schools and children inside them, the sudden loss of loves ones, the destruction of homes and hospitals— these terrors that that forced them to become refugees in foreign lands. But, just as the goddess Ishtar discovers that she can only become complete and then reborn by knowing death, the musicians find new creative power in bearing witness to realities of human suffering and using their musical gifts to express the emotions that only those who have lived through war could know. And from the tomb of darkness, through a transformative power of sound, music is born– the throb of a heartbeat, the stirring of consciousness that resists a final death and insists on the possibility of new creation.
Lilianne Fan is an anthropologist and Co-Founder of the Geutanyoe Foundation, a regional humanitarian organisation which supports The Ishtar Project as part of its Refugee Arts Programme.