Classical Syrian Musicians Struggle to Find Work

Syria is home of one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the Middle East. Over the years it has trained thousands of talented musicians in the intricacies of both Arabic and European classical music. But the musicians it graduates often have a hard time finding a job they want.

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Most of the time when we mention Syria on this program we go on to discuss Middle Eastern politics and international tensions. But Syria is also home to one of the most prestigious musical conservatories in the Middle East and over the years it has trained thousands of talented musicians in the intricacies of both Arabic and European classical music. But musicians the world over have trouble finding that dream gig. And as independent producer Reese Erlich reports from Damascus, it's especially tough in Syria.

REESE ERLICH: First year music student Ali Achmed(ph) steps nervously up to the marimba. The university's piano accompanist nods her head and the performance exam begins.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: Ali and others are taking their end of year exams here at the government-funded Higher Institute of Music in Damascus. He must perform on a total of five European and Arabic percussion instruments. Ali walks up to play an African drum called a jimbe(ph).

(Soundbite of drums)

ERLICH: The professors on his exam committee call out various rhythms for him to play.

(Soundbite of drums)

ERLICH: Out in the hall after the exam, I asked Ali how he thinks he did.

Mr. ALI ACHMED (Music Student): (Through translator) Well acceptable.

ERLICH: Ali says after graduation he plans to find work outside the country. Another percussion student, Hasim Lebaad(ph) experiences no doubt that he'll find work inside Syria after his five years of university level schooling.

Mr. HASIM LEBAAD (Student, Higher Institute of Music): (Through translator) I want to work in the orchestra. I want (unintelligible)

ERLICH: But unemployment among educated youth in Syria is estimated at 50 percent. So it wont be easy for skilled young musicians like Ali and Hasim to find work. There are only about 200 jobs in Syria's top orchestras, and students often have to compete with their own professors for the same jobs. To meet that competition, I stopped by the Solhi al-Wadi Music School in Damascus and found a group of professors rehearsing their classical Arabic band for a performance the next day.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: Teachers at the Solhi al-Wadi School provide top-notch music education for children ages seven to 18. But even with a full teaching load, they earn only $15 a day. School director Jowan Qarajoli(ph) says his professors have to moonlight, usually holding down at least two teaching jobs and performing in half a dozen bands.

Mr. JOWAN QARAJOLI (Director, Solhi al-Wadi Music School): At the end of the day you see them finished in all the ways, but they have to live. And by the way, I'm the conductor of the Syrian Orchestra of Arabic Music, the biggest one. I have to work.

ERLICH: Earning a living as a musician is not easy in any country. Grads from prestigious American music schools also have a hard time finding permanent employment. But Syria faces an unusual problem. The government provides higher education virtually for free. The country produces thousands of highly trained professionals every year. The Syrian economy can't absorb all the skilled violinists and oud players. Some of the best musicians go overseas. Others, well, end up headlining weddings and restaurants.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: Performing in a restaurant, keyboardist Sayid Horar(ph) says he graduated from a two-year music academy in the northern city of Tartus. He studied oud, a type of guitar, and other classical Arabic instruments. Today, he plays electric keyboard with the keys reconfigured to sound like traditional instruments. But the band plays Arabic pop, not classical music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SAYID HORAR (Musician): (Through translator) I studied classical Arab music at the music academy. I wanted to become a classical musician. That's part of our musical heritage. But it's much easier to find work as a pop musician. We have a good band and get a lot of work. I make a decent living as a musician.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: Band leader and vocalist Elias Sariani(ph) says there's no shame in playing restaurants and weddings. He says one of the most popular songs he sings is called Ask the Beautiful Woman.

Mr. ELIAS SARIANI (Musician): (Through translator) It's a song about a woman who stood in front of a religious man on his way to pray at the mosque. That's when you hear my imitation of the call to prayer. (Singing in foreign language)

ERLICH: Sariani has a successful career performing popular music. He's lucky enough to make a living and follow his artistic passion.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: Despite the odds, many students at the Higher Institute of Music hope for a similar measure of success. Second year student Masan Hamsa officially studies classical Arab music, but he has another passion.

Mr. MASAN HAMSA (Student): (Through translator) I know Arabic music, but I really want to play jazz.

ERLICH: Achieving his dream could prove to be a particularly difficult challenge.

Mr. HAMSA: (Through translator) True, there's not much of a jazz community in Damascus. You have to play in small specialty bands, mostly at people's houses.

ERLICH: But like musicians all over the world, Masan is determined to follow his musical passions. Earning a living? That comes later.

For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

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