Music Of Layali Al-Sham Unifies 2 Conflict Zones A World Apart
April 27, 2015
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Andrea Shaheen is a professor in the music department of the University of Texas at El Paso. She leads the Middle Eastern ensemble Layali Al-Sham, which means Damascus Nights.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
The Middle Eastern ensemble Layali Al-Sham rehearses their music before a concert.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
The Middle Eastern Ensemble Layali Al-Sham preforms a concert at the University of Texas at El Paso.

The conflict zones of the Middle East are a long way from the United States-Mexico border, which has experienced its own share of violence. In El Paso, a university ensemble has united musicians from both regions to play melodies rarely heard on the border.

The zurna is the Middle Eastern oboe. It's a simple wood horn that's played at weddings, store openings and whenever someone returns from a pilgrimage to Mecca. 

"It's an instrument that was used by the Ottoman empire to intimidate other troops," said Andrea Shaheen, a music professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Today its blunt, nasal sound transports Shaheen back to her family's native Syria, where she studied as a Fulbright scholar in 2010, a year before the country erupted in violence. Shaheen played with the Syrian National Symphony and wandered the countryside learning folk music.

"It was a very vibrant musical scene," she said.

But since 2011, religious and sectarian war has killed more than 220,000 people in Syria. More than 6 million are refugees. The fighting has disrupted life for everyone including the musicians Shaheen befriended.

"I see on Facebook some mornings they arrive to a bombed concert hall … yet they continue to perform," she said.

Then in 2013 Shaheen's uncle was killed in a street bombing. She got the news over the phone.

"My father called me to tell me...that he was killed going to buy the newspaper at the newspaper stand that he usually goes to," she said.

Her family was devastated. Shaheen turned to music. A few years earlier, she had been approached by a group of students in El Paso who wanted to form an Arabic music ensemble. Two of them lived just across the Mexican border in Ciudad Juárez, which at the time, was engulfed in drug-related violence.

"That indiscriminate violence that people face in Damascus everyday is very similar to what people faced here in Juárez everyday," Shaheen said.

Omar Limas, who plays percussion, was one of the students.

"We were pretty much in a war zone in Juárez," he said. "We were hiding we couldn't go out that much, but still we relied on music and art and doing what we had to."

The ensemble they founded is called Layali Al-Sham, which means "Damascus Nights." Limas first heard Arabic music online and was intrigued.

"With Arabic music we were discovering something new," he said. "We were getting pretty much outside the traditional music we get here on the border."

At a recent rehearsal the ensemble practiced different styles of Arabic music ranging from classical to pop. Its members are just as diverse. Reem Issa is a Palestinian refugee who's now studying electrical engineering in El Paso. She sings in the chorus and said the ensemble gives her a sense of home.

"I have one or two hours of rehearsal to have fun, to sing something I know because its in Arabic," Issa said. "And all of them are really happy to be there so when you're with them you have positive energy."

That positive energy electrified the audience after Layali Al-Sham's latest university concert.

Orlando Murillo, a violinist from Juárez, said the concert made him feel connected to a world beyond his immediate surroundings.

"The music unifies the people," Murillo said. "It's a great place to … forget your problems just sing and dance enjoy and that's it."

That concert was dedicated to musicians in Syria with the hope that one day they will perform again in peace.