Samer Ali and Marissa Arciola are completely in sync. Ali’s violin dances deftly over Arciola’s sonorous double bass as they played traditional Syrian music. They stand at one end of the main hall of City Lore, the storied venue and organization in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Chairs have taken over the limited space leaving room for a small stage area.
Ali and Arciola, both 40, had chosen City Lore for their musical event, meant to raise funds and awareness about the devastating earthquakes that hit Syria and Turkey. In 2017, they founded the Syrian Music Preservation Initiative (SMPI), an organization that “promotes and celebrates the diverse ethnic and regional musical traditions of Syria through preservation, innovation, research and education.” The duo gathered musicians from Syria, Turkey along with members of the New York Arabic Orchestra for the concert, donating over $2500 to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).
In addition to being a violinist, oudist and composer, Ali’s day job is as a pathologist and professor of medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital. Arciola also wears the hats of a fundraiser for a nonprofit and business manager in addition to her abilities as a musician.
In conversation with Epicenter-NYC contributor, Hari Adivarekar, they spoke about Syrian-American history (the first Syrians landed on these shores in the late 1800s), the Maqam system of traditional Arabic music and the on-ground-situation in Syria beyond the travails of war and natural disasters.
They also shared information about their upcoming concert featuring Syrian traditional and contemporary compositions that will be showcased in a special concert at the Carnegie Hall on May 19, 2023, in New York City. You can learn more about the Syrian Music Preservation Initiative and their upcoming shows on their website.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Epicenter-NYC: The SMPI has an important performance coming up this spring in Carnegie Hall. Tell us about that.
Marissa Arciola: It’s happening on May 19, 2023, at 8 p.m. We’re very excited about this concert. It’s the five-year anniversary of SMPI and tickets are available right now on the Carnegie Hall website. The title of the concert is Love and Loss: Traditional Music of Syria.
It’s going to be a wonderful concert. We have 12 musicians and vocalists and we also opened up one of the pieces to the community. So we had an audition in January and anyone who was interested, professional, not professional, student or novice, if you had a love and an interest, you could audition.
Then we accepted five people and they will be playing one of the pieces on stage with us, at Carnegie Hall. We’ve been working with them individually and as a group with workshops and special rehearsals, so that they understand the music and the history. We’re very excited about that element of the performance and bringing the community on stage because Arabic music is very underrepresented in general in the U.S. and particularly on these very important stages.
Samer Ali: The program is focused on the Syrian repertoire and pieces by Syrian composers. Some of them are from older generations and some of them are current composers.
We want to highlight these exceptional composers, who might be lesser known.
Epicenter-NYC: How and why did the Syrian Music Preservation Initiative begin?
Marissa Arciola: Samer started the initiative with the Takht al-Nagham, which is our performing ensemble, in 2017. He had come to the U.S. in 2013 and was playing with other groups around the city. But there was no Syrian music being played. So there was this big gap in the Arabic repertoire.
Samer Ali: This is 2017 and the political situation in Syria and the civil war was very difficult.
Unfortunately, it has not improved even now, it has only gotten worse. But in 2017, it was very ambiguous. What’s gonna happen with the country? So music is not a priority in these situations. Now, if you add that there’s no focus on Syrian music in the Arab music scene or in the New York music scene. That’s where the idea came from — there’s a gap that needs to be filled by someone who’s an insider like me. We realized that there’s a bigger project than only performing these pieces. So,we started the Syrian Music Preservation Initiative as a New York-based nonprofit organization.
Epicenter-NYC: What is Syrian traditional music? You know, some people might see it as a monolith, but from what little I understand, it seems to be quite diverse.
Samer Ali: The traditional music of Syria is its regional music. You have different regions in Syria and there’s folklore, but also there’s classical music, which is mainly in cities like Aleppo and Damascus. What we have is basically a Maqam system and every maqam or theme has a different feeling and character. Even within one maqam it’ll have many different forms, many different rhythms, different compositions, and sometimes it’s improvised so it’s not composed only.
Marissa Arciola: It is very complex and, and within the different maqams, which are the equivalent of a Western scale, even the notes are slightly different.
Epicenter-NYC: Could you tell me a little bit about the connection between Syrians and New York City?
Samer Ali: The immigration from Syria to America started in New York, when everybody was landing at Ellis Island. This goes back to the 1880s. Actually, the first Arabic newspaper in America was published in New York. It was called Kowkab America (Planet of America), published by a Syrian family from Damascus. It was a newspaper covering cultural events as well as politics. There used to be an area called Little Syria in lower Manhattan. And we are a continuation of this community. We try to add something cultural and musical. We’re trying to do our fair share in terms of cultural responsibility.
Epicenter-NYC: What does the Western media get right and wrong about Syria?
Samer Ali: Since 2011, a lot has been covered about Syria. The media covers the political situation, the civil war and humanitarian crisis and the many Syrian refugees. But there is no coverage of the cultural side. What these people represent, the food, the cuisine, which is very advanced, very colorful in terms of flavors and the music, the poetry. One of the benefits from our concerts and from our work is to also tell the world Syrians are not only refugees and they are not – a burden.
Marissa Arciola: The media doesn’t cover the boring stuff of everyday life, and unfortunately, there are a lot of difficulties for everyday life of Syrians. There isn’t constant power, which to someone from the West is unimaginable to think that you don’t have electricity 24/7. There’s a fuel shortage, which is an issue with many parts of the Middle East right now.
Epicenter-NYC: If people want to support the Syrian Music Preservation Initiative, how would they go about it? What kind of support do you really need at this point in your journey?
Marissa Arciola: You can always find our contact information on our website syrianmusic.org, or you can email us at email@example.com.
We are always looking for donors. Obviously we’re a small nonprofit organization. We have received numerous grants from the City of New York and Chamber Music America (CMA) and that’s wonderful. But individual donations of any size are always helpful. We also are looking for volunteers and are always happy to talk to them. We need someone who is a translation specialist right now. We have a lot of volunteers who work as developers on our website and those who do the artistic side of things, designing posters. If someone has an interest in us they should reach out.