Syrian musicians to help raise funds for Shuswap refugee efforts

Orontes Guitar Quartet to perform fundraising concert at Nexus on May 22

Four talented guitarists escaped the ravages of war-torn Syria and are grateful to have found refuge in Canada.

Thanks to the Artist Protection Fund, the classical guitarists are “visiting artists” at UVic’s School of Music until September.

Known collectively as the Orontes Quartet, the artists are taking their talent on the road and will perform in Salmon Arm on Wednesday, May 22.

Orwa al Sharaa, Gaby al Botros, Nazir Salameh and Mir Mahmoud met while studying at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus in 2012 and 2013.

Read more: Syrian refugees fear for lives at home

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The name of the group is a tribute to the Orontes or Al Assi River which flows northward to the Mediterranean Sea from Lebanon through Syria, their homeland, and Turkey.

While in Syria, Orontes appeared with the Syrian Philharmonic, on Syrian MTV and Sky Arabia. They also arranged multiple concerts, but they and their families faced violence in Damascus where they were at risk from extremist groups.

McDonald, who runs a small foundation called Remember The River that supports musicians in dangerous regions, encouraged Orontes to apply to the New York-based Artist Protection Fund. It provides threatened artists fellowship grants through residency programs at academic or cultural institutions in safe countries where artists can continue their work and plan for their future.

“Music needs a clear mind, and playing music requires the musician to be comfortable. But the conditions in Syria were bad to the point where no matter what you did, you weren’t be able to clear your mind or think about music,” explains al Sharaa. “It means a lot for us to be here in Canada: it’s calm, safe and beautiful, the people are kind and welcoming. It’s a perfect atmosphere to concentrate and think about music.”

That they arrived in Canada is due, in large part, to Alexander Dunn, an internationally renowned guitarist and UVic music instructor who worked closely with the U.S. organizations for a year.

This is the first time the APF has placed an artist in Canada and the first time it has designed a residency program for a group rather than for an individual artist.

The quartet has already performed in several Canadian communities and is embarking on another tour. Their styles include blues, jazz, flamenco, baroque, classical, Latin music and folklore and their music is a powerful message about the power of music, hope and determination.

“I think it puts a human face on the refugee; not just us saving them from the horrors of war, which we are, but also they bring with them untold talents and experience and they can contribute to Canadian culture,” says Brian Ayotte, chair of the Salmon Arm Refugee Coalition of groups which began working to bring Syrian refugees to Canada in 2015. “We learn from them and enjoy their talents and get to know them.

Read more: Syrian refugee responds to racism in Canada

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The coalition, which was disbanded, has reformed. And while some groups will continue to work on their own, members will support each other in their efforts to bring refugees in both private and government-assisted projects from perilous places in the world.

In terms of the Orontes Quartet, Ayotte says that he believes they will remain in Canada when their fellowship program is completed.

The Salmon Arm fundraising concert takes place at 7 p.m. at the Nexus at First United Church on Wednesday, May 22. Tickets are $20 each and are available weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Shuswap Immigrant Services at 371 Hudson Ave. NE or at the door. Doors open at 6:40 p.m.


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