I had arrived the day before in an unusual heat wave for the Syrian capital, 44 degrees Centigrade, with blasts of hot, dry air hitting my face as I walked to the airport bus from my plane after I had landed. This was weather that reminded me of Riyadh and not of a Levantine country.
Thankfully, the annual Jazz Lives in Syria Festival, which was in its 6th edition, was held outdoors at night in the lovely setting of the Citadel, its hefty limestone walls glowing yellow in the light of the spotlights. We soon reached the venue and were greeted by a large crowd of stylish Syrians and expatriates of all ages, some milling about and the majority sitting in front of a large stage where the various jazz groups were presenting themselves.
After buying some water and soft drinks to quench our thirst, we headed to the front row and sat down to watch Pressure Pot Band, a Syrian band that impressed us with their versatile blend of fusion jazz, that included references to Arabic, rock, funk and electronic music.
All the members of the band looked to be in their early twenties, headed by the chubby and charismatic Khaled Omran on bass guitar and vocals. Nareg Abjeean was on keyboards, Dani Shukri on drums, and Tarek Khuluki on electric guitar and vocals.
The audience loved Pressure Pot Band, erupting several times into appreciative applause and whoops of delight at certain riffs on the guitars. One of the band’s songs in Arabic, “Wein al Daght?” (“Where’s the Pressure?”), exemplified all of the pressures that young Syrians feel squeezed by today, from performing well in school to finding it very difficult to afford to get married and move out of their parents’ homes.
The group has a page on Facebook, and is reportedly working on recording their first CD.
Other local talent that enlivened the jazz festival was the Nota Band, a band of six young Syrian guys who specialize in fusing the sound of the Arabic Oud with jazz music; the first Latin music group in Syria called the Chilli Band; the Syrian Jazz Orchestra, and the Amr Hammour Trio.
The festival this year was held from July 8-13, and was free to the public. Sponsored by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, the Municipality of Damascus, this celebration of jazz also included various foreign musicians such as the Barana Band from the Netherlands, Eivind Aarset of Norway, Lara Bello, a jazz singer from Spain, the MSV Brecht group from Germany, and the Swiss jazz pianist Marc Perrenoud.
The Damascus Jazz Festival does not limit itself to performances during that one week every summer. It holds workshops for local jazz musicians the whole year round, including ones for children refugees from Iraq and Palestine, which are generously funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
I was thoroughly surprised and elated at the quality and originality of the jazz music that I heard that night in Damascus. The riffing of Khaled Omran seemed to exemplify the worries and angst of young Arabs across the region, but also showed that funneled in the right direction, this angst can be turned into something creative and beautiful.
“This is much better than the Dubai Jazz Festival!” I told Rasha as we left. “I’m so glad that I came.”
This year’s festival is already over, but you should certainly put it on your calendar of things to do next summer if you want to experience the fresh and innovative jazz tunes of young Syrians.
--For more information on the Jazz Lives in Syria Festival go to their website: The Facebook page of the Pressure Pot Band can be found here: .