The men of Arabesque make a connection through love of music

The members of Arabesque are all from Syria but they met in Ottawa.

Coming to Canada is a life changing event for any immigrant. Finding a place to live and work is vital. Learning new languages and finding a new community is part of the journey. Sometimes those connections can be made in surprising ways.

That’s certainly the case for the six men in the musical group Arabesque. All are from Syria, but none of them knew each other before they met here.

“We got together by accident,” said the group’s leader Dani Najjan in an interview. He is the choir director at St. Paul’s Syriac Church in Ottawa. That’s where Arabesque began. (On Saturday night the public can see how far they have come in a concert at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, presented by Harmony Concerts.)

St. Paul’s Syriac Church is where Dani met Khalil Al Dawahra, who is a house painter by trade. He’s a singer and wanted to work with Dani’s choir.

“I met him for the first time at church,” Dani said. From such a simple meeting, something bigger started. Turned out that Khalil had a friend named Yasir Al Obidat, who works in high tech and who was also a keyboard player like Dani.

“We met and we decided to do some stuff together as a trio of two keyboards and a singer.” Khalil also had a friend who was a drummer who was looking for a band to join. When Abdullah Khouri, who restores furniture, showed up the trio became a quartet.

They added another percussionist, Nadim Baghdan, who works in a Greek restaurant and who plays a traditional Middle Eastern drum and finally the last to join was a second vocalist named George Salem, who is another house painter.

Five of the band-mates are Syrian Christians and one, Yasir, is Muslim.

Today they are all close friends, but they are from different parts of Syria.

Dani, Nadim and Yasir are originally from Damascus. Khalil is from the city of Dara and George and Abdullah are from Aleppo.

In Dani’s case, he arrived in Ottawa in 2011 after living in Montreal for a while. Today he lives in Gatineau. But he didn’t come here because of the war that has raged in his homeland for most of the decade. His parents and a brother and sister are still in Damascus, but, Dani says, the war has ended in the Syrian capital so they are safe, he added.

“I wanted to move to a good country like Canada. I read about Canada. I even knew about the weather. I don’t like the cold or snow that much, but I’m used to it now after eight years. In Syria have the sun 340 days a year. I wanted to try another place to live.”

Dani is a pharmacist by training. He studied in Kharkov, Ukraine where he met his wife. They now have four children with a fifth on the way. That’s also where Dani learned to speak Russian. Now he has command of four languages, English, French Russian and Arabic.

He’s not working as a pharmacist in Canada because the requirements to become a member of the profession are onerous and he’s got a family to feed. Taking time off to study is not possible, so he works as a technician in a pharmacy and plays music for enjoyment.

He is using his talent.

“We don’t do this to make money. In Syria, we all started making music as kids. We played in Syria. My main instrument was the accordion but I left it. I play the piano and organ now.

The music the group will be playing in their concert Saturday will be traditional Syrian music sung in Arabic and drawing from the many influences that are available in that ancient culture.

But it is music that cemented their connection.

“Music is very important in Syria. We have a lot of singers, we have a lot of writers of music. The Syrian people like music of every kind. I used to listen to American pop and European music, whatever kind, at home.

The band is important, Dani said.

“It’s a good reason to gather together. We are always busy. Everyone has their own family lives” so music offers an oasis in busy lives.

They rehearse once or twice a week.

“If we didn’t we would lose the skill. Practice is important to keep going and get better. The second reason is we enjoy it. We love music.”

The concert on Saturday will be more than two hours long, he says. They’ve got a lot of music to share.

Harmony Concerts presents Arabesque
Where: St. Barnabas Anglican Church,
When: Jan. 12 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.