Orphé, a Berlin based ensemble, fuses oriental and Balkan folk with contemporary tango and jazz. This international band is made up of musicians with Syrian, Palestinian, German, Scottish and French heritage, and brings together diverse sounds, genres and stories.
This musical assemblage is a metaphor for everyday processes of inclusion in Berlin: where experiments in the here and now evoke multiple elsewheres, where melancholy and nostalgia are also laced with playfulness and new sounds. New friendships and individually felt (and privately lived) precarities form a shared solidarity and purpose: the make good music together, in the practice room or on the stage, and leave everything else behind for a moment.
These ‘new Berliners’ are making their place in this eclectic city. They each go or have gone through the infamous job centre, and language training courses. They all find their second-hand clothes on the streets or consignment shops.
Each musician carries their musical instruments with care, and drapes themselves over their instrument when they play. They bring with them their own affective sensibilities and shape an atmospheric whole that defies platitudes regarding aesthetics and virtuosity or allusions to ‘oriental-western fusion’.
As Nafea explains,
“Orphé reminds us of our homeland. But you see, four of us are refugees, but in music we are all the same. And music is another way for integration, because Music doesn’t need a dictionary, it doesn’t know any boundaries and allows for a wide range of interpretation.
Ayman interjects, “But to be honest, if our music teachers back home at the conservatory knew what musical arrangements we were experimenting with, mixing oriental, tango and jazz influences, they would really disapprove! (he laughs)… For example tango, it’s close to our ears, the minor keys. But it’s not traditional in Syria. But Berlin is a good place for this kind of music. Maybe young people in other parts of Germany like techno or others like Western classical music. But here in Berlin, ‘es gibt ein publikum für alles’ (there is an audience for everything). And each of us in the this band, we found each other. We had the same approach to music. The ideas are always meeting.”
For each band member, there is a kind of place-making in the sound of Orphé, where a sense of home is relayed through evocations of particular melodies, but where experiences of nomadism are reflected in the multiple musical genres at play. The notion of home seems far away and perhaps increasingly unfamiliar, but a sense of belonging is shaped through the ensemble at work. And the sound is both intensely emotive, and deliberately unsentimental.
Ayman is 32 years old. He studied in Homes, but had to stop his studies because of the war. He didn’t want to get pulled into the army, so he left. “The only people who can survive in Syria right now are either good at stealing or killing.”
He arrived in Berlin in August 2015. “Now this would not be possible. People who want to leave now can’t.” Ayman spent a few days in Jordan, and then made his way to Turkey where he spent his days busking on the streets to make a living. But when Ramadan started and no one was out and about in the streets, it wasn’t possible to make any money. The winter cold further complicated matters, and the weight of a weightless collection hat at the busking corner was too much to bear. As Ayman explains, “we had to leave. Walking, boat, sleeping in the streets…” He arrived in Vienna, and worked as a composer and musician, but couldn’t stay. So he made his way to Berlin, and arrived as a refugee.
“It took me a year and a half to have my papers! I first spent 21 days in a shelter, and had a negative experience. My things got stolen, there was no privacy. Living in close quarters with people you don’t know… It was so hard. Plus you don’t just tell people about your problems even if you’re depressed or having a hard time. Because they also have had a very difficult time.”
Nafea arrived in 2012, and as he was slightly more settled than the others by 2015, two of them stayed in his flat for a while. “Camps are harder than war, and I went out of the system as soon as I could. So I made sure that my friends also left the camps as soon as possible. The problem is you can’t do anything there. No study no work, no action.”
Ayman recounts some of the positive experiences in Berlin.
“Thankfully music saved me. It really saved me.” Ayman’s violin was a gift from a German woman in Berlin who told him she didn’t need it anymore. All he had to do was buy the bow and strings. He hopes to start teaching music soon. “With that, plus my composition, orchestra work and Orphé, I will be able to make a living. Right now I am ‘selbstständig’ (self-employed), but the job centre is helping me with housing expenses.” This ‘help’ usually includes German language classes and health insurance.
Ayman now has a German girlfriend. He mentions that she is Christian, and says, “It would be impossible for me in my country to go out with a girl from a different religion. We would have our families on top of us, but here we are free to be together without expectations or pressures.”
So despite the challenges Ayman has experienced as a refugee, he points to the forms of ‘freedom’ that have made his time in Berlin positive: the protection from the state to live and work as he wishes, the freedom to date the person he wants to date regardless of her religion or family background, and the freedom to experiment musically.
Original melody by Elias Rahbani and rearranged by Ayman Hlal & Wesam Karema. The band members are Daisam Jalo, Romeo Natur, Ayman Hlal, Nafea Abo Assi, Wesam Karema, Seb Thieme and Robert Barr.