May 17, 2023 By Bill Parry
A couple from Astoria will take the stage at Carnegie Hall Friday, May 19, as the Syrian Music Preservation Initiative (SMPI) marks its fifth anniversary at Weill Recital Hall.
The celebration begins at 8 p.m. and features SMPI’s Tak ht al-Nagham, an Arab chamber music ensemble led by artistic director Samer Ali, who settled in Astoria more than 5,700 miles away from his war-torn homeland of Syria.
Ali and his wife Marissa Arciola Ali, strive to keep musical traditions alive through their work at SMPI and hope that preserving Syria’s rich cultural heritage and musical roots will bring Arab-American communities together through music while fostering understanding among non-Arabs.
“The theme of love and loss is common throughout the classical Syrian repertoire and remains relevant to their reality today,” Samer Ali said. “We are dedicated to preserving and invigorating the diverse regional music traditions of Syria and this performance will promote the musical heritage through both older, lesser-known works and contemporary pieces. In this way, we celebrate the past, present and future of Syrian music.”
He came to the United States in 2013 to pursue his medical career and lived in Sunnyside during his residence at Mount Sinai before moving in with Marissa in Astoria in 2021.
“I moved back to Astoria nine years ago after a few years in Manhattan. I love the neighborhood for its people, its diversity, its food and its life,” Marissa Aricola Ali said. “In 2018, Samer reflected on the state of Syria. As a country in continued conflict, he wondered if the Syria he knew would ever exist again. He realized that the insecurity of the country actually threatened the basis of the music itself. Syrian music, as is most Arab music, is a tradition passed down aurally from teacher to apprentice. With political unrest and mass emigration, the system breaks down. He felt that he needed to go beyond simply performing the music, but that he needed to help preserve the music. Thus, the Syrian Music Preservation Initiative was founded.”
In addition to founding the ensemble, Ali is a violinist, oudist and composer while Arciola Ali is a bassist, strategist and leader, serving as president of the SMPI board.
“The five-year anniversary is a great milestone for SMPI,” she said. “In some ways it is a showcase of all of the work that we have been able to put together over the past five years. It has elements of performance, education and preservation.”
The 5th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall will be special for Ali.
“We will bring together the takht, which is an Arab chamber music ensemble, with vocalists to one of the United States’ most iconic stages to perform this very special music which we have been dedicated to preserving,” Ali said. “We will be joined by a smaller group of students from across the Northeast for one piece. These musicians are not normally a part of Takht al-Nagham, but we held an open audition for anyone who was interested in performing with us and we had seven winners. These students have had special workshops and rehearsals on the music leading up to the concert on May 19.”
Arciola Ali said the evening will put the spotlight on Arabic artists.
“Arabic music is under-represented in main stage concerts in the United States and Syrian music is even more obscure,” she said. “We are dedicated to elevating works by Syrian composers in the public eye, offering an opportunity to represent part of the Arab-American community on stage and fostering a cultural understanding for non-Arabs.”
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Tickets can be purchased here.
“We perform this music because we love it, because it is important, and because music itself is the language which breeds understanding and community,” Ali said.