The Refugee Band Mashing Up Hebrew and Arabic … in Brazil
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because music brings people together
One February night in São Paulo, six musicians from different corners of the world — Syria, France and Brazil — gathered in a cozy, high-rise apartment to play music from their youth. Though samba and rock emanated from bars and restaurants below, in this living room, voices harmonized in Arabic and Hebrew over an oud (a Middle Eastern string instrument), a doumbek drum, a guitar, an accordion and a saxophone.
Mazeej, which means “mixture” in Arabic, was born in 2015, the same year more than 1,000 asylum seekers from Syria arrived in Brazil. Argentine social entrepreneur Jonathan Berezovsky, Lebanese singer Chantal Mailhac and local musician Daniel Szafran wanted to help the growing refugee population integrate; however, Berezovsky, who is Jewish, thought the new arrivals and the city’s Jewish population would be apprehensive of one another. So the friends decided to start a band with refugees and local Jewish musicians. “We wanted to show that people from different religions and countries can come together through music,” says Berezovsky, who manages the band. (Mailhac has since returned to Lebanon, but remains involved).
Many of their songs are riffs on old tunes learned back in Syria or in Hebrew school.
Berezovsky and his co-founders assembled Mazeej through personal contacts and word of mouth, and soon they were booking gigs at local synagogues and churches (band members are Jewish, Christian and Muslim). They have since played secular venues, including a United Nations conference, a TEDx event and a fashion show.
Listening to Mazeej is pure joy — maybe even life-affirming. The musicians are constantly improvising and comparing notes, often using their phones to translate between Portuguese and Arabic. Many of their songs are riffs on old tunes learned back in Syria or in Hebrew school, which lends a certain earnestness and nostalgia to their exchanges. But the end result is music that is loud, full and fun.
Brazil is home to more refugees than any other South American country — more than 9,000 people have refugee status, according to government statistics, up from around 4,000 in 2010. Many, like Mazeej singer Salam Alsaied and oudist Fadi Aldura, hail from the Middle East. After leaving Syria, Alsaied settled temporarily in Lebanon, where, he says, he was often harassed. “The opposite happened here,” he says. “Brazilians have welcomed Syrians.”
If starting a dialogue and welcoming Brazil’s new arrivals are Mazeej’s main objectives, then another is celebrating the diversity of those who came before. Szafran, who plays the accordion, says many of the rhythms that are considered traditionally Brazilian have their roots in earlier diasporas. “So much of Brazil’s traditional music — like forró and baião — have influences from the Middle East,” he says, adding that his grandparents were Jews from Eastern Europe. An estimated 10 million Brazilians are of Middle Eastern descent, and more than 100,000 Brazilians identify as Jewish, according to government statistics. “We’re a country of immigrants,” says Szafran.
As I sat in on their rehearsal, a din of instruments and chatter filled the room between sets. The musicians took frequent breaks to make jokes, smoke cigarettes on the balcony and eat kibe and esfihas, tasty Middle Eastern snacks that Alsaied and Aldura had brought. Alsaied taught his bandmates the lyrics to a song whose refrain is “Salam Alaikum,” or “Peace be upon you.” They compared the sheet music on their phones to a Hebrew tune they wanted to blend it with. The refrain? “Shalom.”