By Mike Zeleznik, news correspondent

A crowd of approximately 800 people rose as one in the pews of the Old South Church. Not only had this audience donated almost $80,000 to a humanitarian cause, but they had also been treated to a stirring Middle Eastern musical medley courtesy of two outstanding bands. The final ovation was also the longest, capturing in a single frame the success of the Boston “Songs for Syria” Concert on Sunday, Nov. 13.

The show, a project more than six months in the making, featured the stylings of the Layaali Arabic Music Ensemble (LAYAALI) and Ilene Stahl’s Klezperanto, a six-piece instrumental band, as well as presentations from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), who organized the event.

Ala’a El-Shaar, a coordinator for SAMS New England, was one of several presenters who spoke about the importance of supplying aid to the refugees of Syria.

“We wanted people to come together to show their brother-and-sister-hood,” El-Shaar said. “It wasn’t just about the money, [but] just being aware about what’s going on in Syria speaks volumes.”

LAYAALI is a Massachusetts-based group of five men from four different Arab nations. By using more eclectic instruments such as the qanun, nay and tabla, they capture the mesmerizing feel of traditional Arab music with a dash of improvisation. Following the opening remarks, LAYAALI dazzled with a medley of folk tunes and stunning vocals from their singer who had only arrived in Boston one hour before performing. 

Zachary Jamous, a civil engineer who volunteered to assist in the program, was delighted at the turnout and festivities surrounding the event.

“It was so great to see everyone be brought together,” Jamous said. “[Their donations mean] a ton. It’s tough [in Syria], and they need every dollar they can get.”

Following the performance, a video was displayed showing the medical care SAMS has provided for millions of Syrians. Dr. Abdulfatah El-Shaar, the president of the SAMS Society, thanked the 30-plus organizations who sponsored the concert in support of SAMS, and proudly reported that over 2.7 million Syrians and refugees had received treatment in 2016 thus far. He also shared the story of a SAMS pediatrician, Dr. John Taylor, who was killed in Aleppo.

“[His group was] the last to leave the city, fortunately,” Dr. El-Shaar said of the tragedy. “Dr. Taylor said he wanted to leave a trace of life behind before his time [came].”

In contrast to LAYAALI, Klezperanto consists of six members and focuses more on “re-grooving” songs from all countries and all eras of music. With a mean electric guitar, steady drums and the talents of bassist/vocalist Kirsten Lamb, Stahl and company gave their tunes a contemporary twist. The afternoon ended with the two performing groups playing together in what Stahl called “a world premiere so new that even we haven’t heard it.” By the end of the set, the entire audience was on its feet.

“One of the best ways that we heal these children is through music,” Ala’a El-Shaar said in regards the Syrian children affected by the crisis. “It’s been so hard seeing the news that’s been coming out of Syria the last five and a half years, and we figured that [music] was a common language.”

Photo Courtesy Mariano Mantel, Creative Commons