Launched in September 2019, with financial support from the Department of Canadian Heritage, The Living Magazine Project embarked on a journey of connecting and celebrating performing, literary, and visual artists from newcomer, immigrant, and Indigenous communities in British Columbia. The big idea was to bring the people and stories of Here Magazine “to life” in digital, print, and physical spaces. The Here Team interviewed, photographed, and engaged dozens of artists, culminating in the stories, performances, and interviews on this page and in our annual Better Together Gala, a community celebration of art and performance at the beautiful Belfry Theatre in Victoria B.C.
Video Production by John-Evan Snow. Interviews by Fiona Bramble, Managing Editor.
With Violinist Sari Alesh
Can you describe your background?
I start playing music when I was in elementary school in Syria, in Damascus. I loved violin so much. My dad asked me if I wanted to learn this instrument and after that, I fall in love with the violin. I enrolled in a music school beside my elementary school—a different school just for music, where I kept practicing violin until I finished high school. I decided at that time to make music my career.
I registered at the conservatory of music. At that time, I also enrolled in French Literature at the University of Damascus. I couldn’t continue French at that time—I studied only two years at the university. I studied music for five years at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus. In my third year at University, I started playing with the Syrian Symphony Orchestra. I played with them for six years. I am classically trained. At that time, I was playing only classical, and some Arabic music.
When I arrived in Victoria, I was amazed by the styles they play here. Many different styles. It was very challenging. I saw these styles and I thought, oh well, you have to do something new, so I started learning about different styles here. Language is related directly to music. So, if you don’t speak the language, I mean the English language, it’s very hard to understand the music here as well. They both are very connected.
I would say that music transcends language, so I find that really interesting that you believe language can be a barrier, even in music.
Yeah, music does [transcend], absolutely. Music is a very universal language. But at the same time, I will give you example: if you hear an Arabic song, you would enjoy the melody, but you won’t understand what they are talking about. So the language is important somehow. Especially with the variety of the music. Like, I’m really amazed about how many styles artists have here. I found it very challenging at the beginning. How could I learn? How could I play with this performer? It’s very competitive.
Was it discouraging at first?
No, actually it was interesting. I didn’t find it discouraging. I found it a little bit challenging, but I thought: I will go through this process. I start using my background in music to adapt to the new environment in Canada. And I thought I would do some mixing between my style and the different styles here. So I decided to play different styles of music. I don’t want to be known as a classical violinist or an Arabic player. I found it also interesting when you hear different musicians here. They say: this guy, he plays jazz; this guy plays blues or fiddle. For me, I want to be all of them at the same time. I know it’s very challenging to do that and maybe impossible for some people. But I am working on this goal. In one concert, I will play some fiddle, some Arabic, some classics, some country, and so on.
Country music is tied to [knowing] the English language. If you don’t really understand the language, it’s hard to play the music. But there’s something common about music—it’s the feeling. The feeling will never change. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you will get the feeling. If the song is sad or happy, you will get this feeling. Even if you have never heard the lyrics before.
You’re a polyglot—you speak so many different languages—so having a diverse repertoire makes sense, as you can actually think in many different languages.
Yes, that’s true. Just thinking about Arabic and English now. They are [written in the] opposite direction…English from left to right, Arabic from right to left. So, that affects the music somehow. You are expecting the music to go up or down. It’s not the same in Arabic. I always try to follow the music. I’m not talking about the academic way when you talk about the key or the chords, or the progression. But I’m just talking about how you feel the music.
How does your art help you build your own sense of belonging in your new community?
So basically, my identity, the way I play music, is obviously very different [from how] the music community in Victoria is. But I thought that doing something different will help me be involved more somehow in the community. I always try to use my past and my future to make different music, new music. I use my background with the sense of music I get from this community to improve my music. And somehow it makes me more connected; I think it attracts Canadians more to the music. They find it sometimes different. Some people find it emotional. Some, maybe, find it weird—I don’t know. I can’t separate my personality into two personalities—Arabic or Canadian. I [am] both, and maybe this is why Canada is a very special place. Many immigrants here, they all have the same future, I would say. They have their own background, their own knowledge. Different music, food, many things. And they try to make it in a new way. For example, Indian food is very, very spicy in India. But if you eat it in Canada, in Victoria, it’s not spicy. So they made it in a way people can like it here. And at the same time it still has the Indian character.
In what way does art or your art specifically transcend barriers?
My art, or the music I play, helps me to overcome personal barriers. For me…you know because of my life…maybe I don’t want to talk about the war. But somehow, the music helps me overcome the past. Playing music always helps me to relax, you know. I was very stressed. Music also helps me improve my dreams. Of course, when you have your own path and you think about music, and what level you want your music to reach—that helps you improve. [It’s] absolutely a motivator. I think because of music, I’m able to keep going in life. Otherwise, I would have a lot of problems, I think.
What advice would you give young/emerging artists in your discipline?
I think this advice is related as well to where this person comes from because if I want to give advice to a Canadian musician, it would be very different than saying this advice to a Mexican musician. But I would say maybe something common for all musicians: you have to be very patient in order to reach your goal in life. Don’t stop when you have some barriers or obstacles.
And always involve your feelings in the music you play. Don’t really focus on the rules. And what I mean by that, if Jazz has some rules or Blues or any style has rules, I understand that always you have to follow these rules to demonstrate this style. But, also, just put your feelings in the music. Because music is about feeling. It’s not about rules and words and memorisation.
Also, maybe mistakes in music makes music much better. I will give you example: Jazz. Jazz has no rules. Just a bunch of mistakes altogether. I don’t know, this is my opinion. It’s so weird to understand this style. Yeah, I don’t know. (laughs)
edited for length and clarity