Published On: August 11, 2017

Brazil’s Immigrant Music

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One 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.

The band, Mazeej, which means “mixture” in Arabic, was born in 2015, the same year more than 1,000 asylum seekers from Syria arrived in Brazil. Three friends, 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, worried the Arabic new arrivals and the city’s Jewish population would be apprehensive of one another.

So the three friends decided to start a band mixing Arab 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.

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. The 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.

From left: Mazeej members Sandra Degenszajn, Anthony Taieb, Daniel Szafran, Salam Alsaied, Leonardo Bianchini and Fadi Aldura. {Credit: Agenzia Riguardare}

From left: Mazeej members Sandra Degenszajn, Anthony Taieb, Daniel Szafran, Salam Alsaied, Leonardo Bianchini and Fadi Aldura. {Credit: Agenzia Riguardare}

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 from childhood in Syria or back in Hebrew school, which lends a certain earnestness and nostalgia to their exchanges. 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 here, 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 cultures in musical history. 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,” Szafran 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. “Brazil is a country of immigrants,” says Szafran.



[This article originally appeared in OZY in slightly different form.]

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