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European Jazz Conference 2017

Ian Patterson By

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A novel aspect of this year's EJC was the inclusion of a series of walks around the city of Ljubljana. Given that there was little time to explore the city due to the intensive nature of the conference, these walks afforded the opportunity to see a little of this handsome city and, in addition, provided a welcome change of scenery. Starting from the main entrance of the Cankarjev dom, six groups set off for unknown destinations, guided by a group leader/s.

The group leaders included; N'Toko and Iranian musician Shahryari-Naj, a musician living in Slovenia; Dre Hocevar, a musician working between New York and Slovenia; Eric Yovogan, a Beninois trumpeter living in Belgium, and Mehdi Marechal; Shaalan Alhamwy, a Syrian concert violinist living in Belgium; Edin Zubcecvic of the Sarajevo Jazz Festival; and, Pedro Costa of Clean Feed Records.

Once the groups had reached their respective destinations, the group leaders would play some music and/or relate a personal story that tied in with some of the conferences themes, that's to say, migration, cultural inclusion—or the lack of—identity, and so on.

The group led by Syrian violinist Shalan Alhamwy made its way slowly through the old quarter of Ljubljana, stopping in front of a stylish, though institutional-looking building -the Institute of Arts and Political Science. A curious vertical coil of barbed wire climbed from above the main door to the roof—installation art as protest against the razor wire barrier placed along the Slovenia-Croatian border in 2015.

The violinist took his instrument from its case and played a dancing Syrian folk tune. Alhamwy then told the story of his journey from his homeland across multiple borders to Belgium. It was also the story of his violin.

Studying in Damascus, Alhamwy's professors insisted he buy a violin worthy of his talents for his graduation performance the following year. He began to contact dealers. "Finally I found her," Alamwy said, gazing at his instrument, "And I fell in love from the first moment."

The only problem was the price, which was fifty times more expensive than the fee Alamwy could earn from a concert. Love, however, knows no boundaries, and working hard in his spare time from his studies Alamwy was able to buy his adored violin. They became inseparable.

War broke out in Syria and Damascus became too dangerous for Alamwy. He left for another city. "My violin was the first thing I took with me." As the war intensified and the fighting spread, Alamwy was forced to leave his place of refuge a further three times. Finally, he was forced to leave his country altogether. He decided to make for Europe but he knew that the journey would be too perilous for his violin so he left it with his mother.

In the event, it was a wise move. "In Turkey you have to take a boat to Greece and I had to walk in the water which was to here," Alamwy described, placing his hand under his chin.

Alamwy otherwise spared the details of his escape, simply describing it as "a long journey." He arrived in Belgium, where he spent time in a temporary asylum centre awaiting his papers. "I was in a city called Sint-NIklaas." Alamwy soon enough received a gift from Santa Claus. He contacted a local amateur orchestra who managed to get him a violin of Joseph Claus, a highly prized instrument. It was a long-term loan from a lady from the Netherlands. "She said play as long as you want," Alamwy explained.

Thanks to Wim Wabbes of the Handeelsbeurs Concert Hall, who provided Alamwy with a platform in Ghent, Alamwy has been able to make useful connections and construct a career.

After nine months, Alamwy's mother obtained a visa to join her son in Belgium, bringing his precious violin with her from Syria. "What if objects had memories?" Alamwy asked rhetorically. "I think objects can really have memories. This violin has memories of some bad moments." Alamwy finished by playing an improvisation, tender but tinged with melancholy. No doubt the music was triggered by the musician's memories, but perhaps also some of the violin's too.

Though in abandoning his native Syria and journeying to Europe as a refugee, Alamwy has experienced stresses, traumas and heartaches the likes of which most people cannot imagine. And yet, musicians like Alamwy are luckier than many refugees/migrants, for as Rabih Abou-Khalil had said the previous day: "Music has always lived off benefactors."

Day Three: Keynote Speech

Bojan Z: The Artist—A Bridge Between Communities

French-Siberian jazz pianist Bojan Z has spent more than half his lifetime in France, having left Belgrade in 1988, aged twenty, on a scholarship. His Balkans-infused jazz has singled him out as one of the most original composers and improvisers of the past quarter of a century. Taking up the EJC leitmotif for 2017 of What if...?, Bojan pondered what if certain people who had influenced his path in life had not existed?

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