Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mespotamian Night 2010 Dance Rehearsal

Enjoy the following clip recorded at Presidio Dance Theatre. Assyrian Choreography takes another leap ahead. Thanks to Mesopotamian Night initiative, Presidio Dance Theatre and Walter Aziz.

A Chat About Mesopotamian Night 2010

This last week end our committee broadcast a two hour program on Persian Satellite TV Appadana. Below is a clip showing a chat between Sargon Alkurge and Tony Khoshaba.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Lammasu, By: Ghazi Assaker

"Assyrian Winged Bull: Lammasu"
Hand Hammered Copper Artwork
Artist: Ghazi Assaker
Donated by King Kabob in Modesto
Auctioned at Mesopotamian Night 2010

Mesopotamian Night Live Discussion on Appadana TV

Tune in on Sunday night 8/15/2010 for a lively discussion about Mesopotamian Night 2010.

Time: 7:00 - 9:00 pm
Date: Sunday, August 15th, 2010
Channel: Appadana Satellite TV or watch online:
(below the TV window, look for Iranian TVs scroll down and click on Appadana)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Story Behind William Daniel String Quartets

Last January MN project commissioned Sam Madoo to transcribe William Daniel String Quartets based a tape that Tony Khoshaba had kept for over a decade. We knew that Dr. Oshana Biblis had a role in the creation of these quartets but we did not know the details. Finally through the investigation of conductor John Kendall Bailey we found the original composer for the string quartets Mr. Peter Blauvelt. Read the story of these quartets from Mr. Blauveldt own words:

In 1996, Dr. Oshana Beblis and I got together to discuss transcribing several compositions for string quartet that his teacher William Daniel had written. The compositions had apparently been composed so that William Daniel and his student could play together. I was asked to transcribe two pieces, "Sonata in F" and "Elegy", that had been written for two violins and piano. I was also asked to transcribe a piece later named "Assyrian Rhapsody" that had only been written for two violins. This required adding two new parts that hadn't existed before to make the piece viable for string quartet. Since the duo had no title, we agreed on "Assyrian Rhapsody".

After those projects were completed, I was asked to write a three-movement string quartet using themes from William Daniel's output. This I did, using two thematic ideas for each movement and writing the piece around these themes, similar to theme and variations. The style I used is a more contemporary and Eastern sounding one than what William Daniel commonly wrote in. I called the piece "On Assyrian Mountains".

That same year, all four pieces were recorded in a Tampa studio with members of the Florida Orchestra ("Bayside Quartet").

It wasn't until four years later, in 2000, that I was contacted again for another string quartet project. The task was the same one as with "On Assyrian Mountains", except that I had more themes of William Daniel to work with. Rather than using mostly thematic material from his songs, as I did with the first quartet, I chose more of William Daniel's solo piano output for the second. The new quartet, named "On Assyrian Plains", uses a very similar structure and style as its predecessor, except that the new thematic material lent itself to making this piece a bit more elaborate and sophisticated.

"On Assyrian Plains" was premiered in St. Petersburg, FL, in 2001, as Dr. Oshana Beblis gave a fairly elaborate introduction at the concert. "On Assyrian Mountains" was also premiered in St. Petersburg, FL, but not until 2003. On both occasions the "Tampa Bay Composers' Forum String Quartet" did the honors.

About Peter Blauvelt

Peter Blauvelt was born in France and grew up in Germany where he began his studies in composition and piano. In 1975 he came to the U.S. where he studied at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. There he received three degrees - including a doctorate in composition - and taught theory, composition and piano.

Since 1968 he has often given recitals - not only of his own pieces - in the U.S., France and Germany in public and on the radio, and has received numerous prizes for both composition and piano. Meanwhile, his pieces have also been performed in other European and North American countries.

After leaving the Boston area for Florida in 1984, he co-founded the "Tampa Bay Composers' Forum" in 1989 and served as treasurer, vice-president and president. He also founded Creative Arts and Tutoring Services" in 1990. To date, he has written over 140 compositions, mostly chamber music, and has had over 100 of them performed in public. A number of compositions are also available on CD."

MN-2010 Auction: Calligraphy By Isa Benyamin

Below is another item for those of interested in collecting Assyrian art pieces: Shlama (Peace) by Rabi Isa Benyamin (Raab-Amne):

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Nineveh Continues to Inspire Assyrian Artists

In Mesopotamian Night 2008, "Nineveh" the classical song of William Daniel was performed by Lorraine Davis with the orchestra. In Mesopotamian Night 2009, "Vacant Nineveh" a choir song by Paulus Khofri was performed by Mesopotamia Choir Ensemble. And this year, Fred Elieh's duet song "Nineveh" will be performed by the Mesopotamia Symphony Orchestra.

The song will be performed by Fred Elieh and Helena Chanko and is being orchestrated by Edwin Elieh.

About Fred Elieh

Fred Elieh has been instrumental for organizing the Mesopotamian Choir Ensemble in our 2009 project. This year he played a key role to organize the back up singers for Walter Aziz musical.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Fred came to the United States at the age of nine. He lived in Modesto before moving to San Jose in 1996 where he earned his Bachelors of Science degree from San Jose State University. At the same time, he immediately began involving himself in the Assyrian community. As a proud member of the San Jose-based Nineveh choir, Fred has participated in many concerts and performances in the Assyrian community. In recent years, he produced “Nineveh”, a DVD of the song he wrote and performed dedicated to raising awareness of our fellow brothers and sisters in present day Iraq. In collaboration with the Assyrian Aid Society of America, all the proceeds from the sale of the DVD were distributed to our people in need throughout our homeland.

About Helena Chanko

Helena Chanko was born in Sweden and moved to the United States at age 15. She started her singing career early on and began performing at the age of 14. She has a passion for for music not to mention a mesmerizing voice. Helena has participated in other musical projects all for various causes and continues to be involved with the Assyrian Aid Society.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Juliet Moradian's My Class Collection

As previous years Juliet Moradian has contributed to Mesopotamian Night art auction. This year she is offering two pieces from her collection called “My Class”. Below she is sharing her thoughts with us about these paintings. 

Some people twitter. Some people film. Others take photographs, and put it on facebook. I like to paint to document moments, and activities that are not just a career for me, but they show how we can reach perfection, tranquility, love, beauty and balance. It is only through art that we express our self, but we must have the freedom. There are so many factors that need to be together all at the same time so that an artist is born and ready to create.

I now have all the elements to start my collection. This collection will embody the past, the present and the future of the intellect of a nation. We have legends and myths of our ancient storytellers, but what has kept our history alive are the Bas relieves of the real people and real activities. My collection is called My class.

It is a contribution to my professor Hannibal Alkhas, who brought the idea of modern art in to the middle eastern society, but he did not just settle for that, he befriended himself with all the poets of the modern language and worked non stop to help talents turn into artists as much as he possibly could, to make sure that there will be a guaranteed existence of not just the artist, but also art appreciation and art buyers so that the art work is preserved.

I had no other choice than to follow, for a strong move like Hannibal’s left me only that one choice of being an active artist, and show the world what I have on my mind

The other purpose of my collection “My Class” is that it will be donated to the Mesopotamian night, so that this event can raise money to help art activities to grow. Painting is a very important element of the world of fine arts, and there are hundreds of talents out there who are in a desperate need of the opportunities to show us what they have on their minds, plus it is an excellent way of helping an ill economy.

I started this collection in the year 2009 and I now have finished the two paintings that are ready to be auctioned. Assyrian girls showing their artwork. Thanks to our Mesopotamian Night directors who could see the urgent need of saving the well being of our nation's culture.

Title: My Class: Sarah
Medium: Oil on canvas, 36" X 60"

Title: My Class: Briteal
Medium: Oil on canvas, 24" x 24"

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Ninos and Shamiram, a cantata for soprano, tenor and orchestra, by the French composer Michel Bosc, set to the poem by Yosip Bet Yosip, highlights the classical portion of the Mesopotamian Night gala performance. The cantata, sung in Assyrian, recreates a memorable musical portrait of tender love between the Assyrian nobleman Ninos and the beautiful shepherdess Shamiram. Soprano Liisa Davila sings the role of Shamiram. She spoke with Obelit Yadgar about the cantata and her role as Shamiram.

Obelit: You’ve sung numerous roles, mostly in Italian, but Ninos and Shamiram is in Aramaic, the language of the Assyrians. How does the soprano’s tongue adjust from a romance language to something that is completely different?

Liisa: This will be my first time learning to sing in the Assyrian language and I find this to be an exciting opportunity. Part of a singer's training is to learn how to sing in many languages that are used for the standard operatic and art song repertoire. We are taught to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). That helps us to break down sounds we hear into symbols and that in turn helps us to create the sounds needed for each language. I use the IPA in all of my studies of standard repertoire languages (French, German, Italian, English) and in other languages as well, such as Japanese, Finnish, and Greek. I certainly plan on using my knowledge of the IPA to study Assyrian.

Obelit: What are you doing to prepare your upcoming encounter with the Assyrian language?

Liisa: By listening to the flow of the language. The most important job of the singer is to communicate the text and the meaning of the text through the melody. This is accomplished more easily when the flow of the language is understood.

Obelit: Do you find the Assyrian language daunting?

Liisa: I do not find the Assyrian language daunting. For me, it is an honor to have the opportunity to learn another language and to be introduced to another culture through its poetry. There is a different energy in learning another language through its poetry. There are greater nuances and insights into a culture through its poetry. I have had a love of languages from an early age. It is a personal joy for me to learn Assyrian.

Obelit: In dealing with the Assyrian language, what approach will you take to understand who Shamiram is?

Liisa: In understanding Shamiram I look directly to the poetry and how she is expressed through the poetry. Her responses to Ninos are most telling about her character.

Obelit: Is Shamiram a much different character from some of the other memorable romantic heroines, such as Mimi (Puccini’s La Boheme), Cio-Cio-San (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), Violetta (Verdi’s La Traviata) and Manon (Jules Massenet’s Manon), among others?

Liisa: Shamiram's story is quite different from that of some of the leading ladies of opera. There are not many stories of heroines who come from such humble beginnings as does Shamiram and that grow to become a queen. Though her story is one with great extremes, she holds the same strength as any leading heroine of opera.

Obelit: Colorful historical legends of the Assyrian queen Shamiram draw a wide range of images of her. How do you see her in these images? I am sure you have some familiarity with them.

Liisa: I have read a few accounts of the stories of Shamiram. In all of the accounts that I have read she has strength of character that defines her through all of her trials and interactions with others. One must have a certain sense of strength and of survival to experience being on her own from an early age. I am sure at times she felt very alone and found her own courage that ultimately raised her to become a queen and a ruler of the Assyrian nation.

Obelit: What is your perception of Shamiram, the beautiful shepherdess, in the cantata Ninos and Shamiram?

Liisa: I find the poem to be so lovely. Both Ninos and Shamiram are portrayed in a very positive light. Shamiram's responses to Ninos are gentle and very smart. She has a great sense of self and does not shy away from meeting the prince, Ninos, but speaks to him with a clear sense of self. This shows that her character is strong, which leads to her strength in other situations.

Obelit: How do you view Ninos?

Liisa: From the poetry, I view Ninos as a kind prince who is in search of beauty.

Obelit: As an operatic character, how significant is Shamiram when placed on the same stage as Mimi, Cio-Cio-San, Violetta and Manon, among other heroines?

Liisa: I find Shamiram can compare to the great heroines of the classic opera repertoire. She is smart and has the strength that is present in all great heroines.  She is a queen and has her own dreams and aspirations. Her story is quite dramatic and has so much material that is worthy of opera. It is exciting to see part of her story being told.

Obelit: What are your thoughts on Michel Bosc’s music and Yosip Bet Yosip’s poem for Ninos and Shamiram?

Liisa: Michel Bosc's music is very expressive and creative in telling the story of these two characters. I love the poetry, which is also very expressive. When I first read the poem, I found myself transported to the hill where Ninos meets Shamiram. That depicts the scene very well and captures a true feeling of "love at first sight."

Obelit: Has this Assyrian cantata paved the way for you to consider other roles in Assyrian should they be offered to you?

Liisa: Absolutely. After learning a bit of the language of the Assyrians it would be great to extend my experience to another opportunity to express music from this culture. There are always stories to be told and music to be heard. As a musician and a singer, it would be exciting to be a part of another Assyrian project in the future.

Obelit Yadgar
Writer and Master of Ceremonies

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Young Artist Paints for Mesopotamian Night Art Auction

Briteal Varda has sent us two of her paintings to be auctioned off at Mesopotamian Night 2010. Briteal was born in the 2002 from Assyrian Parents Sargon and Maureen Varda in Modesto California. She started taking art lessons at the art workshops offered by Juliet Moradian at the Assyrian American Civic club of Turlock in 2008. Briteal is still taking art classes with Juliet Moradian, but at a different location in Turlock: The Eclectic Charm 300 E. down town.

She is donating her latest work of art to the silent auction of the Mesopotamian Night 2010. She has enjoyed exhibiting her art work and is looking forward to continue painting. The exhibitions and the sales have been not only motivating for her but a proof to what wonders talents can do if they are given the opportunity. She loves it.

Artist: Briteal Varda
Title: Yummy Watermelon and Cherries
Media: Acrylic on canvas, 16"x 20"

Artist: Briteal Varda
Title: Lets have watermelon, tomatoes and lemons
Media: Acrylic on canvas, 16"x 20"

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Internationally Renowned Ethnic Choreographer at Mesopotamian Night

In cooperation with Sherene Melania, the principal choreographer and artistic director of the Presidio Dance Theatre, Mr. Ahmet Luleci an internationally renowned ethnic choreographer is joining us as a co-choreographer for Mesopotamian Night 2010 musical event. Ahmet is a native of Turkey. He is an accomplished choreographer, dance teacher and performer as well as a researcher of Anatolian culture. Collage allows him to further his goal of making folk dance and music accessible to a wider audience. Ahmet was presented with the 2002 Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts & Humanities by the Assembly of Turkish American Associations.

His choreography was awarded the gold medal at the Hong Kong Open dance competition in 2004 (performed by Budlet Dance Company) as well as the first prize at the ethnic dance competition in Germany in 2005 (performed by Elvan Dance Company).

Since arriving in North America in 1985, he has taught many workshops and camps throughout the United States as well as Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Holland, England, Switzerland, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Norway, Italy and Australia. He has set innumerable suites of dances for the stage working with dance organizations around the world. Some of the notable performing ensembles with whom he has worked include AMAN of Los Angeles, BYU dancers of Provo, BUDLET of Hong Kong, LES SORTILEGES of Montreal, and VINOK of Edmonton. In his native Turkey, he choreographed for HOYTUR, TURHOY and GEHEM of Ankara, ANADOLU UNIVERSITESI of Eskisehir, BUTFOD of Bursa and FOLKTUR of Istanbul.

In 1991 Ahmet joined the Artistic Staff of AMAN as resident choreographer. Prior to his departure for the US, Ahmet also served as Director of Dances for HOY-TUR, long considered Turkey's leading dance association. Since the age of eight he has danced with numerous school ensembles and private associations, many of which won outstanding awards in city-wide and National-International competitions. Between 1973 and 2003 he participated in International dance festivals & competitions throughout Europe and North America. In edition, him and his ensembles appeared in more than 60 programs broadcast nationally in countries such as Turkey, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, USA, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Taiwan and Germany.

His college major was music, Ahmet's fascination with dance led him to conduct scholarly research into the historical, social and cultural background of the costumes and spoon dances from Turkey's Mediterranean coast. His efforts resulted in an exhaustive, 400 page study for which he was awarded First Place in the 1985 national competition in research on the folkdances of Turkey by the Turkish ministry of Youth, Sports and Education. In 1997 Ahmet completed a second degree in Fine Arts.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Ninos and Shamiram Book Published in France

By the effort of Mr. Christophe Mirambeau who is helping Michel Bosc with publication of his works "Ninos and Shamiram" vocal and piano scores book is published in France. If you are interested to get a copy contact us at

We are proud that Mesopotamian Night project has become a catalyst for the creation of new works related to Assyrian arts and culture.

Congratulations to Rabi Yosip Bet Yosip, our charismatic composer Michel Bosc, and Mr. Christophe Mirambea.

Aramaic Puzzle: Alap Beit

Sharokin Betgevargiz has submitted a new art work to be auction in Mesopotamian Night 2010 auction on August 21st.

"Out of order, cropped and displaced, this piece examines the relationship of Assyrians with their Aramaic language, a relationship distinguished by a rich ancient history, a medieval Christain Syriac heritage, cultural values and customs, as well as survival from genocide, upheaval, assimilation, and current political and religious struggles in our homeland, Iraq."

For complete description of this piece visit her blog article

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mesopotamian Literature Award (Raab-Sayoome)

Last year the Mesopotamian Night project inaugurated the Mesopotamian Award series, given to exceptional individuals who have made lifetime contributions to the advancement of Assyrian art, literature, philanthropy, poetry, etc. The first recipient of our Mesopotamian Arts Award (Raab-Amne) was Rabi Issa Benyamin.

It is our honor to announce that this year Rabi Daniel Dawid d'beit Benyamin is joining us to receive the Raab-Sayoome Award for his tireless effort in publishing The Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies over the past two decades and for his publications on poetry, history, and other subjects.

We look forward to seeing Rabi Daniel in Modesto on August 21st.

Rabi Daniel Dawid d’beit Benyamin
A Brief Profile

(a translation from an article in Assyrian published at The translation to English has been provided by William Warda).

Rabi Daniel Dawid d’beit Benyamin was born on August 23, 1927 in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. He was baptized that same year by His Beatitude Mar Avimalq Timatheus Metropolitan of Malabar and India.

Rabi Daniel’s father was Dawid Somo d’beit Benyamin (1888-1967), and his mother was Khanim Yosip d’beit Kelaita (1898-1974). His family included one sister (Yonia) and two brothers (Yoab and Aprim).

Rabi Daniel was the nephew of Shamasha Givargis of Ashita, the outstanding scribe, and of Mooshi Somo.

Daniel attended the school of Qashisha Pample? (American Missionary in the city of Mosul) where his uncle Shamasha Givargis taught. He would later attend the elementary school known as al-Fallah, where Malpana Yousip d’Kelaita was the instructor of the Assyrian language and teacher of the Christian faith.

Rabi Daniel’s father, Shamasha Dawid, was proficient in the classical Assyrian language and taught him daily at home from the Holy Books and their interpretation. Thus he inculcated in him the love for this language at an early age. From his infancy, Daniel was in constant daily worship at the evening prayers of the church (which took place in a room at the house of Qashisha Yousip d’Kelaita in Mosul).

Rabi Daniel concluded his formal education in 1948. By the end of that year he was employed by the Iraq Petroleum Company in Kirkuk. During this time, he earned a Lower Cambridge Certificate of English language at the Company School.

In 1954, his father along with his uncle Shamasha Givargis established the Nineveh Press by importing Assyrian language metal fonts from India. These fonts were manufactured under the direction of Shamasha Givargis when he instructed Indian priests and deacons in that country.

At the Nineveh Press, Daniel and his father printed several books including two theological works.
Three poems written by Daniel in the classical Assyrian Language were published in Gilgamesh magazine that was printed in Tehran, Iran, between 1952 -1961 by the brothers Addai and John Alkhas. He also enrolled 25 new subscribers for the magazine.

In 1957 Rabi Daniel was sent to England by the Iraq Petroleum Company where he earned a Certificate in Stores Administration.

After returning to Iraq he married Madeleine Geeso Tooma. They had three daughters and one son.

In addition to his full time job at the Iraq Petroleum Company, Daniel assumed the sole responsibility for running the printing shop once his father became too old to work.

In 1963 the Iraq Petroleum Company in Kirkuk promoted him to the position of Administrative Coordinator. At that time an American and Dutch consortium introduced computers in the Middle East, which made it possible for Daniel to learn about this new technology.

Following his father’s death in 1967, Daniel left Iraq and began a new career in Kuwait. In his absence, his uncle Shamasha Givargis moved the Nineveh Press to Baghdad where he and his nephew Yoab (Daniel’s younger brother) published several new books.

In 1981, Daniel traveled to Australia to visit his relatives and friends. Youaw Tooma Kanna, one of his close friends urged him to develop a typewriter in the Assyrian Language. After returning to Kuwait, Daniel designed the type faces of the Assyrian alphabet and traveled to Singapore to sign a contract with the Hermis company to have such a typewriter manufactured. However, due to the emergence of computer typesetting and laser printing, the plan to build the typewriter was abandoned.

When in 1983 the first computer system capable of desktop publishing arrived in Kuwait, Daniel set out to design Assyrian fonts that could be used by computer to typeset the Assyrian script. He succeeded in writing simple computer software in 1984 capable of accomplishing this task.

Rabi Daniel and his family relocated to the U.S. in 1988. They settled in Chicago, where he spent 3 years keyboarding into computer 70 issues of the Assyrian literary Magazine, Gilgamesh. In 1992, its 1014 pages were published as a book under the title; “Gilgamesh, Maghalta Sipraita Atouraita” (Gilgamesh, the Literary Assyrian Magazine).

In 1989 Dr. Edward Odisho of Chicago who was publishing the “Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society”, asked him to serve as editor in chief of the Assyrian section of this publication. At the time only two issues of this Journal had been published -- one in 1986 and the other in 1988. The Assyrian section in these two volumes consisted primarily of reprints of writings by Shamasha Givargis of Ashita and William Daniel. Each of these two issues consisted of less than 100 pages, with only a few of them featuring the Assyrian Language, while the bulk was printed in English. The Journal at that time had less than 50 subscribers. Since then it has been published twice a year, consisting of approximately 160 pages, and it has hundreds of subscribers. The Assyrian section editorial team of the Journal consists of highly skilled and accomplished writers whose works are a matter of pride to the readers of our language.

In 1993, Rabi Daniel was instrumental in creating a set of new Assyrian font system that is compatible with the True Type Fonts standards that function in the Microsoft Windows environment and related software. One of them, named “Assyrian”, is now in the format of “Unicode” and conforms with the latest technology. The rest of the fonts, including “Strangelo” will soon be available in Unicode format. They will then be available free of charge to anyone interested.

Daniel has published a considerable number of wonderful Assyrian articles and delightful poems in the Journal and in his book titled; “Memri w’Mooshkhati d’Daniel Dawid d’beit Benyamin” (Articles and poems of Daniel Dawid d’beit Benyamin”).

The determination of Rabi Daniel’s father to teach him reading and writing of the Classical Assyrian Language, and the writings of his uncle Shamash Givargis, instilled in him an abiding love for the Assyrian language and literature.

Rabi Daniel presently lives in the city of Phoenix, Arizona (USA), where he continues to be active in advancing his lifelong efforts.


Assyrians once were a mighty empire whose rule reached far beyond Mesopotamia. Their arts and sciences, their culture dazzled the known world and became the model for nations to emulate.

Then, in 612 B.C., the Assyrian empire fell, never to rise again. The magnificent royal buildings, the great libraries, the massive temples that had symbolized Assyria’s greatness turned into ruins strewn with artifacts and slowly disappeared under the dust. In time Assyria became a forgotten address in the world’s book of nations. All gone.

All except Assyria’s descendants who held their head high and embarked on a long and bittersweet journey to find a home of their own. What they took with them everywhere was their identity. Their national pride. Their culture. Their arts.

And their music.

I don’t know what the music of my ancestors sounded like: the laments, the drinking songs, the marching songs, the battle songs, the street songs, the love songs — I have no way of knowing. Assyrian traditional music heard today gives me a hint, but that’s about all. I have only a nibble when I am looking for a feast. I have only a drop when I am looking for a gusher.

That the ancient Assyrians loved their music is evident in the love today’s Assyrians have for their music. After all, people do not change that much, really, not even over thousands of years. That goes for the Assyrians, as well. They really have not changed that much, except for their religion.

Much like today’s Assyrians, my ancient ancestors must have loved to dance. Dance flows in our blood. Did the ancient, then, dance the khigga? The tolama? The shora? The hoberban? The tanzara?

Oh, yes, the sheikhani?

The word sheikhani is derived from bishkhana, meaning “warming up.” Legend goes that the Assyrian soldiers and hunters danced to some form of the sheikhani beat to warm up before going into action. I can only imagine that powerful picture.

How far back the sheikhani goes in our history I don’t know. Nor do I know the ages of our other dances popular today. Are they hundreds of years old? Thousands perhaps? What is obvious is that often dancing is a descriptive but complex act performed to a certain type of music. I suppose you can also dance without music, especially if you’ve had one too many glasses of khamra. Ancient Assyrians must have had music to dance the sheikhani, khigga, tolama, shora, hoberban, tanzara, and who knows how many other dances that might have disappeared into the pages of history.

It is that music which fires my curiosity. About which I often fantasize. I wish I knew what it was. What it sounded like. How it was played. And who sang it or played it. Perhaps our scholars know and I am no Assyrian scholar.

“Music is well said to be the speech of angels,” wrote Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish historian and philosopher. “In fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near the Infinite.”

Yes it is. And it does. Of course, the music of my ancestors I hear in my Assyrian soul. Always have. Always will. Yet, I would love to hear it with my ears as well, sung or played in a village somewhere in northern Iraq or in Urmia in northwest Iran. I can just imagine myself mesmerized by the music that in all likelihood is as close to the original that my Assyrian ancestors sang and played.

Perhaps someday I shall. For now, I’ll take pleasure in the music of my ancestors in modern dress. Please join me for this unforgettable experience at the fourth annual Mesopotamian Night gala concert and fundraising event, August 21, at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, California.

The show’s first half spotlights Assyrian music in the western classical tradition, with the 50-piece Mesopotamia Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Kendall Bailey.

The musical feast includes Assyryt Suite No. 2, an orchestral arrangement by the French composer Michel Bosc of Paulus Khofri’s works. Bosc’s Ninos and Shamiram, a cantata for soprano, tenor and orchestra, set to Yosip Bet Yosip’s poem, recreates a portrait of tender love between the Assyrian nobleman Ninos and the beautiful shepherdess Shamiram. George Somi’s orchestral suite The Assyrian Legacy and Sam Madoo’s arrangement of William Daniel’s music for string quartet round out the exciting first half of the program.

Following a big auction of Assyrian art, the great Assyrian singer and song writer Walter Aziz sweeps over the Mesopotamian Night stage in the second half with an exciting fare of Assyrian popular songs, accompanied by the Mesopotamia Symphony Orchestra, and spiked with a hearty dose of ballet and dance, in sparkling Assyrian costumes, by the Presidio Dance Theatre, choreographed and danced by Sherene Melania.

This is one of those rarities in the Assyrian performing arts that I hope can become a standard around the world. Our arts are a symbol of who we are as a nation, where we come from and where we are going. And like the arts of any nation, they need a willing audience, and often a helping hand.

“Without music, life would be an error,” wrote the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche. We Assyrians have always known that, for we have worn the rich history of our music on our sleeve, to take wherever we go.

Obelit Yadgar
Writer and Master of Ceremonies

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Obelit Yadgar has been called the intellectual force behind our Mesopotamian Night project. Read here his insightful new article about this year's Mesopotamian Night musical production.
To say Walter Aziz could sing before he could walk is a safe bet. A safer bet yet is to say he was born with a loving song in his whistle — for his nation. Either way, this consummate pop singer has been on a musical journey for Assyria much of his life, entertaining live audiences around the world and recording one hit after another.

Aziz lights up the Mesopotamian Night stage this year accompanied by the 50-piece Mesopotamia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Kendall Bailey, with members of the Mesopotamia Choir Ensemble directed by Fred Elieh, and dancers from San Francisco’s Presidio Dance Theatre, led by Artistic Director and Principal Dancer and Choreographer Sherene Melania.

The Assyrian Aid Society of America (AAS-A) presents this fourth annual Mesopotamian Night gala performance and fundraising event August 21 at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, California. As in previous productions, the evening splits between classical and popular Assyrian music to entertain every taste.

The show’s first half offers a feast of Assyrian classical music that includes Assyryt Suite No. 2, an orchestral arrangement by the French composer Michel Bosc of solo piano pieces by the late Assyrian composer Paulus Khofri.

Using the poetic setting by Yosip Bet Yosip, Bosc takes off in a different direction with the cantata Ninos and Shamiran. The cantata, for coloratura soprano, tenor and orchestra, paints a portrait of tender love between the Assyrian nobleman Ninos and the beautiful shepherdess Shamiram.

George Somi’s lush orchestral suite The Assyrian Legacy and Sam Madoo’s arrangement of William Daniel’s music for string quartet round out the exciting first half of the program.

Following a big auction of Assyrian art by artists such as Paul Batou, Odette Tomik and other renowned Assyrians, Aziz and company take over the Mesopotamian Night stage in the second half with an exciting fare of Assyrian pop songs spiced up with ballet and dance in a riot of colorful costumes. “You’re in for a dazzling show of Assyrian popular music with Walter Aziz as never before experienced,” promises Tony Khoshaba, AAS-A Central Valley president and Mesopotamian Night producer.

That all proceeds are destined to brighten the lives of Assyrians suffering a storm of tragedies in their homeland of Iraq makes the Mesopotamian Night gala production a must for Assyrians everywhere. Please join us, not only for the privilege of helping Assyrians in need but also for the experience of a memorable evening of music and dance emblazoned with Assyria’s proud signature. This is the dazzling portrait of Assyrian arts and culture blossoming in creative hands.

With 10 songs, arranged and orchestrated by Edwin Elieh (no relation to Fred Elieh), Aziz sweeps across a musical spectrum of his big hits and lesser-known works. Dashta d’ Nineveh Deyan Eala (Nineveh Plain is Ours), Malikta d’ Khayee (Queen of My Life) and Atour Bet Khayah (Assyria Shall Live), among others, are sure to be crowd pleasers. Aziz also throws in two songs from his new CD, Assyrian Hope, due for release on the day of the concert.

“The audience undoubtedly will experience something new in the way Assyrian popular music is presented,” Aziz says. “With the symphony orchestra, the company of dancers, the quartet of back-up singers, Assyrian popular music will climb new heights and soar with all kinds of possibilities.”

Much credit for the second half of the show’s Broadway musical air goes to Elieh’s arrangement and orchestration of the Aziz songs. Unlike Broadway musicals, however, starting with Oklahoma, the 1936 hit by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in which each song carried the storyline forward, the Mesopotamian Night Assyrian pop musical revue is without a specific storyline.

“Each individual song has its own story,” explains Elieh, “but there’s no continuous story from one song to the next. In other words, the songs are not interrelated. They’re like juke box musicals which are based on the songs of one singer.”

Elieh points out that arranging and orchestrating Assyrian traditional and modern songs sometimes proves to be a difficult task. Because many rely on a simple arrangement of a rhythm section with bass and keyboard, the songs are not appropriate for orchestration, he maintains. “If I just orchestrate the song, it won’t be all that different from the original,” he says. “It won’t be good either, because just orchestrating the song will not be enough.”

Elieh draws a fine line between orchestrating a song and arranging it. In essence, he explains, the song must be arranged in such a way so that an orchestra can play it. He keeps the song’s basic structure — rhythm and chord progression — and from there, he not only orchestrates the song but also arranges it for orchestra. That’s what he has done for the Walter Aziz songs in the show. “In the end,” he adds, “what we have is a song orchestrated and arranged for a singer with an orchestra.”

Aziz recalls that when Khoshaba asked him to perform with a symphony orchestra, he, Aziz, wanted to know who would write the scores and the charts. Khoshaba mentioned Elieh, a talented young Assyrian musician and arranger who currently studies film scoring at UCLA. Aziz remembered Elieh from playing the opening acts for some of the Assyrian weddings and parties he headlined.

“I didn’t know he was a musical arranger and that he was learning musical scoring at a university,” Aziz says. “I wanted an Assyrian to do the arranging and orchestrating. That was important to me and it would make me proud to have an Assyrian musician to do the work.”

Aziz says he is pleased with Elieh’s arrangement and orchestration of his songs. He also admits that working with a symphony orchestra is something altogether new for him. “This will be the first time we don’t have drums or a heavy beat,” he notes. “The music is converted to a little classical.”

What also delights Aziz is the added dimension of ballet and dance to his music. He admits that aside from working with a symphony orchestra for the first time, working with dance is another new experience for him.

“It will be a fun show, because people will have so many things to see and so many different ways to relate to the performance,” says Melania. “This will be an unusual performance. There are Assyrian groups that focus on the dancing, but there aren’t any that mix ballet with traditional Assyrian steps. It’s a new kind of fusion that people will find interesting.”

Melania emphasizes that with the authentic and colorful Assyrian costumes, made by the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she studied dance, as well as some made in Turkey, the Presidio Dance Theatre will bring the songs to life and give the audience a visual picture of the music.

What’s more, she points out, this is one of those rarities where the orchestra shares the stage with the singers and the dancers, thus adding a further dimension to the concert. “It’s really a culmination of the performing arts at their finest,” she says.

Two companies make up the Presidio Dance Theatre’s corps of dancers. The adult company, including principal Melania, has 12 dancers, and the youth company carries 40. For the Assyrian musical review, eight dancers each from the adult and the youth companies will perform. Melania is the principal soloist for the women dancers and Norberto Martinez the principal soloist for the men.

Melania’s choreography, in addition to that by guest choreographer Ahmet Leleci of the Collage Dance Ensemble, headquartered in both San Francisco and Boston, will frame the Aziz songs in a colorful and brilliant blending of the East and the West.

“It’s going to be a mix of Assyrian folk dance and classical ballet,” she explains. “A couple of the songs will be more just ballet, and some arm movements will be more Assyrian. Each song will require its own distinct choreography. For instance, we use for one of the pieces the sheikhani. Another piece is about a wedding, so we’ll have the bride and groom do a duet based on that.”

With a production worthy of Ashurbanipal’s courtly celebrations, perhaps the Mesopotamian Night pop music review with Walter Aziz will set a trend to create similar Assyrian productions around the world. “Yes, absolutely,” says Aziz. “I hope all Assyrian singers will see this as the first step to enhance and make our music known to the world.”

Obelit Yadgar
Writer and Master of Ceremonies

Thursday, June 24, 2010

New Poster for Mesopotamian Night 2010

A new poster just arrived. Designed by Fred Isaac a member of Mesopotamian Night project team. Special thanks to his selfless volunteerism.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cellist Volunteers for The Mesopotamia Symphony Orchestra

As we prepare for the formation of The Mesopotamia Symphony Orchestra, we would like to introduce our audience to Robin Johnson-Purto who recently contacted our team to volunteer her time as a musician and cellist to Mesopotamian Night project.

In her email she wrote "Being human, is to make a difference in this world where one is able. Whether it be through ones talent, volunteering of a service or a simple donation. It is always done with, love, compassion and within ones means. There are many things that we all take for granted in this world that others do not have such as a simple book to learn from, clothes on our back, shoes to walk in, food on our table, and or a roof over our heads. It brings me great joy when I can contribute talent to a cause where it is needed such as this and hope that my contribution in playing music will open others eyes, ears, and hearts to others in doing the same back."

About Robin Johnson-Purto

Robin Purto, who recently moved from Albuquerque New Mexico to Modesto, had been an active member with the Albuquerque Philharmonic Orchestra as a cellist for ten years. She also served two terms as secretary on the board for the Albuquerque Philharmonic.

She had studied and played the cello since the age of 10. She also studied at the University of New Mexico in the Princeton Play week chamber music workshops. During her youth in high school, she was a participant with her symphony for the International Music Festival held in Vienna Austria. This was a special invite for the group to represent the United States. During that time she had the opportunity to play and tour in the great opera hall in Vienna, Frankfurt Germany and Salsburg Germany. She has volunteered frequently during each school year working with beginning, intermediate and advanced cello students at Grant Middle School. In the summer months she also worked with a quartet group of youths bringing music into the local nursing homes. Robin was the founder of a christian music duo, Musical Praises, performing for a wide range of church activities as well as hired events. This also included bringing music into several local Nursing homes in the form of singing, playing guitar and cello. This past summer she played in Land Mark's Production of the “Music Man”. For the past two seasons she also played in the Italian Film Festival gala opening ceremonies. This season the University of New Mexico held a Faure concert fundraiser event for the music department in which Robin also sat principal chair with the orchestra.

On a professional career level, Robin has worked within the health care field for more than 20 years serving within the business accounting departments. She recently was a five year employee for New Mexico Orthopedics Association in Albuquerque, working within the accounts receivable department.

Robin is of Polish and Swedish decent born in West Bend Wisconsin, but raised in Albuquerque New Mexico since age five. She married in 1985 to her husband an Assyrian, who's father migrated to the United States from Baghdad Iraq in the year of 1956. The schools she attended were Eldorado High, Rockland Community College in the state of New York, National Business college in Albuquerque and Central New Mexico Community College. Certificates earned are Deans list, managements skills, Business, accounting, and muscular dystrophy fund raising. In her spare time she enjoys attending cultural events, weight training, running, biking, spending time with her two daughters and son, ages 16, 17 and 20.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Artistic Consultant For Mesopotamian Night 2010

It is a pleasure to inform our audience that this year Matthew Buckman the executive director of Townsend Opera joins us as our artistic consultant and stage manager. Matthew has been instrumental to guide us in right direction during this year's extensive production. He guided us to start branding our own orchestra name (The Mesopotamia Symphony Orchestra) and also gave us good guidance to reduce overall production costs.

Below is a brief summary of his out standing achievements.

Matthew Buckman became the first Executive Director of Townsend Opera on February 1, 2008 at the age of twenty-six, and has since led a major effort to make Townsend Opera a sustainable and thriving company during the illness and after the passing of its founding general director of twenty-five years.  Mr. Buckman came to Townsend Opera from the Modesto Symphony Orchestra, where he served as Director of Development. During his tenure as Director of Development, Mr. Buckman restructured the development department, bringing new philosophies and programs that established a more accessible, donor-centered corporate sponsorship program, increased opportunities for donor engagement, developing and implementing new programs for solicitations, more systematic solicitation of potential donors, and increased planning capabilities. Prior to his appointment as Director of Development, Mr. Buckman served as Operations Manager and Development Assistant for the MSO, and Orchestra Manager for the Modesto Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Under his leadership, Townsend Opera has developed its first long-term strategic plan, undergone a major staff reorganization, engaged a principal conductor, a technical director, and a costumer, and successfully recruited a new artistic director. Mr. Buckman has initiated and developed groundbreaking partnerships with the CSU Stanislaus Department of Music, Modesto Junior College, and San Francisco Opera that have led to new heights of artistic excellence, and has developed partnerships with health and human services organizations to expand the impact of the company in the community. The education and outreach programs have been repositioned and expanded to better fill gaps in the public education system, and individual contributed income has increased by nearly 60 percent.

Mr. Buckman was born and raised in Fresno, California, where he studied architecture and music in high school. He pursued music in college, finishing his studies in Instrumental Performance at CSU Stanislaus in 2005. While in college, he served in elected and administrative roles in student government, giving him a strong foundation in governance, and also worked in recruitment for the Department of Music. Mr. Buckman played soccer at the collegiate level for four years, and it continues to be his primary hobby.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Artist Donates to Mesopotamian Night

The art auction part of the Mesopotamian Night event has been a fascinating success. Thanks to our dedicated artists we have been able to raise significant funds only from art auction. This year Odette Tomik for the first time is participating in our art auction. She has donated the following pieces to Mesopotamian Night project. If you would like to bid on these works early on please email us at

Ishtar Comes to Village
13/5 in 17/5 inch - oil , collage on cardboard

My People
3/5 in 17/5 inch - oil on cardboard

Below Odette tell us about herself:

My name is Odette Tomik. I was born in Tehran, Iran in 1964 in a Christian Assyrian family. Since my childhood, I was interested in painting that became my daily concern. I was only nine years old when I lost my father. His loss changed the course of our future life, my mother and my only brother. As time passed my brother and I were attracted to arts. I continued painting and he became a professor in playing classic guitar in Iran. I was only fifteen years old when the Islamic revolution took place. It took a few years for things to calm down.

Then in 1985 I was accepted in Al-Zahra University of Tehran in the field of painting. This institution is one of the rare universities designed to train only women. Distinguished professors such as Irandokht Mohases, Bahman Broujenie and Jaghoub Amamepich were among my professors. In 1991 I was graduated with a B.A degree.

Later I came in contact with the famous Assyrian Iranian painter, Hannibal Alkhas who advised me in the method and subjects of painting. His teaching has been of great value in my future accomplishment. He showed me the gate of ancient world. Then I started working on subjects related to Assyrians life, figures and mythology, and a collection of paintings on the subject of "Immigration". All those paintings were displayed in several exhibitions and biennials. In 2000 I immigrated to United States and I had an exhibition named “ Assyrian dance” in Los Angles in 2001.

My artistic accomplishment can be summarized as follows:


2001 The Museum Store Gallery, Los Angeles
2000 Abkar Gallery, Tehran
1999 Catholic Church, Tehran
1996 Valley Gallery, Tehran
1988 Al-Zahra University, Tehran


2010 Art Share Los Angeles
2005 Simi Valley Library, Los Angeles
2004 Assyrian Society of Los Angeles
2000 Saad Abad Museum, Tehran
1998 Contemporary Museum of Iran, Tehran
1997 Azadi Museum, Tehran
1990 Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran
1987 Azadi Museum, Tehran


Taught drawing at the University of Al-Zahra and Assyrian Society of Tehran.

Illustrated two books for Amir-Kabir Publication and also four training books.

Art manager of an agricultural scientific monthly publication called ”Sonboleh”.

Art manager for the Assyrians publication “Assyrian Message” in Tehran, Iran.

Private teaching in drawing and painting.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mesopotamin Night 2010 Commercial Video

Finally the first commercial video for Mesopotamian Night 2010 is completed. Special thanks to Sargon Alkurge our chapter treasurer and Jaeson Amarilla.

Introducing The Singers of “Ninos and Shamiram”

We gladly announce that Liisa Dávila and Brian Thorsett will be singing the cantata “Ninos and Shamiram” in Mesopotamian Night 2010 musical concert. Below is a short account to these two accomplished artists.

Liisa Dávila

Soprano Liisa Dávila has been heard as Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni), Pamina (Die Zauberflote), Poppea (L’incoronazione di Poppea) and the title role in Massenet’s Cendrillon with California State University Opera Theatre in Sacramento, and will sing the role of Micaela in the Townsend Opera Player’s production of Carmen in Modesto, California in 2012. A winner of multiple competitions, Ms. Dávila is a recent San Francisco District winner and a Western Regional Finalist for the Metropolitan National Council Auditions and the prestigious West Bay Opera’s Maria and Ben Holt Scholarship. This year she won the First International Phyllis Osterhout Vocal Competition in Turlock, California, and placed third in the Washington International Vocal Competition in Washington, DC, and a semi-finalist for the Loren L. Zachary Competition in LA.

A talented performer, Ms. Dávila was selected from nation-wide auditions to participate in the Sherrill Milnes 2010 “Opera as Drama” program in New York for the V.O.I.C.Experience Foundation, and the OperaWorks 2009 Advanced Artist Summer Program in Los Angeles, California directed by Ann Baltz. Ms. Dávila’s concert work includes performances as soprano soloist in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Mozart’s C Minor Mass with the Academy of All Hallows in Sacramento, as well as Bach Cantatas 140 and 179 with the First Presbyterian Church of Roseville, Mozart’s Vespers Solemnes with San Joanquin Delta College, and other performances of Requiems by Rutter, Duruflé, Mozart, and Fauré. Liisa has had the pleasure of studying with Eilana Lappalainen, Dr. Robin Fisher, Marla Volovna, and Zoila Muñoz and performing in masterclasses with such greats as Frederica Vonstade, Fabrizio Melano, Gregory Buchalter, Luana DeVol and Sacramento Opera conductor Timm Rolek.

Brian Thorsett

Since taking to the operatic stage in 2001, tenor Brian Thorsett has been seen and heard in over 70 diverse operatic roles, ranging from Monteverdi to Britten, back to Rameau and ahead again to works composed especially for his talents. During the 2010-11 season, he returns to the roles Jupiter and Apollo in Semele, Acis in Acis & Galatea and adds the roles of Beppe in I Pagliacci, Gastone in La Traviata and Ninos in Michel Bosc’s lush Ninos & Shamiram.
As a concert singer Brian fosters a stylistically diversified repertoire of nearly 100 works, which has taken him to concert halls across the US and Europe. Future engagements include Evangelist and soloist in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Mass in B Minor, the Seasons and Creation of Haydn, Handel’s Messiah, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, Purcell’s Hail, Birght Cecilia, Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge, Choral Fantasy and Mass in C, Mendelssohn’s Christus, Elijah and Lobgesang (Symphony No. 2), the Requiems of Mozart and Verdi, Schubert’s Intende Voci Orationis, Psalm 92 and Mass in E-Flat, Finzi’s Dies Natalis, Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, Britten’s Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal and Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings and a rare performance as Ishmael in Bernard Hermann’s Moby Dick.

An avid recitalist, Brian will be featured in recitals in San Francisco, San Jose and Half Moon Bay, CA presenting the music of Monteverdi, Grieg, Rossini, Enescu, Coates, Ginastera, Turina, Britten, and premieres of Nicholas Carlozzi. He is a graduate of San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program, Glimmerglass Opera’s Young American Artist program and spent two summers at the Music Academy of the West.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Assyrian Legacy

"The Assyrian Legacy" is a creation of young Assyrian composer George Somi which will be premiered at Mesopotamian Night 2010. In the article below, Obelit Yadgar is giving us a nice insight into this interesting piece of music.

Assyrian symphonic music is rare. Rather, ours is predominantly folk, church and popular music for voice, solo instrument or small ethnic ensemble. Surprisingly, for a musical nation known for the magnitude of art it has contributed to the world throughout the centuries, we have failed to embrace symphonic music. I can only hope in time that creative gap will close and that our new composers will create great works in the medium.

The good news, thanks to the Mesopotamian Night gala concert performances in the past four years, is that the noted French composer Michel Bosc and the equally prominent American John Craton have enriched the Assyrian musical sphere with impressive orchestral and operatic creations from works by William Daniel and Paulos Khofry. Also of note is the Assyrian composer Samuel Khangaldy’s oratorio Gilgamesh, a work in progress of which the overture was premiered at the 2009 concert to exceptionally high praise.

In their youth, the Hungarian composers Bela Bartok (1881-1945) and Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967), armed with recording machines, traveled throughout the countryside and collected vast amounts of Hungarian folk melodies. Years later they used those same melodies as settings for some of their great symphonic works.

Assyrian composers have a wealth of folk and traditional melodies at hand to inspire major symphonic and chamber compositions. The music does not necessarily have to be in the western classical tradition, maintains the young Assyrian composer George Somi, though he would like to see some heading in that direction.

Somi premieres selected movements from his orchestral suite The Assyrian Legacy at the Mesopotamian Night concert and art auction, August 21, at the Gallo Center for the Arts, in Modesto, California. Proceeds benefit needy Iraqi Assyrians.

In eight descriptive movements, the approximately 35-minute long work sweeps across Assyrian history with snapshots of a people’s bittersweet journey. “It illustrates the history of the Assyrian people through music much like motion picture sound tracks follow their respective stories via music,” explains Somi. “The piece has several motifs, each representing a particular emotion from, pride and triumph to sorrow and despair.”

The suite begins with Assyria’s glorious emergence as a world power. Intertwining various melodies, the second movement celebrates the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Hammurabi’s Law Codes are recognized in the third. The fourth movement sketches the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.

“The fifth movement follows the second golden age of Assyrians: the rise of the Church of the East,” says Somi. “The main emotion I try to convey in this piece is hope. I incorporate church hymns into a thematic orchestration, not only conveying the story of the Assyrians, but also bestowing a sense of glory to the hymns.” The movement’s highlight is the five-part choir singing Ashen ammeh zmareykon.

Somi frames the sixth movement around the period of the Muslim conquest from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries. “Though unrelated to Assyrians initially,” he notes, “the Muslim conquest would have dire consequences for Assyrians. It features discernibly Arab melodies, outlining not just the effect on Assyrians, but the rise of great Muslim cities like Damascus and Baghdad.”

In the seventh movement, he further expands the Muslim conquest’s direct effect on the Assyrians by painting a tragic picture of the genocide committed against our people. Starting with a solo piano playing a sad but hopeful melody, Somi lets the orchestra build on it, culminating in a march meant to symbolize the fight and strength still left in the Assyrians. “This covers the formation of Zow’aa, possibly the first Assyrian national political party since the fall of Nineveh,” he points out.

Yet in all the tragedy that marks the tumultuous journey of the Assyrians, Somi looks for a bright light in the eighth movement by reprising melodies and themes from previous movements as Assyrians celebrate in the promise of hope. At the same time, his music leaves a sense of a story that is, indeed, unfinished.

“The way I see it,” Somi says, “the story of the Assyrians has not concluded. They recovered from defeat once in history. They still retain a hope to persevere through modern times.”

Somi, who was born in Chicago, in 1988, exhibited a profound love for music early on. His mother recalls that at age 3, after hearing someone play the song “Happy Birthday” on the piano, he slipped behind the keyboard and repeated the song almost note by note. At age 7, he began piano studies. After moving to Phoenix, AZ, he joined the school band, playing tenor saxophone. “From then on,” he admits, “music became an integral part of who I was.”

A year later he was playing lead tenor in the Peoria Honor Jazz Band in Phoenix. “I fell in love with jazz in that year and have been playing it ever since,” Somi says. Although he gives a big nod to the jazz saxophone greats such Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon, he says Eric Marienthal, the lead alto for the Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, has captured his imagination with his solos. “They’re so funky and hip,” he says, “it’s hard not to get into it.”

Somi admits to having little interest in popular music, western or Assyrian, and, therefore, hears no discernible influence on his music from this genre. Although no expert on Assyrian popular music, Somi says, if he were to pick a favorite Assyrian popular artist, it would be singer and composer Ashur Bet Sargis for his intricate and well thought out melodies. “I believe Mr. Bet Sargis has the widest, most effective range of music,” he adds, “from lively tunes to ballads.”

Somi believes the biggest influence on his symphonic music comes from film and video-game composers such as John Williams, James Horner, Hans Zimmer, Alan Silvestri and Jerry Goldsmith, among others. “I am frequently told that my music sounds like it belongs in movies or video games,” he says. One thing he does not believe in, he says, is composing filler music, something that is there just to lengthen the piece. Rather, he prefers strong melodies counter melodies.

At the same time, he points out that if he had to choose an Assyrian musical genre with the most influence on him as a composer, it would be Assyrian church music. “My command of our church hymns is in direct correlation with the fresh take on the them in the fifth movement of The Assyrian Legacy,” Somi explains.

Currently, while pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, AZ, Somi plays lead tenor in Yavapai College’s Big Band II. He also serves as organist at the St. George Ancient Church of the East, in Phoenix. It is no surprise that the congregation has nicknamed him Beethoven.

“One of those impossible wishes I’ve had for a while now is to have been present at the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” Somi says. “I know it would have brought tears to my eyes and made every hair on my body stand on end.”

Well, of course, that reaction is expected from a composer who, like the great Beethoven, began composing when only a boy. Somi wrote his first song at age 12. “Taking Action” was one of 12 songs chosen for performance at a musical event at the Phoenix Civic Plaza.

He began thinking seriously about composing music while a sophomore in high school. It was then that he realized how sparse Assyrian symphonic music was. How ironic, he believes, a nation that invented music and music notation is so poorly acquainted with it. Further, he believes music to be an integral part of a nation’s culture and that Assyrians must develop that.

A sense of duty to the Assyrian nation, as well as strong encouragement from his mother to write something about the Assyrians, led to his work on The Assyrian Legacy. He started the suite in his sophomore year in high school and still thinks the work is unfinished. Somi says he hopes The Assyrian Legacy is appropriate for an important event such as Mesopotamian Night gala concert.

“Music is one of the things that holds a culture together,” he says. “Call it a cultural epoxy. With our youth growing up in several nations across the world, we cannot afford to have a weak epoxy to hold us together. It must be stronger than ever.”

Obelit Yadgar
Writer and Master of Ceremonies

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ninos and Shamiram

Music: Michel Bosc
Poem: Yosip Bet Yosip

(painting: courtesy of Paul Batou, Los Angles)

The world knows her as Semiramis, Semiramide, Sammu-Rammat, Samira, Shamiram. To us, the Assyrians, she is simply Shamiram.

Numerous operas are based on this mythical Assyrian, including Semiramide by Domenico Cimarosa, Marcos Portugal, and, the most famous, Gioacchino Rossini. Now enter the cantata Ninos and Shamiram by the French composer Michel Bosc and the Assyrian poet Yosip Bet Yosip.

The cantata is among the highlights in this year’s Mesopotamian Night, a gala production of Assyrian classical and popular music with dance, on August 21, at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, California. In its fourth year, the Mesopotamian Night series is presented by the Assyrian Aid Society of America (AAS-A) not only to showcase the Assyrian classical and popular performing arts but also to raise funds through tickets and its art auction for needy Iraqi Assyrians.

Many myths and legends surround the beautiful and shrewd Babylonian princess who became the Assyrian queen. According to one legend, a shepherd found Shamiram, born in the desert and reared by doves. Some historical accounts of her later life note Shamiram married King Shamsi-Adad V (or VII), and after his death, she ruled for a short time, until Adad-nirari III (or IV) ascended the Assyrian throne.

Shamiram appears as queen and goddess in some Assyrian mythological accounts of her life, and that she was the daughter of the fish goddess. Not only was she the founder of Babylon, Shamiram also gets the dubious credit for inventing the chastity belt, and also for being the first to turn young boys into eunuchs by castrating them. According one legend, she married King Ninos, who founded Nineveh, and after his death, ruled for many years. Her end came at the hands of her son. Finally, the beautiful Shamiram turned into dove and flew away.

Somewhere between myth and reality lies the truth about Shamiram’s life. Either way, this remarkable and colorful Assyrian legend continues as an ideal subject for literary and operatic works. Rabi Yosip’s song-poem, Ninos and Shamiram is one such example, set to Bosc’s musical score.

Rabi Yosip’s Ninos and Shamiram had its origin in an Assyrian song-poem he had heard in his teens in Tehran. Sung by a friend named Nimrod, from a mountain village in Urmia, the story was part of the Assyrian oral tradition, passed on from one generation to the next. It told of an encounter in a lush valley in the mountains between a hunter and a shepherdess.

Both melody and poem were different from what they are now, recalls Rabi Yosip. The poem had Persian, Turkish and Kurdish mixed in with Assyrian. It had rhyme but no meter. “Some years later I reshaped and refined the poem to reflect our Assyrian culture,” he says. “I also re-shaped the melody to make it happier, more romantic and beautiful.”

In the following years, as he matured in age and his knowledge of Assyrian history grew, he revised and expanded the poem into a more literary work. He also made some changes in the melody. By then he had heard many myths about the legendary King Ninos, who had met a shepherdess in the dessert named Shamiram and made her his queen. Elements from all the stories, myths and legends about Ninos and Shamiram found their way in various forms into Rabi Yosip’s new version.

Finally he titled his song-poem Ninos and Shamiram, transposing the characters of King Ninos and Queen Shamiram into a young prince named Ninos and a beautiful shepherdess named Shamiram, who steals his heart and compels him to ask she go with him home to Nineveh.

“I will come with you,” she says, “for your love has pierced my heart, too.” When she asks who he is and where he comes from, he answers, “My name is Ninos, the son of the high priest Nahrin.” Shamiram tells him that he is not a hunter, but a shepherd like her. “I of flock,” she adds, “you of people.” Ninos asks, “Queen of beauty of these hills, what is your name?”

She was named after a dove, she explains, and goes on to tell the story of how a dove perched on her cradle, and that when it flew away, it left a small feather on her chest. She says she has kept the feather in the hope that someday it will lead her to the dove. “That is why they decided to call me Shamiram,” she says, “which means ‘A Name Exalted.’ ”

Rabi Yosip’s poetry soars with imagination, weaving myth and legend with historical data. Most of all, the words are those of an Assyrian poet whose love of his nation sparkles with the romantic imagery in the song-poem Ninos and Shamiram.

“Yosip Bet Yosip is one of our finest poets with a deep knowledge of our folkloric tradition,” says Tony Khoshaba, AAS-A Central Valley president and Mesopotamian Night producer. He points to the song-poem’s contrasting themes of a village girl’s simplicity in Shamiram and a prince’s urban sophistication in Ninos, and that the subject holds vast interest in any culture. He also feels Ninos and Shamiram was especially ripe for a Mesopotamian Night musical. “In general any love story tied to mythology makes an interesting story,” he explains, “but I let Michel decide whether it would be a good musical subject.”

Michel Bosc had already worked on previous year’s Mesopotamian Night production. One act from his opera Qateeni Gabbara was presented at the 2009 gala performance. Based on William Daniel’s Assyrian Epic, Qateeni Gabbara is still a work in progress.

Also for the 2009 production, Bosc had orchestrated solo piano works by the Assyrian composer Paulus Khofri into a suite titled Assyryt. The first part was presented in the 2009 concert as Assyryt Suite No. 1. Assyryt Suite No. 2 is in the lineup for this year’s program.

“I had confidence in Michel and in his commitment to deliver a superb work,” says Khoshaba. “He is a genuine artist whose work has a certain charisma. But I also think he liked the story.”

Ninos and Shamiram is written as a cantata for soprano and tenor with orchestra. The cantata, from the Italian word cantare, meaning “to sing,” was a relatively large 17th-century secular work in operatic style for one or two singers with accompaniment. It continued to evolve into a more elaborate work that included secular and religious texts.

Johann Sebastian Bach transformed the cantata to include soloists, chorus and orchestra, producing some 200 church cantatas. Since the late 18th century, the cantata has further evolved into a choral religious or secular work with orchestra and with or without soloists.

“I decided on a cantata in the baroque sense, with an overture and several movements,” Bosc points out. “It makes the story more intimate and the reading easier and clearer. It’s more operatic, too.”

To bring out the cantata’s colors and sensuality, he wanted a symphony orchestra with harp, harpsichord and celesta. To that, he added bells, cymbals, vibraphone and glockenspiel. Bosc explains he set out to create in the cantata something personal, since he already feels part of the Assyrian community. “Ninos and Shamiram is also universal,” he adds. “It begins with a real Assyrian theme, but the rest is mine.”

Bosc admits he was drawn to the story of Ninos and Shamiram. He especially saw beauty and magic in the character of Shamiram, that she is proud and free like the Assyrian soul. “I loved her at once,” he says, “and I decided to write for a high coloratura soprano, and to offer her a virtuoso piece.”

Ninos and Shamiram must reach beyond the Assyrian concert hall, Bosc notes. The world must discover it. Part of his plan to give the cantata a universal face is already in place: Ninos and Shamiram will be published in France. “This culture must be discovered and must travel,” he says. “I want every singer to be able to sing this Assyrian legend.”

Obelit Yadgar
Writer and Master of Ceremonies