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One reason Mohannad Nasser chose to study at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain, was to explore the link between the traditional music of his native Syria and that of Spain—a country, he says, that reminds him of home. Another big factor was to study flamenco, a genre he regards as a great language to explore the balance between tradition and the present.
“I’m learning a lot,” he says, especially by performing with instructors such as Sergio Martínez and Albert Sanz, playing flamenco in a contemporary context. “This is what I always wanted to do,” he says.
A Man and His Oud
Nasser, a student in the Master of Music in Contemporary Performance (Production Concentration) program, remembers being a multi-instrumentalist at age 7, playing five instruments for a “surprised audience” that would remain in silence, clap, laugh, or cry in response to his sensitivity and musicality. “I expressed what it means to be performing on stage, and I had a strong internal voice telling me to keep doing that,” he recalls.
He started with the piano, accordion, violin, and cello. “Music is an interesting brain game for kids. I was lucky to be in a musical environment, surrounded by many instruments, which made me jump from one to another easily,” says Nasser. At 11, he fell in love with the oud, a pear-shaped, stringed instrument that is popular in traditional Oriental and Arabic music. He describes it as “shy and soft,” with a “warm and deep” sound and “very open” in terms of possibilities. “I always had a feeling that the oud wants to break with those stereotypes that act as walls,” he says. “I wanted to explore the hidden corners of music with my oud.”
He received a bachelor’s degree in music at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, Syria, where he trained to become a soloist. “I still remember spending hours figuring out how to play Bach on my oud—it was a rich experience and a solid beginning,” Nasser says. “We also had the opportunity to get closer to traditional music from neighboring countries, as my teacher was from Azerbaijan and we had many workshops with masters from Turkey, Iran, and India. Those experiences show me many crossroads between traditional music.”
The rich musical heritage of his region is his main source of inspiration, but it also allows other interpretations and influences. “I love to borrow elements from many different music genres. In each period, there is a new genre which occupies my heart and mind, so I would say that my voice is a mix of traditional music and a personal contemporary approach,” he says.
From Syria to Lebanon
After graduating in 2015, Nasser moved to Lebanon after being drafted to join the compulsory military service. “At the time, the situation in Syria was very dangerous. As a musician, I decided to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, so I left looking for a safe place,” he recalls. He founded OUMI Ensemble with members from around the world, including Japan and Switzerland, in Beirut in 2014. Three years later, they released the successful album Imaginary Dance. “We were touring and performing right before I moved to Spain to continue my studies at Berklee,” he says.
The 27-year-old also collaborated with organizations such as Action for Hope and Yalla! Pour les Enfants to teach music to children living in refugee camps. This was therapeutic for Nasser and his students; his classes allowed kids to “breathe” and “take a break from their sad realities.” He adds: “The situation in Syria is considered one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world and left very deep wounds inside all of us. Playing an instrument or singing a song to others was a very efficient way for them to express their emotions and to feel more confident.”
This sentiment is present in his album L'Oud Whispers, released last year. Nasser says his compositions reflect the contradiction faced daily by Middle East artists who live in countries in conflict. “For me, each musician who is living in a country at war is a loud whisperer in the face of the noise created by war,” he says. He composed the album between Syria and Lebanon, performing as a soloist, which he believes “is the most honest and difficult way of performing.”
Nasser has played in countries such as Lebanon, Ghana, Tunisia, and United Arab Emirates, and has received several awards from international competitions. “I was honored to be part of many festivals and to receive four different prizes at international oud competitions,” he says.
Now in Valencia, he is enjoying the synergy between his roots and those in Spanish music as he carries on his journey in making the contemporary a new tradition. He also is developing his project Today’s Contemporary, Tomorrow’s Heritage, which aims to make Arabic music more accessible. “The concept is to adapt traditional elements into a contemporary context. This is delivered with workshops, master classes, and videos,” Nasser says. “I am doing well now—I will have a master class soon with some local musicians in Valencia who are interested to learn more about this genre.”