Three Pioneer Stories

From the left: Firas Hassan, Haein Erin Lee, and Priscilla Vela
From the left: Firas Hassan, Haein Erin Lee, and Priscilla Vela
Photo by Histeria Producciones

For Firas Hassan, leaving his home in northwest Syria amid a raging civil war and coming to Berklee Valencia had an undeniable urgency to it. Back home, Hassan was a renowned specialist in Arabic percussion, and perhaps the only Syrian musician to hold performance diplomas in riq and darbuka—the main instruments in Arabic percussion. But the war that affected a huge number of Syrians seriously curtailed Hassan’s work as a university music professor and in-demand performer.

As a young man, he was largely self-taught because music academies in Syria expect traditional music to be learned by aural tradition. Seeking deeper musical knowledge on which to build a musical career, Hassan found a conservatory in nearby Lebanon that offered a methodical pedagogy in Arabic music, and enrolled. There, he received rigorous musical training in Western music history and harmony as well as Oriental music theory and scales. He also studied academic subjects in addition to piano, oud, and Arabic percussion. After completing the six-year curriculum in 2006, he returned to Syria and found that his hard-won academic credentials and performance skills put him in demand—even among some who originally scoffed at his educational plans.

Given Hassan’s musical literacy and well-rounded experience, offers to play with symphony orchestras, traditional ensembles, and even jazz bands poured in. After the war began in March 2011, however, his work dried up. “I played concerts throughout Europe and many other countries,” Hassan recalls, “But I always returned to Syria. My friends thought I was crazy for coming back, but I wanted to spend my life there.” After a year and a half without finding work in Syria, Hassan pondered moving to New York, but also applied to Berklee Valencia. When he was accepted as a contemporary studio performance major and offered a scholarship, Hassan opted for Valencia. Like his family members who had already moved from Syria to France, Hassan had reached a tipping point.

Once ensconced on the Valencia campus in September 2012, word of Hassan’s musicianship and the exotic nature of his talent spread among the students and faculty members. Everyone wanted to work with him. Faculty member Laura Karpman brought him in on sessions for a professional film project she was recording. And during the graduation concert in July, Hassan was featured in many different musical settings.