To play alongside Yo-Yo Ma, the world famous cellist, is a daunting challenge for most musicians as well as a privilege. But for Basma Jabr it is one more opportunity as she builds a professional singing career that only started when she arrived in Austria as a refugee in 2014.
“Of course I am a bit nervous,” she said the morning before, during practice at the home of fellow musician Marwan Abado, who plays an oud, an Arab instrument like a lute. "I am also excited to have a new musical experience and the chance to meet other musicians.”
Basma, 35, was born into a musical Syrian family in Kuwait but due to war left in 1990 for Syria, where she trained and worked as an architect. Conflict in Syria meant Basma was displaced for a second time.
Her husband, Aysar Aisamee, made the difficult journey to Europe alone. When he got refugee status, Basma and their two young children joined him. They arrived in Austria in 2014.
Since then, Dr. Aisamee, a cardiologist, has got back into medicine and is working at a hospital in Vienna, and Basma’s new career as a professional singer is starting to take off. The couple are a perfect example of how refugees can integrate successfully and contribute to society when they are welcomed.
Basma now sings in clubs and theatres across Vienna and has performed in other European countries but she says things were hard at first. She knew little German but music helped make connections.
"Music is a universal language."
“It was a comfort,” she says. “Music is a universal language and you can say everything through it.”
The workshop with Ma was dedicated to diversity and social inclusion. Eighty participants including 10 refugees learned and performed “Lamma Bada Yatathana”, the song in Arabic from medieval Spain that Basma was rehearsing.
Led by Marwan and Ma, the participants split into two groups and learned to chant different rhythms to support Basma’s vocals. Another refugee, Hani Abo Harbbah Alnaeb, improvised on a white piano. The 19-year-old came from Syria in 2015 and since he arrived has taught himself to play, partly through watching YouTube videos.
The participants gathered for the workshop in a cultural centre in Vienna. As they played, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres – in Vienna for a visit – arrived and sat down in the front row to listen to the song.
“This is a fantastic illustration of how people from different parts of the world can come together in music, and peace,” he said afterwards.
After the workshop, Basma was glowing. “It was difficult to coordinate so many people but it was fun, spontaneous and beautiful. And for me, it was a delight and honour to perform with Yo-Yo Ma.”