An increasing number of Syrian musicians are taking center-stage in Germany. One of them is Fattouch, named after a popular Middle-Eastern salad. Their music tosses together the best of East and West.
As the music heated up at a recent show in a packed, stuffy room in a small cultural center in Berlin, a group of Syrian men, many of them dapper in stylish hats and matching hipster suits, jumped from their seats. The men shimmied and stomped their feet, while in their midst a middle-aged German - somewhat unsuccessfully - tried to wiggle his hips to the rhythmic beat.
Later, as the audience milled around chatting and drinking beer, Hazem Nassreddine smiled ecstatically: "It's incredible: When I see all the people, all these Syrians dancing and singing, I forget where I am."
He almost felt, he added quietly, as if he was still back home in Damascus - that is to say, before the bloodshed, mayhem and bombs turned his home into a place "where there is so little life left."
The wiry, soft-spoken 20 year-old musician with a ready-smile and fluent German, is one of more than a million refugees who arrived in Germany last year, as the country opened its borders to those fleeing the turmoil in the Middle East and beyond.
And like Hazem, who plays the quanun, a traditional Middle-Eastern string instrument, many have joined local bands - or started their own, such asSyrian band Khebez Dawle
, which is rocking big audiences across Germany.
Refugees are changing the music scene
Deep in the dingy, cluttered cellar in Neukölln, where Hazem and the four musicians who make up Fattouch meet to practice every week since they got together earlier this year, the young Syrian struggled to describe the band's style.
"Fattouch is the name of a delicious Arabic salad that you can throw everything in you like," he told DW.
The band, whose members come from France, Germany, Romania and Syria, serves a wide mix of Balkan music, to traditional Arabic folk songs and Latino rhythms.
Bands like them, Fattouch's affable French guitarist, Jean-Baptiste Moussarie, said, might soon change Germany's cultural scene: "When you have people from so many countries, it's really powerful and refreshing."
In France, he said, newcomers from North Africa had already created a vibrant new music scene – something he is convinced will also happen in Germany.
And he's convinced that music can bridge divides: "When I first met Hazem he didn't speak any English or German, but we communicated through our music."
Verbal abuse, too
But the response is not always as outright enthusiastic as during the concert in the cultural center when the audience crooned along to a melancholic Syrian folk song: Hazem and Jean-Baptiste often strum on the streets of Berlin, where verbal abuse is not uncommon, they say.
It was not unusual, the French musician told DW, for passers-by who saw the unfamiliar quanun to tell them to "f**k off" and "go home." He shrugged: "You can find stupid people everywhere." And most people, he added, were welcoming.
But the band, which makes a point of performing in refugee shelters in Berlin, is adamant that it is not "a refugee band."
Fattouch doesn't want to be labeled
"We're just people having fun, making music, nothing else", Jean-Baptiste said. Outgoing violinist and band manager Marion Enachescu grinned: Their goal, she said, was to become famous, but in their own right. "Not because of some refugee label."
But three of the band's members are Syrian refugees, and while they all agree that their music is non-political, the realities of their lives are hard to shrug off.
Hazem, for one, is still waiting for his asylum application to be processed. He's desperate to continue the dentistry studies he began back home - and, with the Balkan route all but shut off, to get his sister to safety somehow.
His father and sibling are still in Damascus, and he's worried. Sometimes, he said, it hurt too much to talk to his family back in Syria and hear their stories about hardship and fear. "So I try not to think about them," he smiled ruefully.
Fattouch, he added, was like a second family to him.
And sometimes, when Fattouch takes center stage in a refugee or cultura center in Berlin, he suddenly spots friends from Damascus in the crowd. Friends he didn't even know had fled Syria, too. And then, just for an evening, he feels like he's back home again.