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Syrian piano man debuts at new venue

3 syrian pinist amjad debi
Syrian pianist Amjad Dabi practicing tickling the ivories at the new venue. Photograph: Miranda Glasser/Phnom Penh Post

The streets of downtown Siem Reap will be alive with the strains of Debussy and Rachmaninov on Tuesday night.

Prince d’Angkor Hotel is launching its new piano lounge, The Mouy Resto-Lounge, on May 28 with a three-hour piano gala featuring visiting young Syrian pianist Amjad Dabi and guests.

The live music venue boasts a Yamaha baby grand piano and state-of-the-art Bose sound system. Prince d’Angkor executive director Ly Seang Hong plans to hold weekly concerts there, and in this he is collaborating with Mike Mahalo and Jim Latt who are both long-term expats and musicians about town. Mahalo, who helped found the Jazz in the City nights at Heritage Suites, first heard about the venue when he got a call from Seang Hong.

He told Mahalo that he had a new venue with a good grand piano, a lovely stage, and top-of-the-range loudspeakers.

Mahalo said, “For musicians like myself this is very exciting. Then I heard that a classical concert pianist was in town just for this week. So I thought this is a coincidence: the new place is opening – with a grand piano – and we have an international pianist. Maybe we can put this together for the opening.”

The featured pianist, Amjad Dabi, 23, grew up in Damascus but met Jim Latt in Bangkok through American Voices, which works with war-torn countries, supporting youth through cultural education programs.

“American Voices is a US organisation which introduces music, dance, theatre, Broadway, hip hop, jazz, classical music to developing countries through the American embassies,” Latt said.

 “We have a variety of different programs, usually with an educational component. So you’re introducing to an audience what is unique about this art form, and also doing a cultural exchange between people. Amjad was introduced to this organisation three years ago, when it was running an academy in Syria.”

Dabi, who has been playing the piano since he was seven, first met John Ferguson, American Voices founder, and Dr Bradley Bowman, professor of piano at Baylor University in Texas, in 2010 in Damascus. They were impressed with his talents and later on decided to help him get a scholarship to Baylor to continue his musical studies.

The boys behind the new venue: (left to right) Amjad Dabi, Mike​ Mahalo, Prince d'Angkor owner Ly Seang Hong, and Jim Latt. Photograph: Miranda Glasser/Phnom Penh Post
The boys behind the new venue: (left to right) Amjad Dabi, Mike​ Mahalo, Prince d'Angkor owner Ly Seang Hong, and Jim Latt. Photograph: Miranda Glasser/Phnom Penh Post

“What happened in Syria is once the war started it affected pretty much everything,” Dabi said. “All aspects of education were hit really hard because it was not safe anymore for students to go to universities, and so the need for pushing for continuing study in the US was obvious.” In December 2012, Ferguson suggested Dabi come to Bangkok – which is where he met Latt – to participate in the organisation’s Youth Excellence on Stage Academy, and prepare his university application.

The application was successful, and Dabi leaves in a week to visit his family before heading off to the US.

For The Mouy opening on Tuesday, Dabi will be playing classical music – a mixture of Bach, Haydn, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Beethoven and Debussy.

Latt and Mahalo will also be performing and are inviting other pianists to take part who will play different musical genres including ragtime and Gershwin. In addition, they plan to have some vocalists perform on the night.

“We are lining up as many pianists as possible to play other forms of music and we’re going to try to cover quite a gamut,” Latt said.  “We’ll have a classical component and also some more popularised piano performance.”

For the future, the trio aim to then hold regular Wednesday night performances at the venue, which will be less classical and feature more jazz and pop.

“In the weeks to follow this will be a regular thing, with happy hour,” Mahalo said. “It will probably be different musicians every week, it depends on the customers.”  

The Grand Piano Gala takes place at 6pm at The Mouy resto-lounge, Prince d’Angkor Hotel on Tuesday May 28. Happy hour will be from 6-9pm.

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