Al-Amal Percussion Ensemble formed in Spring 2017 after community members generously supported Al-Bustan’s Razoo campaign for purchasing drums to start group instruction in Arab percussion for Syrian and Iraqi refugee youth. Northeast High School Assistant Principal, Ms. Peggy DeNaples, graciously offered the school as a site for starting the program, and Music Teacher Dr. Fluellen provided use of his classroom.
Starting an after-school program past the middle of the year can be challenging; however we found a wonderful partnership with HIAS homework and ESL support group where every Thursday their students could spend the second hour, 4-5pm, drumming. This proved to be a fun and educational opportunity for students to practice their English, learn new languages, and grow their friendships.
The 16 participating students had recently come to America from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Turkey. As they are adjusting to life in a new home and school while looking ahead to a brighter future, their percussion teacher Hafez Kotain felt it was fitting to call the group Al-Amal which means “The Hope” in Arabic. As a Syrian-Venezuelan, Hafez quickly connected with the students, sharing his love of music, dance, and Arab culture, and inspiring them to continue learning and showcasing what they have learned.
After only five classes, the students performed publicly for the first time in Kensington neighborhood at the third Tabadul Neighborhood Forum at the U School, galvanizing the audience to clap and dance along, and ending in an uproar of cheering. They proudly carried their tableh off stage, beaming widely, expressing surprise they did so well.
For their second performance, as Hafez could not join them, two of the students, siblings Jwan and Sedra, led the ensemble. They performed at HIAS’ end-of-year celebration at Spruance Elementary School. When they came to class the next day, they were embarrassed to show Hafez the video of their performance; through upon seeing the video clip, Hafez smiled like a proud father and exclaimed:
I would not only be comfortable with you playing on your own anywhere, at anytime, but also confident that you will be stars.
Their third performance at NEHS was the opening act in the Fourth Tabadul Neighborhood Forum, and a closing act with Kenda — the youngest member who lives near by and joined the classes with her sister, Al-Bustan Intern Zubaida — performing solo with Hafez.
Al-Amal’s final performance of the year took them to South Philly at the Academy of Palumbo, where they were invited to perform and participate in their annual Diversity Day. It began with them saying good morning in the many languages that they speak, Hafez introducing the tableh, their performance, and call & answer with the audience. It ended with a standing ovation and a Palumbo teacher telling them:
“Your performance was mesmerizing! Great job!”
When Al-Amal Percussion Ensemble started in late March, the students were quite shy and quiet. As the weeks progressed they became more comfortable with each other and Al-Bustan staff. In between classes, they would often practice with different students taking the lead or teaching each other different talents they have, such as debke or sharqi dancing, or take a few minutes to share with each other some highlights or concerns at school. Although living in the Northeast can sometimes be difficult to stay connected to central parts of the Philadelphia, Al-Amal Percussion Ensemble has been able to showcase their talents in different parts of the city and we are excited to support them in continuing to do in the next academic year!