Cafe aims to play a different tune

When the seven-year old boy starts to play the violin, it’s suddenly clear why he’s in a soundproof room. His teacher winces behind him, trying not to laugh as the child drags his bow across the strings with an impassioned—if misguided—flourish.

But Joe Elias, co-founder of the music non-profit organization Onomatopoeia in Achrafieh, would happily let the miniature violinist play in the lounge; in fact, he’s done so before. Elias and his two partners, Youssef Naiim and Alain Osta, created Onomatopoeia to bring people of all ages, all political and religious backgrounds, all instrument-preferences—and all experience-levels—together to deepen their appreciation of music. Lebanon needs more music, they say, now more than ever.

“We have many different political conflicts in Lebanon,” says Naiim. “We thought we might bring people together over music.”

Onomatopoeia is housed in the bottom floor of an apartment building, and passersby could be forgiven for mistaking it for a hip coffee shop; in fact, the front section of Onomatopoeia is a hip coffee shop. Many people use the mid-century modern-looking lounge and patio just to enjoy food, drinks, or high-speed Internet. But many more people use it to talk music shop before they head to the back practice rooms. The lounge exists solely to financially and creatively support the space that’s behind it, and it’s what happens there that’s really interesting.

The three back rooms buzz (and chime, bang, and pluck) with music lovers: a soundproof band practice room that Onomatopoeia says is state-of-the-art; a large room that can accommodate group lessons; and a smaller tutorial room. At just a few months old, these rooms are already hosting daily private lessons, group lessons, and practices for people between the ages of six and fifty: bands, vocalists, pianists, guitarists, and even fledgling violinists.

Elias explains that programs are adapted depending on what someone wants to do with the music. For the organization’s founders, it’s not important that everyone who walks into Onomatopoeia leaves it a professional musician; they want to rebuild Lebanon’s culture of music, which they believe has been eroded by Lebanon’s focus on political tensions.

"In this country, everybody at the age of five can speak politics. We thought, why don't we give them something else?"

Onomatopoeia’s founders—who, in addition to coffee sales, finance the non-profit organization themselves—want to give a lot of things to Lebanon’s music culture. In the future, they plan to organize free public concerts, music lectures, programs for children in hospitals and refugee camps, and to get high discounts on instruments.

"A cheap guitar is not necessarily affordable," emphasizes Elias.

For now though, by offering inexpensive rates to students and high rates for teachers, Elias says that Onomatopoeia is already making music more accessible for everyone.

"For students, it's less money; for teachers, it's more money."

Sarab Shammoun, a Syrian refugee from Homs and certified music instructor, is one of Onomatopoeia’s most dedicated teachers. In Lebanon, music earns her an income and gives her a chance to pass on her talents and knowledge to others; in Syria, though, it kept her soul alive.

"My friends live still in Syria and they continue their music lessons in Syria. Music is in their souls,” Shammoun says. “When I was in Syria still, the war made our souls sad but we played music every day."

She loves Beirut because she loves her students and Onomatopoeia, but she says the thing she loves most about Lebanon is its creativity. She’s excited to be a part of an organization that is dedicated to shoring that creativity up, even though she never imagined her life would take this trajectory.

"When I was a child I dreamed that I would be a star on the stage," she smiles. “But I am happy here.”

Her student, Samer Baaklini, the seven-year old violinist, wants to be a star on the stage, too: he insists that he’s going to win Arabs Got Talent. That might take some practice; so far, his biggest performance took place in Onomatopoeia’s lounge after his first lesson. Elias remembers it well.

“He only knew how to produce one note, but he was so excited that he couldn't leave the violin in the box. So he was just throwing the same note around for one hour standing in the middle of the lounge, performing for everyone,” Elias says, laughing.

For anyone hesitant to attend an impromptu violin concert put on by a seven-year old, however, the lounge has already started pulsing with jam sessions. People get to talking over coffee, and pretty soon the music starts. If some of the people that play together talked politics instead, says Naiim, divisions might surface. But at Onomatopoeia, music brings them together.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 13, 2014, on page 4.




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