A Las Vegas surgeon educates people about Arabic culture through music

As the leader of the Arab Music Ensemble, Dr. Bishr Hijazi hopes to reverse misconceptions about Middle Eastern culture and connect people across the world through the group’s alluring, curious and gentle sounds.

Hijazi is a prominent Las Vegas hand surgeon, but when he trades his scalpel for a buzuq, his mission morphs into creating more understanding about Arabic culture.

“One rhythm, one song, can pique interest and bring acceptance of a culture,” Hijazi said. “If this music is not introduced, no one will ever hear it.”

The Las Vegas trio received two grants totaling $16,000 to play 20 concerts, including 18 free performances at Clark County schools, from September through May.

To bring the exotic sound to the stage, county supervisor of cultural programs Patrick Gaffey got a $12,000 grant from the national nonprofit Chamber Music America. The county put in another $4,000 for performances at schools, McCarran International Airport and the Winchester Cultural Center.

Most of the shows have yet to be scheduled. The concert at the cultural center is set for 2 p.m. May 19. Tickets are expected to go on sale in March.

“There’s a lot to learn from this group,” Gaffey said. “They can give you a fairly diverse picture of the Middle East.”

Hijazi likens the ensemble’s traditional sound to that of a Turkish concerto. The classical style of Arabic music is rarely written down or recorded, he said.

Onstage at the Westgate on Tuesday, Hijazi sat hunched over a guitarlike oud, expertly plucking the strings. For some songs, he strummed a buzuq, another ancient Middle Eastern instrument.

He also played a flutelike, wooden ney, moving with the melody.

At his side, Charbel Azzi, 31, taps his foot to the beat, thumping his colorful darbuka, a hand drum. For some songs, he jingles a tambourinelike riq.

Azzi, now a software engineer, grew up in Lebanon. As a teenager, he studied at the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music near Beirut.

His brother and fellow percussionist Charles Azzi occasionally plays with the ensemble. A dancer from Kazakhstan often joins them too.

Las Vegas Philharmonic violinist Laraine Kaizer-Viazovtsev, whose resume includes playing with Celine Dion’s orchestra, is the group’s only American.

“I fell in love with their music,” the native of Peoria, Illinois said. “It’s so subtle but so complex at the same time.”

Even if the melody is simple, each note can be embellished with delicate sounds, she said. It’s unlikely to pick up all of the detail in one listen, even for Kaizer-Viazovtsev’s trained ear.

Hijazi, 45, keeps hearing more intricacies in the music, too. That’s why perfecting the style is a lifetime journey, he said.

“It’s addictive once you understand it,” he said. “It’d be very difficult to ignore.”

As a boy, Hijazi played accordion, which doesn’t sound anything like a polka in the Middle East. The first guitar notes he heard were so intriguing he taught himself to play classical and Spanish flamenco guitar.

“It had a really magical effect on me,” he said. “It was like I couldn’t believe the sounds were coming from their hands.”

Hijazi has since studied with Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and American players. Music was his escape from the pressure, sleep deprivation and consuming schedule of medical training.

Now, the highly specialized surgeon makes his living and his melodies with his hands.

Mastery of music, like medicine, demands intense focus and constant practice, he said.

With a scalpel and the help of microscopic glasses, the doctor operated on a woman with carpal tunnel syndrome at the Valley View Surgery Center on Friday. Hijazi’s steady, skillful hands made a cut, pulled back her skin and carefully repaired damage.

He mends one hand after another, often doing more than a dozen procedures in a day.

“Once you get into it, it’s not so tedious,” he said. “The rush of adrenaline keeps you going.”

The surgeon likes to joke with nurses and listen to relaxing music while working long shifts under the bright lights of sterile operating rooms.

When he’s not at the hospital, Hijazi trades his light-blue scrubs and latex gloves for dressy, black-and-white duds to take the stage with the Arab ensemble.

He gets a laugh out of people who expect them to show up for gigs in turbans.

“My office manager still thinks I had a pet camel” while growing up in Kuwait, Hijazi said.

He and his fellow players hope to diminish negative attitudes about the Middle East by capturing emotion in their music. They want to help people realize they’re not so different from anyone else.

“You cannot ignore the human element,” Hijazi said. “Every music has its soul.”

Contact Amy Nile at anile@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Find @AmyNileReports on Twitter.

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