Oud player, composer
Origin | Syria
Currently located | United States
Languages | Arabic, English
Key themes | Universality of music, value of heritage and culture
An active composer and arranger for Syrian TV and Theater since the ‘90s, Issam Rafea won the 2010 “Best Composer Award” in the Dubai International Film Festival (Muhr Arab) for his music in the film “Matar Ayloul” (September Rain). Rafea was Chair of the Arabic Music Department at the High Institute of Music in Damascus and the principal conductor of the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music from 2003- 2013. He has studied with Fayez Zahr El-Din, Aref Abdallah, and Askar Ali-Akbar. In 1995, he received his bachelor’s degrees in Oud and Double Bass performance and Oriental Conducting from the High Institute of Music in Damascus, where he was also on the faculty teaching Oud.
In addition to several solo appearances with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Solhi Al Wadi, Rafea has performed internationally in France, Spain, Germany, Holland, Italy, Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait and the United States. He has participated in numerous festivals including the Mediterranean Festival in Algeria; the World Universal Expo in Seville, Spain; the Spiritual Music Festival in Marseille, France; the Arabic Music Conferences in Cairo; and Babel Festival in Iraq.
Rafea is co-founder and Oudist for the contemporary Arabic music group “Hewar.” Hewar has performed in several countries including UAE, Egypt, Germany, the UK, France, Japan, and the U.S. In 2011 and 2012 the group participated in the Morgenland Festival in Osnabrueck, Germany with successful performances that resulted in the production of a new live album “Letters to a Homeland”. Rafea also founded “Twais Quartet,” a group that performs both original compositions by Rafea and traditional Arabic music.
Rafea collaborates internationally with groups like “Gorillaz” for whom he arranged five works that were performed by the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. The performance was recorded in the Damascus Opera house. One piece was selected to be on the 2009 “Gorillaz” album “Plastic Beach.” The project concluded with an international tour in the UK, Europe, Lebanon, Syria, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia. Additionally, Rafea participated in a series of concerts and workshops in 2010 with students from the Royal Academy in Denmark as part of the Syrian-Danish cultural cooperation. He was also invited by the German Institute in Ankara, Turkey to participate in an electronic music concert.
In March of 2013 Rafea was invited to the United States to direct the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at Northern Illinois University School of Music where he also gave a series of presentations and performances. While in Illinois, Rafea performed with guitar virtuoso Fareed Haque in multiple cross-cultural collaborations. Rafea was invited by Mizna to participate as a performer and workshop instructor in a symposium on Arab American culture and history held at the University of Minnesota. He was also a guest artist with Tufts Takht, the Arabic Music Ensemble under the direction of Kareem Roustom, in "Post Card from Damascus" at the Distler Performance Hall in Boston, MA. In 2014 Rafea was invited to perform and give workshops for "The Spirit of the Oud" at James B. Hunt Library Auditorium, Centennial Campus, NC.; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and at the Spurlock Museum. He also performed in the “Evening of Middle Eastern Music & Art” at the College Avenue Student Center, Rutgers University in NJ; and at Mairs Concert Hall, Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota. Rafea also directed the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at Northern Illinois University as part of a World Music Concert Series in the Recital Hall.
In the spring of 2017 Rafea was an artist-in-residence at Carleton College, MN where he met Gao Hong, a pipa master from China. Together they formed the “Issam Rafea and Gao Hong Duo.” In May of 2018 they released their debut CD “Life As Is – the Blending of Ancient Souls from Syria and China.” They have performed at Carleton College; St Paul College; The Cedar Cultural Center; Inn-Fest, and dozens of other performances throughout Minnesota. They were interviewed and featured on the MPR/NPR radio program “All Things Considered”; and on WCCO/CBS Radio’s Steele Talkin’ with host Jearlyn Steele. This newly formed duo also won a 2018 USArtists International Grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation in the U.S.