Modesto Bee: Famed singers celebrate the Assyrian culture at Gallo Center

By Lisa Millegan,


From classical to pop music, the “Melodies from the East” concert will give a full range of the best in Assyrian entertainment.

The three-hour show, scheduled next weekend at the Gallo Center for the Arts, will celebrate the music and culture of Iran and Iraq, the ancient homeland of the Assyrian people.

Sponsored by the Assyrian Aid Society of America, the benefit concert will help Assyrians around the world, especially those suffering from the Iraq war.

The show features symphonic music, opera, ballet, folk and popular songs, with special guests Townsend Opera Players, Central West Ballet and Assyrian pop music stars Walter Aziz and Ashur Bet Sargis backed by a 22-piece band.

Aziz and Bet Sargis have a huge following in the Assyrian community, said Pierre Noghli, a drummer who helped coordinate the show.

“They’re the most famous Assyrian singers in the world,” he said. “They’re our equivalent to Frank Sinatra or Elvis — they’re that well known. Everybody knows every song they sing. They know the songs word by word.”

Aziz is best known for his 1982 album, “General Agha Petros,” inspired by a legendary World War I Assyrian general, and his 1980 album, “Assyrian Nation.” Bet Sargis is known for recordings of nationalistic songs “Roosh Jwanqa,” “Bet-Nahrain” and “Taneelee Ly-ly.”

Noghli said a crew will come from Los Angeles to film the show for a DVD.

The classical music portion of the program will feature excerpts from two operas composed by John Craton — “Gilgamesh” and “Inanna.” The yet-to-be-staged “Gilgamesh,” about a king who lived in Babylonia about 2700 BC, was specially commissioned by the Assyrian Aid Society’s Central Valley chapter. It will be sung in Aramaic, the ancient language of Jesus that also was used in such biblical books as Daniel and Ezra.

“We are promoting this language that is in danger of dying,” said Tony Khoshaba, president of the Central Valley chapter.

Selections from “Inanna” were performed at last year’s Assyrian benefit concert in Modesto. The work includes the ballet scene “Haluppu Tree,” which will be choreographed and performed by Central West Ballet.

“I’ve never worked with the Assyrian community– it’s a new project,” Central West Ballet Artistic Director René Daveluy said. “It’s always good for everybody to get together and cooperate.”

Khoshaba said he is excited to have the concert in the state-of-the-art Gallo Center for the Arts, rather than in a banquet hall or some more modest facility. He is glad Assyrians can be involved with the art center. “For the community, it’s their own music in a totally different format in different quality.”