The Leipzig-Damascus Coffeehouse


Come into the coffeehouse where Divine goodness
favours those who share in its bounty!
The sweetness of life, the company of friends, the elegance of rugs –
These make it the abode of the blest.
For coffee is the source of our health, the fire which consumes our grief
and the stream which washes away our sorrow!
(from an early 16th c. poem from Mecca)

In May of 2016, audiences in Toronto, Canada will enter the colourful world of eighteenth-century Saxon and Syrian coffeehouses. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestraa Toronto-based ensemble playing on original instruments will be collaborating with the Aga Khan Museum of Toronto and an ensemble playing classical Arabic music to create an unusual concert experience. With theatrical sets and lighting, two narrators and projected images, the audience will go on a journey set in the year 1736 to two coffeehouses in Leipzig and Damascus, cities famous for their trade fairs, their scholarship and their coffee culture.

In Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach gathered together talented university students, visiting soloists and members of his family for performances at Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse in the Katherinestrasse on Friday evenings. In summertime they performed on Wednesdays from 4-6 at Zimmerman’s garden café by the Grimmischer gate. Coffee was served in Meissen cups whose painted flowers could be seen through the weak brew, nicknamed “Blümchenkaffee.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the ancient city of Damascus, which, like Leipzig lay at the crossing point of two vital trade routes, coffee was also enjoyed in Meissen cups, specially decorated in Saxony with Islamic designs for the local market. The coffee was strong and thick– the designs had to be enjoyed from the outside of the cups! The coffee drinkers of Damascus, like those of Leipzig were able to enjoy the brew while listening to the finest musicians the city had to offer.

The members of the Tafelmusik Orchestra (which was orchestra-in-residence at the 2014 Leipzig Bachfest) will play music by Telemann, Handel and Bach. The Arabic ensemble, led by Egyptian-born, Syrian-trained Canadian singer Maryem Toller, will feature kanun, oud and daff. The performance will be set in a visually striking setting inspired by the exquisitely coloured panels of the Damascus room at the Ethnological Museum in Dresden. The chief restorer of these panels, Anke Scharrahs, along with Leipzig scholars Dr. Ülrich Schneider (director of the University of Leipzig Library), Kerstin Wiese (Director of the Bach Museum) and Boris Liebrenz, a scholar of Arabic manuscripts with special expertise about 18th-century books from Damascus have been of invaluable help in the design of the concert.

left to right: Aziz Bachouri, Abdulsalam Tarshahani, Alison Mackay, Maeshelle West- Davies and Humam Nabuti at Al Baraka restaurant.
At Al Baraka restaurant, left to right: Aziz Bachouri, Abdulsalam Tarshahani, Alison Mackay, maeshelle west- davies and Humam Nabuti

I am the double-bass player in the orchestra, and the designer of the project, and because world events have brought the citizens of Damascus, Leipzig and Toronto together in new, challenging but exciting ways, the orchestra wanted to make contact with Syrians living today in Leipzig. I contacted Maeshelle West-Davies of The Leipzig Glocal to ask her advice and she organized a wonderful evening at Al Baraka, a Syrian restaurant at 55 Eisenbahnstraße in Leipzig, where I was having meetings about the project in November. Because it’s not possible for me to visit Damascus in person, I was thrilled to be able to travel there in spirit and be the recipient of the warmth and hospitality for which the city is famous. My new friends – Maeshelle, the poet Abdulsalam Tarshahani, language scholar and activist Aziz Bachouri and guitarist Humam Nabuti – gave me a taste of the sweetness of life and the company of friends which make a coffeehouse the “abode of the blest!”

By Alison Mackay

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