Aleppo’s cherished musical legacy
Aleppo is a city in which a number of minority groups have found refuge throughout centuries of the region’s tumultuous history. These groups brought along their musics, especially their religious traditions, and continued to practice them in the safety of the city’s protective social clusters. The main three monotheistic religions of the Eastern Mediterranean continue to claim houses of worship in Old Aleppo, even if many of their buildings today lie in various states of disrepair, neglect from lack of use, or wholesale destruction as a result of recent fighting. Until the onslaught of war in recent years, Aleppo was an urban space that contained a stunning array of communities and faiths, and an intricate soundscape of religious musics.
Old Aleppo, with parallels in many major cities around the Mediterranean, is a historical center of commerce that attracts merchants and shoppers alike. Aleppo boasts a particularly vibrant history as an international hub of trade, style and cultural cross-influences, stretching from the heart of Asia to Western Europe. The old city’s narrow streets put much on display that is attractive to the eye, yet they conceal much more. When not lined by shop fronts, Aleppine streets are marked by austere walls with small windows. Behind them lie private spaces of residence and worship. These palatial interiors are a feast of delicate detail and aesthetic pleasure.
Throughout the city’s long history, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have claimed centers for religious ritual practices in Aleppo, and these have had a distinguished musical output. In recent years, since the numeric majority of the city’s inhabitants have been Muslim, Old Aleppo had a large number of mosques and Sufi zawaya (lodges), in which distinguished forms of “inshad dini” (religious chant) came to be known. Especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, some of the most cherished genres of Arab vocal and instrumental music were developed in Aleppo’s old quarters, and many a legend of Arabic song came about in its circles of listeners.
Some of the most cherished genres of Arab vocal and instrumental music were developed in Aleppo’s old quarters
Some Aleppine cantors never left the religious establishment, preferring to use their voices exclusively for praising God and calling to worship. Other promising voices that appeared within chanting circles eventually broke formal ties with the religious establishment to pursue singing careers in secular settings, though the cultural and spiritual ties to their Halabi origins never left them completely. Their singing style carries the distinguishing imprint of their classical schooling. Hoping to be influenced by the Aleppine style, singers from other countries went to the northern Syrian city in pursuit of expert recognition. Aleppo was where anyone who wanted to be someone in the world of Arabic song sought its distinguishing audience’s stamp of approval.
A number of song genres were either invented or developed by and for Aleppo’s keen listeners. Perhaps the most famous musical practice to be associated with the city is the “muwashshah.” This is a word indicating that which is intricately adorned and decorated, not by external elements but by inherent detail to its form. Muwashshah is a style of poetic song that originates in an earlier era of sophistication in the artistic output of Arabic-speaking contexts. Al-Muwashshah Al-Andalusi is in many ways synonymous with Al-Muwashshah Al-Halabi, as the genre ties Aleppo with Al-Andalus. This complex song genre, which may stand alone or form part of larger compositions, can be traced to musicians as far apart as the 13th and 20th centuries, and who worked in a number of places between southern Spain and northern Syria. According to Mohammed Qadri Dalal, one of today’s living masters of Aleppine music, muwashshah has not only been embraced and maintained by the capable musicianship of Aleppine masters, it has also been significantly developed by them. Foremost among these is Omar Albatsh (1885-1950), who was a cantor in the Hilali zawiya.
Like the people who carried it out of Andalusia after the expulsion of Muslim and Jewish musicians, muwashshah continues to find a home in North Africa, just as it does in northern Syria. The routes traveled by musicians, who counted many religious minorities among their number, eventually led to urban centers along the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, where fugitives gradually settled and practiced their song. Historians of Jewish music draw direct references to the minority group’s Andalusian musical practices in current song practices along these routes. Christian cantors, especially in Aleppo, point out identical melodic phrasings between their ancient chants and well-known muwashshahat. Muslim cantor circles maintain the muwashshah as a staple mark with multiple layers of significance in Sufi practices. Which influences came first and which followed in these dynamic crossings of musical beauty and displacement may be difficult to determine with much accuracy. Nevertheless, the fact that some muwashshahat remain viewed as gems and cultural masterpieces rarely compels scrutiny.
Just like the people of Aleppo, and the religious rituals that were once housed and protected in the city’s meandering streets and old houses of worship, the musical sounds of beautiful praying voices that once emanated from these spaces are now scattered all over the globe. If the muwashshah is any indication, this form of intangible cultural heritage may well find a place to survive, but it will not be the same. For sure, it will not have the nurturing embrace of the famous Aleppine audiences and their distinguishing ears.
• Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo” (OUP, 2018). She is currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and Associate Fellow of Pierson College at Yale.