Syrian musicians defy limitations
Despite the dominance of war and gloom in headlines about Syria these days, and despite the fact that the few positive stories reported via mass and social media are by and large about individual instances of success, the large majority of the Syrian people continue to soldier on. Whether in search of a sense of normalcy in daily life or in working hard to achieve a semblance of stability individually or as families, many Syrians are drawing on hard work, but also on creativity, to overcome difficulty.
One particularly hopeful and active group of Syrians appears to be the country’s musicians. Syrian ensembles, large and small, are performing on global stages. But, while the scale of the continuously unfolding war in Syria has no precedent in the modern era, Syrian musicians have for a long time defied the realities of limitation.
Musical life in Syria has taken a number of significant turns at various points in the country’s history. We know this to be particularly the case over the course of the 20th century, thanks to an abundance of records, printed materials and autobiographical accounts. One of these turns, as most historians of Arab music would agree, was a wave of musical migration to Egypt. Egypt was where the recording industry had quickly set up a base after the invention of the recording technology that allowed mass dissemination. Cairo was where one had the chance to have one’s songs and compositions, even voice, become known to Arabic-speaking audiences inside the Arab world as well as abroad. Egypt was the destination of every hopeful talent; Cairo was where stars were being made.
Opportunities in Cairo were many, and not all had to do with the new era of mass publicity. Singers and instrumentalists from Syria’s major cities, especially Damascus and Aleppo, looked to Cairo because it offered them a wider palette of creative possibilities. According to the late Samim Al-Sharif, author, critic and historian of 20th century Arab music, Syrian musicians and singers found a more welcoming social and cultural environment in Egypt than the one in which they lived during the first half of the 20th century.
Musical life in Syria has come a long way since a musician’s testimony was not admitted in court
Al-Sharif highlights the dominance of religious conservatism in Syrian urban life, especially among the cities’ elites, who were also their religious jurists, “muqri’in” (readers of the Qur’an), as well as “fuqaha” and “ulama” (theologians). The cantors, who for the most part were also mu’adhdhins who called to prayer from the cities’ major mosques, were naturally members of these circles. During the 1920s and 1930s, a number of musically talented members of these religious circles also had strong nationalistic sentiments, which they expressed through anti-occupation poems that were often set to vivacious music. These new songs quickly became popular, especially among the educated youths. Not only were the songs well known, they were also effective in mobilizing sentiment and action against the French rule and military presence.
During the French Mandate era, Syria boasted a large number of societies and clubs, many of which revolved around cultural activities that actively involved talented young musicians. Sensing a threat from these gatherings, and citing clandestine revolutionary activity under the social veneer, the French authorities banned a large number of arts, sports, music and other cultural clubs. Musical life suffered as a result of these restrictions, which, according to Al-Sharif, created another impetus behind the artistic exodus to Egypt.
Although some moved permanently to Egypt and others spent extended periods of time there, Syrian musicians maintained a strong connection to their home regions, Al-Sharif asserts. Having started from a place that had put strong emphasis on religious and linguistic heritage — Islam and Arabic to be specific — Syrian musicians had a keen sense of belonging that had a strong Arab nationalist flavor. Therefore, having a productive presence in Egypt and on the secular musical market, where their experimental creativity found space for expression, many of these musicians maintained strong ties to Islam and Arabism. In terms of the language, many had learned “tajwid,” the art of reciting the Quran, which gave them a strong command of Arabic pronunciation in song. In terms of religion, many decided to return to their home cities, often having had a religious awakening of sorts, and went back to being reciters in the conservative settings they had temporarily left.
Times have changed. Musical life in Syria has come a long way since a musician’s testimony, like that of alcoholics and drug users, was not admitted in court. Among other social and cultural developments, there are now a few generations of professionally educated musicians in Syria. But, instead of competing for seats in the country’s relatively young orchestras or creating a proliferation of small and experimental ensembles, Syrian musicians are now regrouping in their global diaspora. Whether the small and large musical formations they are creating in their currently transient lives will one day find their way back to Syria is something that remains to be seen.
• 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.