The Evolution of Syrian Music: The Journey of the Popular and the Traditional to Different Broadcast Media

by Hala Mustafa

(translated from original Arabic text)

The rapid political transformations during the first half of the twentieth century had a major impact on the Syrian cultural and musical scene throughout the ensuing decades. A long lasting absence of intellectual stability followed the colonial division of the Levant and the redrawing of its borders and geographical distribution. Moreover, a state of internal and political chaos dominated Syria during the early 1950s, as new partisan formations in their various forms contested for power. The country experienced short years of unity with Egypt, only to separate later. All of that ended with the ascension of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party to power in 1963. Political life at that time became more stable, without coups or conflicting parties. With a few exceptions here and there, Syrian culture began to acquire a Baathist hue, affecting all of its pillars.

By 1963, Radio Damascus had been broadcasting for twenty-five years, and had spent the majority of that time following these transformations and radical changes, both in Syria and in the entire region. The music permitted to reach the radio was a direct reflection of the dominant cultural thought in the region during this period – the enlightened Arab school of thought. After decades of colonialism, this school of thought attempted to find its own cultural identity – but of course, it continued to heed Western culture as a model, and continued trying to get close to it and drawing inspiration from it. It was also concerned with maintaining the same wavelength as other Arab countries. Despite the richness and diversity of the country, the ideas of a unified Arab cultural scene took precedence over the scattered local scenes inside Syria. Thus, influenced by the experience of Arab radio stations that had preceded them, serious musicians and composers, mainly oriental Takht players and professional singers who recite musical notation, found their way to Damascus Radio. For the most part, their primary focus was on singing in Standard Arabic.

However, there were a few exceptions from artists successfully sang in popular dialects on Radio Damascus, including Sarkis Tambourjian. In addition to composing for and singing the poems of Ibn Zaydun, Badr El Din Hamid and others, presented throughout the late nineteen-forties, Sarkis presented a special segment under the name of Fata El Asi, in which he sang from the folklore of the city of Hama. Some references also mention the name of Rafiq Shukri as the first person to compose and sing in the Syrian dialect, as his song Fi El Fala Jammal Sari (In the Wilderness the Camel Herder Walks) appeared in 1942, at a time when singing in colloquial dialects was limited to forms of popular singing that lacked musical notation. In addition, the experience of Salama El Agwani, the father of the Syrian monologue (a 20th century Arabic musical form that involves comedy, sarcasm or criticism of individuals, events or social phenomena), was one of the first of its kind. El Agwani began writing monologues at the end of the French colonial period and continued his activity for many years after independence. He wrote all his monologues himself, performing them first on Radio Damascus and then on Syrian TV at the beginning of its establishment. Most of these monologues were composed by the composer Sobhi Saeed.

Syrian state television began broadcasting in the early sixties, providing a new, wide platform for different types of arts. The most important of these were the comedies that emerged during its founding stage: Nihad Kalai, Duraid Lahham, Rafeeq Sbae’i, Naji Jabr and others. Together, they formed a team of actors and comedians with long-lasting personalities and roles, despite the change in the names of their programs over the years, from Sahret Dimashq (The Damascus Evening), to Sah El Nom (Good Morning / Wake Up), Hammam El Hana and Makaleb Ghawar (Ghawar Pranks), and others. All of these works included a variety of musical pieces, hosting performers from different musical schools and backgrounds. Taking into account the simple comedic character presented in the Levantine dialect, which was inspired by the cafés, the streets, and local neighborhoods, the musical works accompanying the programs had to match these elements. Through the comedy Ghawar and Hosni, popular folk music found its way to Syrian television. The artist Rafiq Sbae’i also presented many social monologues through the character called Abu Sayyah such as Qaoud Tehabbab (Sit and Enjoy), La Tedower Al Mal (Don’t Follow Money), and Sherem Berem. The artist Diab Mashhour, who originated from the Euphrates region of Syria, was the first to appear on Syrian television in the early seventies with folkloric songs, as well as new songs in the dialect of the eastern region, inspired by its heritage, such as Towli Ya Laila (Stay Laila), Meelee Alia (Come Visit Me), and Ya Bou Rudien.

This was the era that witnessed the greatest overlap in boundaries between popular music and traditional music in Syria, as well as the beginning of a debate about the distances and differences between them. We must agree here, within this context, that by folk music, we refer to all of the popular music that would spread locally among people in their neighborhoods, circles, weddings and parties, in addition to the traditional and folk music inherited from within their specific location, whether it was modernized or preserved in its basic form. As for traditional music, we mean Arabic music that was sung within traditional Arab lyrical styles, and which made its way to the public via traditional broadcasting means – mostly official government channels. Over much of the last century, this particular style was committed to presenting new, modern musicians who recite, compose and sing musical notation. The traditional music scene in Syria at the time was active within two schools; the first influenced by musical successes in Egypt. At that time, some of the Syrian singers sang in the Egyptian dialect, with melodies influenced by Muhammad Abdel Wahab, Farid El Atarache and others. Some of them relocated to Egypt in order to present their voices to Egyptian composers, including Faiza Ahmed, who got her start at Radio Aleppo and then in the middle of her career, moved to Egypt, where she would sing for various composers, including Muhammad El Mouji, Mahmoud El Sharif and Muhammad Abdel Wahab. We must also mention Muhammad Dia El Din, Maha El Jabri, and Mayada El Hinnawi. In particular, Maha el Jabri was influenced by the Lebanese musical experience, which was represented by the Rahbani brothers and those who cooperated with them or broke away from their theater.

Then, a third local scene was birthed by Syrian composers who attempted to find an equation that took inspiration from folklore and heritage, and combine it with Arabic music, presenting their works in a melodic style which wasn’t linked to the heritage of one geographical spot, and incorporated larger, more complex instruments than what was popular in traditional styles. They also accompanied their melodies with more profound lyrics, since they considered the simplicity of lyrics as problematic in popular songs. The efforts of these composers resulted in a number of successful experiences throughout the Arab world. Among them, the collaboration between composer Abdel-Fattah Sukkar with singer Fahed Ballan, in his most successful songs: Wa Eshrah Laha (Explain to Her), Larkab Hadak Yal Motor (I’ll Accompany You, Oh Motor) and Ya Sahira El Ainien (Oh the Charmer of the Eyes). All of these were hit songs. Throughout his career, Ballan has been a daring musical phenomenon. He would travel to Egypt frequently to star in famous films and sing for Egyptian composers, then return to Syria to perform Sukkar’s songs in the Bedouin or Houran dialect, or he would appear in Lebanon, singing with Sabah. Ballan had great successes on all these fronts, and his career achieved an unprecedented balance between presenting popular singing with a local identity to a large Arab public, as well as the ability to perform the melodies of traditional styles.

The singer Maha El Jabri is also considered one of the female voices who preserved Syrian lyrical identity with excellence. Although she sang the melodies of the greatest Egyptian composers, such as Sayed Makkawi, Abdel Azim Mohamed, and Mohamed El Mougy, she continued to perform in Syria, including on its official radio and television, and collaborate with Syrian composers, such as Ibrahim Jawdat, with whom she presented her most famous song, Shu Beesaab Aliy (What Is Difficult to Me), and other composers, including Najib El Sarraj, Zuhair Issawi, Saeed Qutb, Shaker Brikhan, and Salim Sarwa. Most of her songs were in the colloquial Syrian dialect.

The singer Sabah Fakri is perhaps the best example of the convergence of folk and traditional music. The success of this experiment may be attributed to the cultural and musical situation in the city of Aleppo, which has always maintained an independent identity, with its own lines of development, unaffected by the cultural centrality of Damascus, the capital. But Sabah Fakhri’s exceptional vocal capabilities, his apprenticeship at the hands of senior Aleppine vocalists and musicians, and his diligence in composing from a young age, all contributed to the establishment of a highly productive and colorful career. Fakhri’s singing combined traditional Arabic songs with traditional folk songs alike. In addition to (styles such as) El Qaseda, Al Mouashah, Al Adwars and Al Qudud, he mostly sang what falls under the category of popular singing, which passed through the city of Aleppo, such as Al Rozana, Abu Al Zuluf, Al Mawlia, Al Lala, and the various Mawals, especially Al Mawal Sabawi.

Along with many other examples, these three singers offer evidence of a high quality independent Syrian musical identity, whether in terms of composition, writing or singing. There are also many excellent vocalists and musicians who were celebrated within the country, but the broadcasting of their productions was restricted to Syrian radio and television. The General Authority for Radio and Television’s refusal to this day to make this archive available to the public has contributed to the loss of a significant part of the local musical identity, and left a schism between generations of Syrian musicians.

Another contributing factor was the changes in recording techniques throughout the twentieth century, from records to tapes, and on to various sequential digital formats. This affected private archiving efforts within personal collections, which was the only means of transmitting this huge musical heritage outside the context of Syrian government departments. Such a situation required the archivist to keep pace with technical changes and maintain their personal dedication to transferring this music accurately to modern means of storage. Countless Syrian families can tell the same story about their disposing of huge quantities of cassette tapes – tapes that filled almost every home in the second half of the twentieth century – thrown out and destroyed, either because people did not pay attention to what they contained, the music had become less popular, or because the

technology to transfer and listen to the music on these formats no longer existed. Other countries, such as Lebanon, which is geographically close to Syria, witnessed the emergence of radio and then private non-governmental satellite channels. There, broadcasting platforms multiplied and offered audiences access to much more material. Different archiving methods, including those driven by personal efforts, contributed to the preservation of a large part of the Lebanese musical heritage.

Despite its absence from the official broadcasting platforms, popular music in Syria experienced an boom in public consumption, coinciding with the expansion of the cassette era. In the early seventies, any Syrian household most likely had a tape recorder, since it was practical, small, and inexpensive compared to the gramophone of the early part of twentieth century. One of the most important characteristics associated with cassette tapes, along with the ability to play and listen to music, was the “Mousajele” function – the record button, in colloquial Syrian dialect – which enabled the tape player to also function as a recording device. Anyone who owned a tape recorder could buy blank tapes cheaply and record sound directly onto them, whether at a wedding party or private concert, recording live radio broadcasts, or even duplicating another tape. The great ease of use made the public’s relationship with music much simpler and more personal.

This inevitably contributed to growing interest in popular music in all its forms. The cassette tape allowed music to be recorded, archived, reproduced and transmitted easily – unrestricted by the standards set by official broadcasters in the country, and thus contributed to its preservation and protection from extinction. It also allowed the general public to follow their own tastes and inclinations, in addition to the local music scenes in their area. It is now possible for someone in a remote village on the Syrian coast to turn off the sound of Lebanese songs that recite Fayrouz in the morning on official Damascus radio, and listen instead to Fouad Faqro’s tape of Ataba. Or for someone in the Houran to choose listening to a cassette of Mejwez Abu Sultan on a Friday with the family, instead of giving in and watching never ending Baathist programs on Syrian state television. The cassette era thus witnessed the first real stage of the recording and archiving of Syrian folk music by the people themselves, from what they listened to at their weddings and gatherings, in cities and in the countryside, which had previously been completely marginalized. Part of this marginalization lies with the Baathist ideology, which was unable to embrace the richness and diversity of Syrian folk music that is linked to the diversity of the Syrian identity, as it contradicted its pan-Arabist ideology. Another large part of this marginalization comes as a result of Syria’s condescending, urban-centered way of thinking, which has always viewed the countryside and its cultural heritage as inferior, and at some point refused to recognize it as part of its identity.

The bulk of the originality of Syrian culture – on all fronts, not only music – lies in the diversity of religions, sects, doctrines and nationalities. This diversity enriches Syrian music, and adds to its two parts, the Arabic traditional and the popular, ethnic and religious music classifications, and the sub branches that maintained independent identities without influences or hybridization in most cases. The eastern region abounds with Syriac and Assyrian music. Kurdish, Circassian, and Armenian music are widespread in Aleppo and the northern region. The countryside, like the large cities, embraced this diversity, and even increased it by sharing various popular singing styles, such as El Ataba, El Mijana and El Zajal in the Syrian coast, El Suwehli in the countryside of Raqqa, El Hawlia and El Jawfiya in the Houran region, El Jazraiya songs in the eastern region, and other common styles in many regions, such as El Mawal and El Dalona.

By the late 1990s and start of the new millennium, the Syrian music scene was affected by two main social phenomena. The first is what researchers call today the phenomenon of urbanization in Syrian society, which was musically reflected in the sudden spread of coastal folk songs everywhere. The second was the influx of Iraqis to Syria, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

In the first case, coastal folk songs, among all the spectrums of popular singing, suddenly found its way to the public in a large and surprising way, when the first official song of Ali Al Deek, Samra Wani El Hassoudah (I’m a Brunette and a Harvester) suddenly appeared on Syrian TV, before spreading to satellite channels in neighboring countries. The song, whose heavy tone carried a complex vocabulary for all Syrians, and whose melodies came from the (wild) Talal El Da’our school of keyboard composition and arrangement, constituted a cultural shock of the first order for some Syrians. In the same year, while some echoes of mockery and ridicule targeted the song, Melhem Zayn emerged. At that time, he was a participant in the first version of the Syrian TV talent show Super Star, and his launch, presentation, and popularity had shocked the Arab audience. Melhem performed Samra Wani El Hassoudah in one of the final episodes – an unusual move for a program that was most often keen to test the voices of the participants within the Tarab style. The song became a hit, reaching audiences well beyond Syria, and opening the door wide to the spread of the wave of coastal folk singing. The sudden choice by the conservative Syrian state television to adopt this style has remained the focus of researchers, who have linked it to the theory of urbanization in Syria. Cultural researcher Dr. Hassan Abbas refers to this moment in his book Traditional Music in Syria:

“An anthropological study on this phenomenon found that the transformation of power in Syria into a military one contributed greatly to the ruralization of cities as the people of the countryside tend to join the army and security institutions more than the people of the cities. On the other hand, this authority represented by the military and security forces, most of whom are rural, has strengthened its presence in the cities, which automatically contributed to imposing the culture of the rural people on the people of the cities.”

He continues: “To an extent, the folk songs and Ali Al Deek have started to represent Syrian music, and we see Damascenes, for example, enjoying and swaying to the tunes of this music.”

According to this analysis, the passage of the songs of the El Deek family and those who followed them within the same style, from a marginalized pop scene to a widespread Arab pop scene, was supported by the political authority and its influence. This was further reinforced after the beginning of the Syrian war. Between the mass migration of Syrian talent out of the country, and the coastal style singers declaring their loyalty and support to the regime, the coastal singers were left alone to lead the Syrian musical artistic production scene at home and in the region. Had the melodies of coastal folk songs not been monopolized by and associated with Ali El Deek and his brothers, it wouldn’t have hurt Damascenes to “sway” to their music. These singers were previously unknown to local audiences on the Syrian coast, and were seen as lacking competence in key elements of coastal song, namely the strength of the voice and the ability to sing types of songs from the mountainous region, with its various heritage styles. Throughout the eighties and nineties,

many voices dedicated themselves to this varied and rich style, providing a great performance of the Atabba, the Mejana, the Mawal and the Dabke – this can easily be seen by returning to any archive of tapes from that era. Among them, we might mention Fouad Ghazi, Barhoum Rizk, and George Wassouf, who was the exemplifier and expert of this style since its beginnings, even before his Arab prominence. Other popular names included Wafik Habib and Uzaina El Ali who had strong and distinguished voices, a refined knowledge of musical composition, and many years of experience in live singing at celebrations and weddings on the Syrian coast. All of them left this heritage behind to join the likes of the Al Deek family, in singing the style of the pop song they present today.

The second influence was strengthened and became evident following the American war on Iraq in 2003, and the influx of Iraqis moving to Syria. This led to the great spread of the Iraqi folk song in canteens and nightclubs across the capital Damascus. It resulted in the emergence of many Syrian singers who presented songs within the Iraqi folklore as a result of the expansion of its audience, most notably the Syrian folk singer Saria El Sawas, who many believed to be an Iraqi singer. These influences continue to impact the Syrian folk song, which has borrowed some elements of Iraqi singing, such as rhythms, methods of arrangement and instrumentation.

The presence of all these shifts and influences have changed the features and identity of Syrian music for decades, but does not cancel the work of successive generations of studious and creative musicians in Syria, whether they are hardworking personally,
or graduates of the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, an institute that has maintained an important and pioneering academic position for decades. Syria is full

of professors who are experts in music, its theories, composition and production. However, as a result of long years of intellectual and creative suppression and curtailing, state monopoly of production and broadcasting, followed by years of war, displacement, migration and exile, we find that Syrian music production today is the poorest in the region. Despite Syrian musical diversity and variation, new attempts are almost non-existent in Syria, whether in the arena of Arab pop, or in terms of independent scenes and alternative genres. While on the contrary, in recent years, we have witnessed musical scenes in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and the Maghreb rise, develop and gain wider popularity.

The bulk of what the Syrian musician suffers from wherever he is today is dispersion and loss of identity, which results in barriers to new creative or developmental direction. Today, this loss may benefit greatly from a return to Syrian musical heritage, or at least that which personal archival efforts have been able to preserve and maintain. Only this return to the heritage, namely delving into it and re- understanding it within its correct context, in its diversity, abundance, and privacy, as well as removing the robes of condescending elitism, centrality and perceived inferiority of different branches of certain musical styles, may perhaps be able to inspire, motivate and create new and authentic Syrian voices and orientations.