In Syria, music plays an essential role in daily life–marking religious occasions, providing a soundtrack for family events, always present as Syrians make their way through the world. Syria’s most popular singers customarily draw on both traditional music and rural themes. For example, iconic Syrian vocalist Sabah Fakhri has recorded hundreds of Syrian songs that blend classical Arabic arrangements with accessible Syrian folk. (Watch Sabah Fakhri and his full ensemble perform in Las Vegas.) Some of the country’s Christian music, like its Syrian chants, has its roots in Orthodox religious observances that are over a thousand years old, though musicians like pianist Malek Jandal, who anchors many of his compositions in ancient Syrian music, readily give them a modern twist. In the same vein, while performers like the Al-Kindi Ensemble are masters of classical call and response “muwashahat” that have played a central role in the “zikr” (Sufi rituals) for centuries, Syrians value them as contemporary performers. (See Sabri Mudallal and some amazing whirling dervishes perform a muwashsha.) Even Syrian Jewish “pizmonim” are considered worthy of a modern revival, though the Syrian Jewish community is well past its prime.
In class we’re going to listen to:
— Kulna Sawa: “Emaar Ya Sha’m”
Modern Syrian folk outfits like Kulna Sawa proudly root their music in traditional forms. For example, “Emaar Ya Sha’m,” is a lavishly patriotic song that maintains a traditional Syrian musical sensibility while also fully embracing the lusciousness of global power pop.
— Farid al-Atrash: “Wayak Wayak”:
Farid al Atrash was born in 1917 in a Syrian border town south of Damascus to Princess Alia and Prince Fahd al-Atrash, the leading family in the Syrian-Druze resistance against the French. Fearing for his family’s safety, Fahd send Princess Alia, Farid and his sister Amal to Cairo where went into hiding, lived under an assumed name (“Kusa,” Arabic for zucchini) and fell into poverty. Princess Alia supported her family by performing the oud
in clubs; her children followed her into the new family business. Farid, an extraordinary oud player, and Amal a mesmerizing vocalist, rose quickly on the Egyptian music scene, and when they began to act in movies they became stars. Amal adopted the artistic stage name “Asmahan” and Farid developed a persona as “the sad singer.”
Asmahan died in 1944 when her car drove off the road and landed in a water-filled ditch. The Arab press speculated wildly about the real cause of the “accident.” Asmahan had many enemies among the Egyptian musical elite, not the least of whom was beloved Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum, who was rumored to have seen Asmahan as a threat. Could Kulthum or one of her supporters have done Asmahan in? Or could her alleged work for British Intelligence during World War II to facilitate the Allies entry into Syria have come back to haunt her?
Farid continued acting in Egyptian films, composing, playing oud and attracting tabloid attention with his many high-profile romances until his death in 1974.
The life and times of Farid al-Atrash: “A Contender in the Age of Giants” | Asmahan’s vibrant life and mysterious death | Farid al Atrash sings “Wayak Wayak” | Watch a captivating Asmahan perform “Ayoha Na’emo”