Before it became a battered frontline in Syria’s bitter civil war, Aleppo was celebrated for its cultural status, seen by many as the capital of music in the country.
It was here the many strands making up Syria’s varied musical traditions came together, infused with influences from India, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and the Levant, as Silk Road travelers arrived in the city, bringing new styles and sounds.
Hypnotic tarab songs—a form of folk music known for lulling listeners into a trance-like state—are closely entwined with the history of Aleppo, where aficionados of traditional Arabic music gather to hear leading performers summon the sounds of the past and connect to centuries of musical practice.
The city is famous for other styles too, some drawn from ethnic and religious groups in the area, others from cultural traditions common to all Syrians, or often from a medley of influences that make up the country’s rich musical repertoire.
Many of these genres have been woven into the Syria Music Map, a new online platform that hopes to preserve this vivid musical mosaic for current and future generations of Syrians, particularly the millions displaced by conflict and forced to forge new lives abroad.
“The aim is to share with a wide audience the richness and diversity of the Syrian musical heritage. Having this map as a resource will get this music out of the archives and make it something that is living and breathing.”Basma El Husseiny
Director of Action for Hope
“The aim is to share with a wide audience the richness and diversity of the Syrian musical heritage,” says Basma El Husseiny, director of Action for Hope, which runs cultural development and relief programs for distressed and displaced communities. “Having this map as a resource will get this music out of the archives and make it something that is living and breathing.” (See a related article, “Nonprofit Groups Shift Tactics to Help the Arts Survive the Coronavirus.”)
An Artistic Endeavor, Not a Political One
It has taken over a year to put together the Syria Music Map, with El Husseiny and the Action for Hope team working alongside a team of researchers, musicians and performers on the project, which is backed by the U.K. Cultural Protection Fund, administered by the British Council.
It’s a work-in-progress, with plans to add more songs and instrumental pieces that represent the full scale of musical styles across Syria, but listeners are already tuning in to find their favorite tracks, many of which aren’t represented elsewhere online.
“The reception has been amazing, it exceeded all of our expectations,” El Husseiny says, citing more than 20,000 visitors to the site since its launch on March 12.
While the majority of visitors so far are in Syria, a significant number are accessing the map from Europe and the United States, fulfilling the team’s hope that it will help Syrians connect with their culture at a time when the country has been torn apart by war. (See two related articles, “An Eye on the Cultural Landscape of Syria” and “Artist Collects Stories From the Hearts of Syrians.”)
“After all that happened in Syria over the past 10 years, I think Syrians are at risk of losing their perspective of what is beautiful in this country,” El Husseiny says, emphasizing that this is an artistic endeavor rather than a political project.
On Facebook, initial feedback has been enthusiastic as users click around towns and cities on the map, selecting songs they want to hear. “I spent my day listening to beautiful tunes and songs on the site,” one user says, while others describe it as “one of the most beautiful cultural works on the internet I have seen it in recent years” and “a wonderful work indicating the greatness and splendour of Syria.”
Schools for Teaching Traditional Music
Around a third of the songs are performed by graduates of the Action for Hope Music Schools, which teach traditional folk music from the region to students in Jordan and Lebanon.
Farah Kaddour, a teacher and program officer with Action for Hope Music Schools, says many of her students have since gone to live abroad, in Germany, Norway, Canada and elsewhere. Knowing they can tap into their heritage wherever they are, fills her with happiness, she says.
“Syrian society is now all around the world, so we’re trying to represent this kind of music and make it accessible. … Music is hugely important to Syrians. They want to listen and make this music live again, in their memories or in their daily life.”
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Browsing through the comments on Facebook, Kaddour saw two Syrian users connecting over a traditional folk song they found on the site. “I was like, wow, they’ve found this song they love.”
Moments like this reinforce the scope of the map to help restore ties between Syrians and the musical traditions that underpin their country’s cultural heritage. “When you feel that your heritage has been affected by wars, or the economic and political situation, you get more attached to it and feel you have to preserve and make it safe,” Kaddour says.
This makes the Syria Music Map a powerful tool, she adds, not just in response to the current crisis, but for future generations of Syrians finding ways to connect with their country. “I feel a big responsibility to develop it and make it a real reference for people to find all the kinds of music they belong to.”