For years Hamam Khairy’s grandfather worked the land with his siblings and children just outside Aleppo, Syria, singing tarab folk songs on the local radio station as they picked cucumbers, eggplants and tomatoes. To keep the then infant Hamam silent, they sat him in a rubber bag and kept the radio by his ear so that he would not cry.
For Aleppo, music is in our blood – we can’t help it
“For Aleppo, music is in our blood – we can’t help it,” recalled Khairy, who is now a tarab singer himself. This millennia-old musical genre is popular in the Arabic-speaking world, and while many of the best-known tarab musicians hail from Egypt or Lebanon, nowhere is it more revered than in the heart and mind. Syrians – especially in Aleppo, the cradle of the genre.
New Orleans has jazz, Vienna has classical music, and Aleppo has tarab. Usually performed on a zither-type instrument called a qanun, a pear-shaped Arabic lute called a oud, a long flute called a ney and sometimes a rebab, the oldest bowed instrument in the world, the Syrian tarab is a classical Arabic folk music where singers sing verses muwashahshat poems for hours on end, triggering a trance in the listeners.
This is because tarab is not just a form of music, but a state of being. In Arabic, “tarab” is also a verb meaning an increased feeling of emotion or excitement. And while genres like American blues, Argentine tango, and Portuguese fado flow from pain and desire, tarab has been renowned since medieval times for the power of ecstasy it has over its audiences, be they through words of joy or sorrow.
New Orleans has jazz, Vienna has classical music, and Aleppo has tarab
Culturally, Aleppo’s role as the cradle of this medieval Arab art makes sense. Its position at the western end of the Silk Road has helped it develop as a vibrant musical center, with Aramaic, Kurdish, Iraqi, Turkish and Central Asian influences. The landlocked city has produced some of the world’s most famous tarab singers – such as Sabah Fakhri, Bakri al-Kurdi, and Sabri Moudallal – and maintains a reputation and love of traditional arts. Aleppo takes great pride in being the custodians of culture, and the people of Syria’s largest city have kept the Moors muwashahshat poems that have been alive for over 1,000 years, while the city’s imposing citadel and the nearby Grand Mosque testify to the city’s enduring role as a bastion of Islamic culture.
Today, Aleppo’s venerable musical heritage has earned her the title of “Mother of Tarab”. And just as country singers go to Nashville or techno DJs to Berlin, tarab singers know that if they want to be successful, they have to get past the revered Aleppo. sammi’a: the sophisticated tarab aficionados who serve as the guardians of the industry.
Tarab is not just a form of music, but a state of being
“[Aleppo] is his own world, “said Lubana al-Qantar, one of Syria’s greatest opera and tarab singers.” They take great pride in their own traditions and their own more conservative nature. Tarab and the muwashshahat are deeply rooted in Aleppo; the audience there is not normal at all, they are [viscously discerning], and that’s why I like to play there. “
Here, public performances usually begin with a poem about Aleppo, often praising its role in preserving traditional music, before the musicians enter a state of transformative rapture and sing. muwashshahat or more familiar qudud poems in Aleppo dialect. As the oud and qanun weave in and out of scales and plucked harmonies, the singer leans into a cantilevered, almost hypnotic chant of high-pitched timbral melodies, bonding to audience members and inviting them to interact. But in Aleppo, tarab is not only performed by skilled singers – it is an integral part of daily life and of the city’s soundtrack.
“Until today, in the souks of the old city of Aleppo, most traders, whether they sell spices or fabrics, know a lot of muwashahshat by heart. They can get together for lunch to sing while they prepare a meal, they can sing verses from a well known muwashshah like Malaktu fuadi (Captured my heart) of their store to attract customers, ”Khairy said.
Although Khairy was forced to flee to Paris in 2013 as the Syrian civil war escalated, he plans to return to Aleppo for good one day. Earlier this year he visited briefly, saying, “I needed this energy. Just spending two weeks in Aleppo is enough to fuel the energy. [my] creative energy for another 10 years. I may have fled Aleppo seven years ago, but it still lives on in me. “
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Since the beginning of the 20th century, tarab has traditionally been played in informal, largely nocturnal gatherings called a Jalsah in the house of a well-to-do and music-loving guest. This intimate and immersive setting helps musicians and audiences alike experience the tarab state of being, which is often described as intoxicating.
Jonathan Shannon, who lived in Aleppo for several years and wrote the book Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria, described the tarab as “an integral part of the experience of social life in Aleppo “. Public performances are held in venues throughout the city most weekends, and it’s as much a staple at Aleppo weddings as it is at local nightclubs or cabarets. Plus, it’s not just the city’s soundtrack, but essentially a city soundscape, as the Aleppo tarab often includes more modern poems that refer to chirping nightingales and bulbuls, and the rustling of willows. weepers and jasmine. Region.
Aleppo’s rich tarab tradition and the distinct and moving power of listeners led author Helen Russell to include a chapter on Syria in her book, The Atlas of Happiness: Global Secrets of How to Be Happy. In it, she describes tarab as “essentially a lifeline” in times of crisis. According to Russell, Tarab’s 30-minute compositions take listeners on an almost cathartic journey. While the singers exude emotion and tackle topics like romance and religion, she describes listening to shows as “magical.”
Music and poetic lyrics [of tarab] cleanses the soul of its traumas and can even cure physical ailments
As Khairy said: “Music and poetic lyrics [of tarab] purifies the soul of its traumas and can even cure physical ailments. “
As Shannon explains, “This is something really beautiful in Syria, and certainly a cause for happiness, despite the [political landscape]: people turn on their radios or MP3 players and sit down and listen to something for comfort. It is a reminder of their heritage, that their culture was extremely resilient for millennia, even though [today] there is an interruption of a 10 year war or a 50 year dictatorship. “
“Tarab itself is not limited to song or music…[it] kind of [denotes] oral culture in general, “Shannon added.” So someone could [have] ‘a tarab response’ when they hear a beautiful line of poetry.Allah“and”Ya Salams“(both meaning” how beautiful! “) or the appreciative cries of” Ahhh “and” Ooh “are typical reactions during tarab performances, especially as the performers fall deeperAltanah, the creative state by which they get lost and induce collective hypnosis in the audience.
Although the UN estimates that more than 12 million Syrians have been internally and internationally displaced, the country’s rich musical heritage continues to endure. In 2017, the Syrian authorities launched an initiative for Aleppo to be named the Unesco City of Music. That same year, the amphitheater in the city’s medieval citadel hosted its first tarab concert since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011.
As more and more Syrians take tarab culture abroad, a new generation of listeners from around the world are now being introduced to this traditional Arabic genre. Of course, the globalization of Syrian music should come as no surprise, given that the country may have given birth to the world’s first song, but it is a reminder that even under the darkest circumstances, culture may at the both thrive and serve as a tool of resilience.
“Half of Aleppo can be destroyed, but Aleppo will remain Aleppo, with its fierce audience, talented musicians and energy you won’t find elsewhere,” Khairy said.
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