The Syrian Cassette Archives Explore a pivotal era of Middle Eastern music

Gergis was banned from visiting Syria in early 2010 when a popular uprising turned into a bloody civil war that continues to this day. With Syrian artists displaced and parts of the country still reeling from division and destruction, he hopes the Syrian Cassette Archives will honor an overlooked chapter in the country’s music history. In the coming months, Gergis and his principal collaborator, Yamen Mekdad – a Damascus-born community organizer, DJ and researcher who like Gergis now lives in London – plan to add podcasts, videos and other resources to the site.

“It is important to preserve the memory and history of this time in Syria,” Gergis said. “There has been no spotlight on it. It has not been researched and discussed. Hopefully it can help stop the cultural amnesia that can occur from war and loss and displacement.”

Below are six precious, plastic items from the Syrian Cassette Archive. We sat down with Gergis and Mekdad via Zoom to talk about the music, which spans a range of musical styles, ethnicities, dialects and synth settings.


Sabah Fakhri: Mawawil Sharkawi

Aleppo was once one of the main stops on the ancient Silk Road trade routes, and today it is revered for its long history as a center of trade, Sufi spirituality and musical expression. Sabah Fakhri, who passed away in November 2021, was one of the city’s most celebrated sons, known worldwide for his physical stamina as a performer and for his mastery of tarab, a genre of classical Arabic music that incorporates many singing styles and poetic forms. The word tarab means euphoria, enchantment or musical ecstasy, and on this tape Fakhri’s voice vibrates with pain and ecstasy. He delivers a series of vocal improvisations in a popular style called the mawwal, begging his beloved and invoking a higher power over slow drone tones and elegant embellishments.

The destruction of parts of Aleppo was one of the most shocking developments to come out of the conflict in Syria, but the city’s ancient heritage is reflected in shots like this one. “Sabah Fakhri – where do you start?” says Mekdad. “He’s brilliant in all shapes and sizes, and he’s managed to popularize this sound worldwide. But he is the tip of the iceberg of a long tradition.”

Listen


Houssein Al Hasan: Shammama Choubi

Gergis grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but as a child often visited Iraqi relatives in Detroit. Every time he went to a family wedding, he would marvel at the sight of party bands playing songs to accompany an Iraqi version of the dabke line dance, the choubi. The regal choubi beat appears on this band by Houssein Al Hasan, a prolific recording artist from the rural town of Qamishli in northeastern Syria. Along with ancient Arabic poetry and galloping runs of buzuq (a long-necked, fretted lute), you’ll hear band member Ahmed Darwish’s synthesizer – an instrument always present on many bands like this one, usually with reed-like presets and samples designed to resemble traditional wind instruments.

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