Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Music in Syria

Faiza Ahmed
14" x 11"
oil on canvas board, 2014
Iran and Syria are two countries whose fates are being negotiated by a tribunal of the most influential  of the world's powers. Both Iran and Syria have been featured too many times (for the wrong reasons) in the world news’ headlines this past year. I have acquired, and listened to music from the two countries and songs from both are represented in the list of 100 recordings this year. While still working on the Iranian painting(s) I'll forward the Syrian one here. The political situation in Syria forms—unconsciously or not—the backdrop when listening to a record that has the country's name as the title. This past year I bought a dozen records from the series Musique Folklorique du Monde. Both the Iranian one and the Syrian will feature in the top 100. The musicians, and the singers, are anonymous on both these records.

The following is an excerpt from an article in the New York Times titled A Writer's Lament for the Female Musicians of Aleppo. It was written by Nihad Serees and published on April 26, 2013.

I call my mother, now 86, and she reassures me that she is safe. I call my son, to ask about him and his wife. They were married eight months ago. I was not able to get back into the country to attend the wedding, but he told me he’d prepared for the celebration by stocking up on candles and batteries for the sound system. They had to crank the volume of the speakers all the way up to drown out the gunfire.  

My grandfather was a sheik who loved music, which in Aleppo was not unusual. Many of Syria’s most celebrated singers and lyricists were men of the cloth, like the master oud player Omar al-Batsh, and Sabri Moudallal, whose songs are sung to this day. 

But the love of music was not confined to men. My grandfather, like many fathers, pushed all his seven daughters to play an instrument or to sing, and the city was the birthplace of many celebrated songstresses. Its homes were known for their all-female musical evenings, where famous female singers and musicians performed for audiences that included influential women from all over the city.

There are nine female Syrain singers represented with a page in the English language version of Wikipedia:
  • Fayza Ahmed
  • Amal Arafa
  • Asmahan
  • Rouwaida Attieh
  • Shahd Bahmada
  • Dima Kandalaft
  • Assala Nasri
  • Dima Orsho
  • Noura Rahal
Asmahan is the most famous of this group but I am most familiar with Fayza Ahmed, who had a song in last year’s top 100. It is unlikely that it is her voice that is heard on Ya Hsien (the timbre of the anonymous singer on Ya Hsien is much like that of Ms. Ahmed but it Ahmed's voice is more plaintiff.) and it is certainly not any of the other eight singers either since they lived in a different era than the Blaise Calame recording of the late 1960s. Fayza Ahmed, furthermore, lived most her life in Egypt. 

The recordings on Musique Folklorique du Monde sound as if they were recorded on the street, capturing live performance as they happened. As if it was all recorded with devices brought along by tourists that came across the performances by accident. Different from the many recordings produced professionally by a score of highly regarded ethnomusicologists active around the same time. But this must surely be an illusion as the records were produced under the auspices of UNESCO and by well regarded professionals. The amateurish sound quality must have been a premeditated condition surrounding the recordings. In any case: I have nothing against amateurish sounding recordings (au contraire.)

Which brings me then to this slightly off topic issue I have been thinking about a lot lately; that of amateurism. Amateurism in music is different from amateurism in art. 
It seems that the whole discipline of painting is slowly becoming a craft; the love for the medium of painting.
Ordinarily, the amateur is defined as the immaturity of the artist: someone who cannot—or does not want to elevate him(her)self to the mastery of a profession. But in the field of photographic practice, it is the amateur, by contrast, who is the attainment (assumption) of the professional: because it is he (she) who sticks closest to the noème (being/intelligence) of photography.
The above quote in praise of the amateur photographer comes from Roland Barthes (1980). I believe the point is valid well beyond photography and can be applied broadly and certainly to other disciplines of art: Amateurs are hobbyists who have a love for what they're doing, and are, in a sense, purists—or traditionalists.

to be continued

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