Last week, the “Jazz for Syria” international music festival allowed Syrian and Lebanese musicians to broadcast a message of reconciliation and peace through music with a rising wave of Arabic-infused jazz. Organized by the group “Syrian Music Lives,” three simultaneous “Jazz for Syria” concerts took place on International Jazz Day in Beirut, Amman, and The Hague, where musicians performed and sang songs of peace for the war-torn county. The concerts, including one in Beirut’s Babel Theatre, were also broadcasted live, allowing for virtual interaction with jazz fans around the world.
Mixing traditional techniques with modern influences, Syrian band Fatet Le3bet energized the Beirut set with a reinterpretation of the classic folk song “Oh Arabs of the East” that featured elements of jazz and rap. The group began performing in 2005 when the jazz festival resumed in Syria after almost a decade of suspension. “At the time, Hannibal Saad, our guitarist, played an important role in re-introducing the festival,” said Nareg Abajian, Fattet Le3bet’s composer. “He also suggested that we form a new experimental project of artists with different skills to introduce new kind of music into the scene.”
“At the beginning, we would tour Syria and its villages and play covers varying from folk to Rahbani. In 2010, we felt it was time to start composing music of our own and launch our first CD. Unfortunately, the events in Syria the following year forced us to flee, and the band’s members were scattered to cities around the world,” he said. “It was not until we later united, not so long ago, that we were able to record it. We called the CD, ‘Mfarta3in’ (‘Dispersed’) because it reflected our situation.”
In an interview with Saad, the guitarist, who has continued to help organize the festival, described jazz music as a symbol of freedom and communication. “It is through jazz that we can shed light on the most difficult humanitarian issue of our time and send messages of peace away from having to delve into Syrian politics and affairs,” he said.
Syrian rock band Tanjaret Daghet (“Pressure Cooker”) also made its debut at the festival. Launched in 2008 by a trio of graduates from Damascus’ High Institute of Music, Tanjaret Daghet’s initial focus was a heavy fusion of funk and oriental music. “We were experimenting,” said lead vocalist and bass guitarist Khaled Omran. “We cook music and release the steam. We make music that transcends tragedy and uplifts the spirit.”
By the end of 2011, the group’s three musicians moved to Beirut in order to pursue their dream and avoid regime harassment. “Before the uprising, authorities would monitor rock and metal singers and then arrest everyone with long hair or black T-shirts on the suspicion of being Satanists. Then the popular uprising turned into a blood bath, so we had to leave,” Omran told NOW. Their debut album, 180 Degrees, speaks of their experience and how their lives took a different turn.
Progressive Syrian rock band Khebez Dawle’s work often evokes similar themes. Their single “Lasaitak Aish” (“You’re still alive”) captures life in today’s Syria:
“You’re still alive under the siege, trying to understand what just happened; you’ve expressed yourself, you’ve loved, you’ve grown, you’ve put your wealth into a home, and now there’s nothing that you can call your own. But look on the bright side: you’re still alive,” recited Mohamad Bazz, the group’s guitarist.
“We’re not promoting any party,” Bazz told NOW separately. “We’re sharing our story, which is the story of every Syrian.”
The group’s members are childhood friends who performed under the moniker “Ana” (“Me”) before the revolution. But during the uprising, their drummer was killed, and the band parted due the incident. In 2013, they reunited in Lebanon and re-formed the group under a new name.
Khebez Dawle performed at the Jazz for Syria event to promote their upcoming album release in July. “The album tells the story of four young men who were living in Syria and who speak of their experiences without resorting to politics,” Bazz told NOW. “The album consists of 11 songs, each a chapter in its own telling, one part of the story that portrays the events of the Syrian civil war through our eyes.”
The new generation of Syrian artists believes that music could build solidarity between their fellow citizens after three years of war.
“We need to find this one thing which connects us because there is more in what joins us than in that which divides us,” said Elias Abou Assali, the guitarist in the Syrian band MaBRaD (“Filer”). He explained that the group’s name is rooted in the need to soften one’s edges in order to lessen the harsh differences among one another. MaBRaD, an Arabic acronym for “a civilian wants a salary for support, and a state for protection,” has been performing inside Syria since 2002 and continues to do so to this day. Presenting a wide range of rock, funk, and underground music, the band toured the country and participated in various festivals.
Today, the band is releasing their first CD. Abou Assali told NOW that the songs speak of the huge rift existing between Syrians today and calls upon them to bridge the gap.
“The same rain is falling on everyone,” he recites, “on the good, the evil, the oppressor, and the oppressed. We believe that there’s something more important to address. How will we ever be able live together if we keep holding onto our grave concerns?”