When I meet Syrian musician Mohanad Aljaramani in a café in Paris, it is difficult to know how to place him. Shy at first, and unsure whether to speak to me in French or Arabic, he lights up immediately when he begins describing his life-long love affair with Arabic music, taught to him by his father, a musician who gave him his very first oud when he was a boy. He doesn’t even remember learning the oud, only playing it naturally like one learns to walk, as something that was always part of his life. His two older brothers are also both professional musicians: one plays the oud and the other the ney. They grew up in Syria playing together. I ask him why he never had any women in his musical groups. He laughs. “I don’t have a sister,” he says.
Today Mohanad sings and plays the percussion and oud in Bab Assalam, a band based in France and composed of him and his older brother Khaled as well as French musicians Raphaël Vuillard, Philippe Barbier and Emmanuel Saulduboi, who add an unlikely fusion of electric guitar and clarinet.
And while his recent exile from his native Syria is painful, he is determined to seize the opportunity to share Syria’s rich musical culture with France, following in the footsteps of generations of Syrian musicians who have pushed the boundaries while composing music in exile. He and his brother take their inspiration from Ziryab, the famous Iraqi musician who traveled from Iraq to Cordoba in the 9th century, where he is credited by some as introducing the lute to Spain. “We realized that he looks like us,” he said. “Ziryab has these two faces—one that is sad, because of being in exile—but one that knows what he is offering the West. Just as Ziryab gave Europe the lute, we are giving Europe our culture, our music. Of course this exile hurts us. But it can also help us with this sharing.”
A Region at a Musical Crossroads
Mohanad was born in 1979 in Sweida, a region in Southern Syria at a crossing point between Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, with a volcanic landscape and a complex musical history containing influences from overlapping cultures. His father was a Communist, and yet the region was known for its Sufi influence, creating an atmosphere both traditional and radically open to new sounds. Mohanad grew up listening to Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Bedouin music, as well as the political songs of Lebanese musicians Ziad Rahbani and Marcel Khalife, and the oud music of Iraqi Munir Bashir and Tunisian Anouar Brahem. But music was also part of the fabric of everyday life, played and sung by his neighbors at weddings, during celebrations, during voyages.
The area of Sweida is considered remote, and it might seem surprising to find such a cosmopolitan musical culture in such a locale. And yet for musicians Sweida has an important claim to fame, as the birthplace of Farid al-Atrash in 1910, the “King of the Oud” who immigrated to Egypt when he was a boy and later became one of the Arab world’s most famous musicians. His sister, Asmahan was also a legendary singer whose voice was said to rival Om Kalthoum’s before she tragically died in a car accident at the age of 31. “Because of their influence, many people played the oud in Sweida,” Mohanad says. “They created a place that loved music.”
When he turned eighteen, Mohanad moved to Damascus, where he studied classical Arabic music at the Damascus Conservatory. He and his brother soon met the French clarinetist Raphaël Vuillard, and in 2005 they began playing together in Aleppo– the start of what would become
Bab Assalaam. “There are seven gates in Aleppo, and every day we were walking through the gate called Bab al Salaam, the gate of Peace, on the way to our recording sessions,” he told me. “Finally, we said: “Yalla, let’s just name our group Bab Assalaam.”
The Syrian war broke out in 2011, and in 2012, Mohanad applied from Syria for a French visa to play a concert in France. His brother, Khaled, had already traveled to France four months earlier. Soon after, the French Consulate in Syria closed. Mohanad and his brother decided to stay in France while they had the chance, knowing that the country, with its large Lebanese, Moroccan and Tunisian populations, would not feel entirely foreign. “Here music became like a house,” he says, “The past is present. All of my memories are present.”
Since then, Bab Assalaam has continued producing music closely tied to Syria, with an album named after Ziryab and another named simply Exile. At the same time, the French musicians add electric guitar and clarinet, melding elements of jazz and electronic music. “We’re trying to search for a new sound,” Mohanad says.
Their next project—their most ambitious yet—is to introduce the tradition of Arabic musical theatre to Europe, with music accompanied by cinema, drama and puppetry. He credits the inspiration with two other famous musicians of the past with deep roots in Syria: Abu Khalil al-Qabbani and Sayed Darwish.
Known as the “Father of Syrian Theatre,” Abu Khalil al-Qabbani was born in 1835 in Syria, where his theatrical performances caused such a stir that they were banned, causing him to flee to Egypt. There, in exile, he encountered a more vibrant, open society, where he pioneered the concept of musical theatre, a genre that would have lasting effects on Arabic music and literature. His brother was the grandfather of Syria’s most famous modern poet, Nizar al-Qabbani.
Sayed Darwish, on the other hand, traveled in the other direction. Born in Alexandria in 1892, he was trained to be a religious cantor. Legend has it that one day he was singing while laying bricks, when he was overheard by the Syrian Attalah Brothers, who asked him to join their theatre troupe and travel in Syria. His stay in Syria was short, and eventually he returned to Egypt, where he became famous composing songs for the theatre that remain popular until today. Yet the memory of his stay in Syria remains alive, and it was part of Mohanad’s identity when he lived as a student in Damascus, walking among the same streets.
From Ziryab to Sayed Darwish to Khalil al-Qabbani and Farid al-Atrash, Arabic music is full of stories of musicians forced to live outside of their homeland, and in some way, by reviving Arabic musical theatre in France, Mohanad is carrying on a long tradition. His exile is particularly painful because his parents remain in Syria, insistent that they do not want to spend the last years of their lives in a strange land. For Mohanad, music now contains a nostalgia for everything he misses about home, for “those we loved, for our families, the places where we learned music, our ouds, the places we left behind—nostalgia for everything.”
He likens his desire to continue playing music to Syrian artisans such as soap makers and oud craftsmen who are trying to continue working despite the war. “They are trying to keep Syrian handicrafts alive,” he says. “We’re trying to keep Syrian culture alive.”
For more on Mohanad Aljaramani and others keeping Syrian heritage alive, see this article in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/11/opinion/sunday/in-a-refugees-bags-memories-of-home.html.