As more than half of the Syrian population remains displaced, it is natural to think of their traditional music as heritage that needs to be saved before it disappears. But for Ferhad Feyssal and Hozan Peyal, two extraordinary Kurdish musicians who fled from al-Hasakah and currently live in Istanbul, joy is also a heritage that needs to be preserved in a time of war, a memory too easily forgotten after years of violence. With Feyssal on vocals and guitar and Peyal on buzuq, they form the core of the music group Danûk, and are bringing the Kurdish folksongs of their childhood to life. “We are trying to hear happiness,” Feyssal explains. “There are many people who are working on war, making art about sadness and loss. Okay, that’s fine, everyone knows that. But there must also be another road which reveals our strength.”
Now, joined by mey player Gül Temiz and percussionist Faysal Macit, Kurdish musicians from Turkey, they have taken their traditional Kurdish music to the streets, to concerts, and soon to their first album, performing under the motto “music everywhere.” The name of their band, Danûk, comes from the Kurdish annual tradition—practiced throughout Mesopotamia– in which wheat for a communal meal is prepared for several hours over a large fire. While children wait for the wheat to be cooked, traditional stories are told and songs are sung. The idea that music is a way of transmitting the past, and that it can also be a form of nourishment, is at the heart of what Danûk is trying to achieve.
I met Feyssal and Peyal recently in their apartment in Istanbul, part of which has been transformed into a music studio packed with recording equipment and guitars hanging on the wall, with little to reveal that they had arrived in the city only five years before, fleeing the violence of their native Syria and crawling beneath a fence into Turkey. I spoke to them about life in exile, about the Kurdish music of their childhood, their time in Homs at the onset of the Civil War, and about the extraordinary diversity of their native al-Hasakah.
A Kurdish Childhood, a Childhood of Diversity
Peyal and Feyssal grew up in the same neighborhood in al-Hasakah, a city in northeastern Syria that boasts a mixed population of Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Armenians, Yezidis and Arabs. As children they spoke Kurdish at home, just as others in the city spoke Syriac and Armenian, a reflection of al-Hasakah as one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse cities in the country. It was only at school that they learned and spoke Arabic. “We came to know one another in school,” Feyssal said, “and it was beautiful to know that even if we studied Arabic, that everyone had their own language at home.”
As a region of Syria at a crossroads with Southeastern Turkey and Iraq, straddling the Khabur river and in the center of an agricultural zone, the northeastern province of Syria has much in common with regions across the borders of its neighboring countries, including its ethnic and linguistic diversity, its large Kurdish populations and its cultural traditions. While the oud is famous throughout Syria, residents of al-Hasakah are more likely to play the tambour or buzuq, a long-necked lute with metal strings used in traditional Kurdish music. Because the Kurdish language was forbidden in Syrian government schools, traditional Kurdish music, stories, poems, and plays became an essential way of transmitting Kurdish cultural heritage from one generation to another.
Feyssal says that his bilingual childhood, separated into public and private spheres, gave him a special relationship with the Kurdish language. “At that time, when we were learning two languages at the same time, we understood which was our mother language,” he told me. “When I dreamt I would dream in Kurdish. And that’s when I began to understand that a language is also a kind of music, really. And I understood that our culture is contained in our language.”
Central to the transmission of heritage for the Kurds of al-Hasakah was the Feast of Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year celebrating the beginning of Spring, which every year consisted of music, traditional Kurdish dance, theatre, and storytelling. The villagers would wear traditional Kurdish costumes, but the location of the events would only be announced at the last minute. Children would sit in a circle and learn old songs by call and response, memorizing them in the process.
For Feyssal, the songs he inherited as a child sitting in those circles would remain with him for a lifetime, later becoming the corpus of the songs he now reinterprets as the vocalist for Danûk. Peyal, on the other hand, remembers that it was on Nowruz, when he was a boy, that he picked up the buzuk and started to play it for the first time.
A Buzuk in every home
Of the pair, Feyssal is the most openly animated of the two, speaking eagerly about the meaning of their music, his bright green eyes shining. Yet at the mention of the buzuq, Peyal comes to life. He tells me that in al-Hasakah, visitors would find a buzuq in nearly every home, ready to be pulled down for celebrations or played for guests. His siblings played the instrument, and he remembers seeing so many buzuqs around that he never needed to formally learn how to play. It was simply everywhere. There were stories of Mohammed Abdul Karim, the legendary Syrian musician once known as the “prince of the buzuq,” whose music formed a soundtrack to daily life the way Um Kalthoum or Fairuz might in other parts of the Middle East. Later, there was Seîd Yûsiv, another famous buzuq musician who hailed from the nearby city of Qamishle. Hozan told me that growing up, he listened to every Seîd Yûsiv cassette and imitated it, slowly learning to play.
Across the same neighborhood, Feyssal was busy learning the guitar by way of listening to very different cassettes: the flamenco and salsa music of the Gypsy Kings. Unlike the buzuq, the acoustic guitar was a rarity in Kurdish music, but Feyssal had decided that, in the way one sometimes sees another person and recognizes a kindred spirit, the acoustic guitar was the instrument that resembled him most. “I recognized myself in it,” he says, smiling. It was a tightly knit community, and Feyssal and Peyal increasingly saw one another playing music, but they did not yet play together. Music, however, was everywhere that there was joy. “Every time there was a party, every time there was happiness,” Feyssal said, “you would hear Kurdish music.”
A Door to the World
Al-Hassakah was its own world, almost equally distant from Damascus and Baghdad, over a thousand kilometers from Istanbul, far removed from the centers of the region. In time Feyssal and Peyal got word that the University of Homs had opened a music school, and that musicians were impressed with the quality of it. They decided to apply together and they were both accepted—Feyssal in classical guitar and Peyal in classical buzuq—an event that would change their lives. They arrived in Homs in 2008. Until then they had been musically schooled largely through oral tradition and folklore, and the College of Music at the University of Homs was a shift into another world. Here for the first time they received a classical musical education: theory and lessons on symphonies and jazz ensembles, an entrance into a universe vastly different than the remote area of Syria from which they hailed. They also met musicians from all over Syria, some of the finest musicians and instrument makers in the Middle East. “The university opened the door to a musical world,” Feyssal now says. “We saw how musicians played in Suweida, how they played in Aleppo. It was a real mix of the society, of the people.”
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The government emphasis on “one Syria” united under Arab nationalism had made conversations about cultural differences taboo and sometimes even dangerous for decades. But music provided an opening. One week a year, the students of the College of Music held a week of performances, and musicians from all over the country played songs from their region. There were seven musicians from al-Hasakah and Kobane the year they entered, and they formed their own music group, called Orient, playing Kurdish traditional music. Feyssal and Peyal joined. It felt like the beginning of something new.
But in 2011, Homs became embroiled in the heart of the civil war. The university closed. In the beginning, the duo responded by continuing to play music in the privacy of their home, waiting for the university to re-open so they could finish their degrees. Their apartment was in Bab al-Sbah, in the heart of the tension. They witnessed from the students of Homs an incredible capacity for humor amidst horror. Feyssal recounts an early moment, when the army responded to student protests with water cannons. The students from Homs put shampoo in their hair.
Soon it was too dangerous to remain. They fled first to Damascus, then to al-Hasakah. To make use of their studies, they soon had the idea to open their own music school- perhaps a bizarre idea in an expanding civil war, but one that appealed to them. Feyssal taught guitar, Peyal taught buzuq, and both taught theory, and the work sustained them during the first six months of chaos. Students arrived, eager to learn: their youngest student was six years old, their oldest was an elderly man. They even had two blind students. They discovered in music a universal language that could reach them all. They estimate that some fifty people attended classes that first year.
But the war was not slowing down, and they knew that if they stayed in al-Hasakah, they would be conscripted into the army. It was time to flee again.
They left separately, both beneath the border fence of al-Darbasiyah. Peyal knew in advance that his buzuq would not fit beneath the border fence, and so he left it behind.
Feyssal’s bag was too big when he arrived near the border, and so he had to empty it out. He decided to keep a Spanish language book with his few remaining possessions, reasoning that he might need it one day. He crawled beneath the fence, straddling the northern desert of Syria. He emerged on the other side of the Turkish border, amazed to discover that, on the other side, there were trees.
Istanbul was again another world: with fifteen million inhabitants, it had two thirds the population of the entire country of pre-war Syria, including more than 350,000 Syrian refugees. Neither Feyssal nor Peyal spoke Turkish. But they reasoned that music was a universal language that would help them navigate in the interim. Peyal, however, had his own problem: in Turkey he couldn’t find a buzuq, only a saz or a tamboura, two related but different long-necked lutes. He considered making one of his own, but he couldn’t afford the materials. Desperate, he contacted someone inside of Syria, who managed to send him a buzuq made by Ibrahim Sukkar, the master Aleppo instrument maker whose factory had been destroyed in the war. When Peyal received it, he ran directly to the studio to record the sound. He wanted to save it.
In 2015, three years after they fled Syria, Feyssal and Peyal formed Danûk with Turkish Kurdish musicians who shared a common musical culture. Feyssal began to sing in addition to playing guitar, and soon their songs were heard on the streets of Istanbul and in concerts: Feyssal with his bright green eyes and long golden hair, Peyal with his dark brown eyes and wild mane of curls, their songs managing to preserve tradition and yet sound fresh and new. In a surprising turn, Feyssal befriended his new next door neighbor, a young British aid worker named Maria del Mar Marais, who had just moved to Istanbul after working with refugees on the Syrian border, and who had lived most of her life in Spain and spoke fluent Spanish. They fell in love, and they sometimes passed the time practicing phrases from the Spanish phrasebook he carried out of al-Hasakah and beneath a border fence.
But there was also sadness. On the eve of Nowruz in 2015, word reached Feyssal that a massive car bomb had exploded in the heart of al-Hasakah, killing dozens. Among them was his sister, a violin player named Evin, who was on the way to meet their cousin. Her name, in Kurdish, means love.
A Hope in Music
What does music mean in the face of such tragedy? It is here, in that void, that Feyssal and Peyal believe music has an essential role to play, insisting on joy as a reality that cannot be destroyed, even by bombs. But like so much in Syria, music has been hit hard by the war. Last year, UNESCO held a meeting in France focused on preserving Syria’s traditional music. Gani Merzo, a Syrian Kurdish musician, was in attendance, and he later told the publication Rudaw that he believes that 60 to 70 percent of Kurdish musicians have fled Syria. Preserving their musical heritage is more important than ever.
As Danûk prepares to record its first album, Feyssal and Peyal will be part of that movement, insisting on playing Kurdish music across borders. Feyssal and Marais recently married, and after he finishes recording, they hope to cross into yet another world: that of Europe. He hopes that Kurdish music will find a welcome home there, and that Peyal will be able to join him, continuing the long journey they began together decades ago, as friends in the same neighborhood of al-Hasakeh.
His message to other Syrians is that they cannot wait for the war to finish to resume their lives. “You must create something,” he says.