- 50 Years of Rock and Heavy Metal in Syria: The 2000s
- 50 Years of Rock and Heavy Metal in Syria: The 70s – 90s
- Intro- Voices of Syrian Music
- The Diversity of Music in Syria
- Music & Religion
- Music & Community in Syria
- Folk Music
- Jazz Lives in Syria
- The Sound of Dayr az-Zawr
- Muwashahat: A Memory from Damascus
by Hannibal Saad
I grew up in the 80s, in a time, when bands like Pink Floyd, the Scorpions and Deep Purple were blossoming. Syria had just gotten out of a short period of civil unrest that had brought cultural life to a halt almost completely between 1979 and 1986. I was about to finish school, getting into university and would spend my days at shops like Haro or Dawn, little cassette shops in Damascus that sold rock and jazz cassettes. I passionately wanted to play and started looking for other musicians to join. Little did I know, that Syria at this point already had a Rock scene. I only knew the two famous Syrian Rock bands Rockestra and Invaders, who I thought were the only ones that had existed before us. But when I actually entered the scenery and started playing concerts with my first band, people shared their amazing stories with us about rock bands in Syria from as early as the 70s.
It kept me wondering why I had never heard about these bands and I began to dig into the history of Rock music in Syria– a topic not very well researched until today. My research mainly focused on Damascus, although other cities had a vibrant scenery as well that still needs to be uncovered. On my journey, I was inspired by people like Hani al-Dajani, a translator who had passionately documented lyrics from old music tapes in his notebooks. Sometimes, I think we have lost that special dedication and this immediate experience due the cyber world we live in. This unknown history and the stories entangled with it fascinate me to this day.
| The 70s: A great beginning
The Rock music scene in Syria started in early 1968 and can only be described as a very vibrant, dense and energetic scene. Just like it was with many other musical genres that entered Syria, music shops played an important role in its beginnings. Cassette shops like Haro (1972) and Dawn (1974) opened in Damascus, followed by Eido, Leido and Hawasly later on in the 80s. In Aleppo, the shop Shadows was booming with sales. Mazen Laham´s cassette shop Dawn is still open selling tapes up until now. Visiting his shop will take you back decades in time.
So in a way it started with people selling Rock music cassettes recorded from FM radio streaming from Lebanon in early 1965 and then music bands started forming to play this music. One of these early bands was Tigers (1969) under the leadership of Drummer Johnny Komovich and keyboard player Vahe Demirjian.
There were about 10 Rock bands I know of, that were continuously playing music in Damascus from 1970 to 1980 when unrest started in Syria. Most of them were cover bands like The Underground band that played songs of Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Beatles, Pink Floyd, or King Crimson etc. It was similar in Aleppo and elsewhere in the country.
The sort of music that was played by these bands was usually determined by the audience they chose. Rock bands that sought to play in public spaces like restaurants and night clubs of the Meridian and Sheraton Hotels, the El Sham Hotel, as well as the Orient Club, Vandom or Casa Club, usually transformed their music to more softer sounds that were fitting the ambience of the place. It was also very common in this time, that Rock bands had uniforms. Some of these bands were the Tigers, Fireball (named after a Deep Purple album), the Spiders, Magic Fingers, Black Eagles, Pastors, and many more. But there were also a range of musicians that worked in many bands and not just one*. Some of these bands were the Tigers, Fireball (named after a Deep Purple album), the Spiders, Magic Fingers, Black Eagles, Pastors, and many more.
However, times were difficult for Rock musicians in the 70s, especially when the country started to experience political tensions again end of the 1970s. The weight of the civil unrest that continued would affect daily life tremendously. From 1979 to 1986 cultural life almost came to a complete halt. Clubs, restaurants, and hotels that used play Western music infront of families started dwindling from 1979 and lost their audience due to the lack of security. Former prosperous bands suddenly had less work. Many bands were formed to do one concert only to find themselves disbanded shortly after. When things finally started to become normal in Syria, the whole world and local music scene had drastically changed. Even Rock music had changed and only a few bands like the Tigers survived.
| The glorious 80s
In 1984 at the Lycée high school a band started playing famous rock tunes to an enthusiastic audience: Rockestra was born and run by guitar player Bassel, Zreik, singer Talal Karkutli, and friends. The band was not only able to establish a very active fan base, but also managed to appear on national TV several times. (-> Watch an old footage of Rockestra on Youtube here)
Then another band followed, called The Invaders. Founded by singer Bassel Haj Youssef, guitar player Mazen Arafat, Drummer Rafi Markarian and others, the band was mainly known in Damascus, where it played several concerts.
Image on the left: The Invaders in 1986 © Bassel Youssef / Image on the right: The Invaders in 1987 © Mazen Arafat
Many other bands, that were founded in this period disbanded short after their first concerts such as White Lead and Prism. At the same time, there were several public spaces that became important stages for Rock musicians such as the Russian Cultural Center and the French Culture Center, the German Goethe Institute, as well as Zahra and Hamra theaters.
In 1987 singer Bassel Haj Youssef, Guitar player Monzer Kebbeh, Keyboard player Ammar Alani, drummer Kinan Berouti, Bass player Bassel Khalil joined my band the Journey, that I formed in 1986, which would later be joined by other members. In the first 6 years, we conducted more than 35 concerts and appeared in several TV shows as well. It was in a time, when the general mood towards Rock music changed and more bands appeared publicly. When I migrated to the US in 1993, the Journey re-established themselves as the Marmar band. Marmar was particularly known for playing in a very hip pub in Damascus of the same name, which would become the place to be as a Rock musician in the 80s.
The 90s and the birth of Heavy Metal in Syria
By the early nineties there were at least over 15 rock bands in Aleppo and Damascus with established audiences that played more progressive rock. More importantly, Heavy Metal entered the scenery. Bands like Bloody Heaven started at the end of 1980, followed by Krokers, Sudden Death, and the Urgent band. Also, a wonderful band called Nameless was founded by the talented guitar player Akram Maksoud, Ibrahim Soulaymani and their friends.
In 1995, Kulna Sawa was founded, a band that would become one of the most successful Arabic speaking Syrian Rock music bands in the Arab world. The band (whose name means “all of us together”) started by re-arranging several traditional songs, but also composed their own songs later on. Their dedication to the Arabic language was key to their success and goes back to the great effort of front man Iyad Rimawi who convinced the band to stick to their mother tongue. Rimawi became a successful songwriter in Damascus for TV series and movies. His songs are well known in the Arab world.
From the mid-nineties on more and more Heavy Metal bands appeared on stages, inspired by bands like Metallica from Germany and Iron Maiden from the UK. Audiences for these bands were mostly the middle class, who had less hope living in Syria and looked for a mental escape to, what was for them ‘world culture’. Many of them hoped to one day be able to physically escape to the west.
…Continue with Rock and Heavy Metal in the 2000s
Feature Image: © Ghassan Al-Yamani
* The Rock and Heavy Metal scenery in Syria is vast. Many musicians worked in several bands, that deserve to be mentioned like: Nouri Haydar, Kinaz Nahhas, Jordanian Musician Hassan Fanni, Bassam Hamwi, Talal Abou Radwan, Haitham Hamwi, Ghassan Al Yamani, Bassam Arab Oughly, Maha Al Jabiri, Bashar Bitar, Ara Souvalian, Youssef Hammal, Ayman Fahham, Riad Ateeq, Munir Lababidi, Ziad Khluki, Faysal Al Nahas, Raeef Shukri and many others. Even international musicians like the Italian Enrico Roma and the Greek Dimitri Khristo were part of scene.
For more information on Rock in Syria from the 70th onward please check the Facebook group عازفي الموسيقا الغربية في سوريا and the Facebook blog of Ara Sovalian, that were created to give recognition and respect to the many musicians that could not be mentioned here.