by Prof. Hassan Abbas
The many different cultures that make up the Syrian community have made a deep impression on all forms of cultural expression, including music. In addition to this, the political borders of the country drawn up in the twentieth century do not match the ethnographic distribution of social groups such as tribes and clans, which are intertwined considerably in regional musical expressions within Syria and neighbouring countries. This has significantly increased the variety of forms of folk songs.
Genres and forms of folk songs
The ataaba is an art form that is recited and sung. It consists of a complete comprehensive literary event, story, news or a philosophical idea and provides a full picture, presented within the very limited space of four lines of poetry. The ataaba is performed individually by a singer playing a rabab, oud or kaman and more recently the electrical keyboard, which poses a real threat to all the native musical instruments.
This type of traditional music is popular across the Levant. The main characteristic of the mijana is the presence of an independent line of poetry before the first mawwal, which is called the matla or kasra, and consists of the words “Ya mijana” repeated three times.
The nayil belongs to the eastern region’s (Euphrates) lyrical art forms. It is mainly used to express sad sentiments and catastrophes, even when it sung with rhythmic accompaniment and a relatively fast melody.
The structure of the nayil appears to be derived from the mawwal. It has a structure in which the first two lines have the essential quatrain structure of the mawwal but is distinguished by its slow and sad beat.
The zajal was originally a form of poetry that spread from Spain to the Eastern Mediterranean. It uses the poetic forms and metres of the regions in which it was created. The word zajal means “to raise the voice in singing”. For this reason, it may be semantically linked to its collective use. The zajal supposes an audience, that there are people before the musicians performing this poetry. This collective form for the performance of the zajal is the prevalent form nowadays, with the term having become a synonym for competitions between performers at social functions.
In recent decades, the zajal has witnessed a spectacular decline across the areas of Syria it is popular in, whereas it has developed considerably in Lebanon to the extent that major Syrian performers have moved to Lebanon so they can express their creativity in this art form. There are two main reasons for the decline of this musical form in Syria:
- The zajal does not use standard Arabic (Fusha) and is limited to performance in local dialects. This is not in line with the current prevailing Arab nationalist ideology.
- Zajal performances require a broad margin of freedom of association and freedom of expression, which is lacking in the Syrian public sphere.
The Syrian mawwal is sung in a single voice with an improvised melody. Some sections areaccompanied by a single string instrument or various instruments, such as the rabab, oud and the violin, or wind instruments such as different types of flutes: the nay, mijwiz, duct flute , munjaira, etc.). The instruments are played alternately and in an improvised manner. A mawwal is also sung at the beginning or end of songs, accompanied by two types of appeal: introductory appeals – oof, oof, oof – that express grief and heartbreak, “ya ba“, “ya yab“, which means “oh my father!” (ya abi), or the layali style of “ya layali ya layl, ya ayni ya ayn” (oh night, oh eye!), and final appeals of “oof, oof” as well as “mama“, which means “oh my mother!” (ya ummi) or other words such as “my darling/ habibi”, etc. It can also be composed with a fixed melody made up of static musical song forms such as ataaba, mijana, etc. The mawwal has generally become a basic part of all types of Syrian songs.
The mawwal represents the cornerstone of traditional folk songs in the Levant. It is a popular genre, with many forms and names depending on the area it is used in, or the sentiment it conveys. Thus, there are religious, political and social mawwals.
The basic structure of a mawwal is fixed and distinct; it is a quatrain made up of four parts. The first three are homonymous rhymesusing similar terms but with different meanings, and an aaa-b form. Particularly in the northern, central and desert regions, however, Syria has a special mawwal with seven parts, each called khan, which were known as Baghdadi mawwals and are now known as Syrian Sabawi, Zuheiri or Sharqawi mawwals. The popularity of the Sabawi (seven-part) mawwal has declined in recent decades and its presence has decreased in traditional Syrian music in various parts of the country, due to the dominance of mawwals based on quatrains (ruba’i).
Swehly songs are popular in eastern and central Syria, particularly in the Euphrates region. It is similar to the nayil in the subjects of the poetry, which are mainly about the torments of love and the suffering of lovers. Singers use it to change the mood and break up the strong feelings left by the ataaba and nayil.
The dalouna is popular in all parts of Syria, particularly the western and southern regions. It is a song accompanied by a collective dance (dabke) which is well-known all over the Eastern Mediterranean due to its gentle beat which allows dancers to respond according to their ability and experience. The dalouna is accompanied by music on traditional wind instruments and a large drum which controls the rhythm setting the movement of the dancers’ steps.
An art form similar to the dalouna. It is present in regions in which the dalouna is popular, but it is not as widespread as dalouna. Rozana songs mainly express sadness, love and amorous feelings. It is in the repertoire of song requests at group celebrations but is ignored once the dabke starts and the drum takes to the stage.
The name of this genre comes from the first word of song, the basis of its introduction and which sets its rhythm. It is the diminutive and pet form of the word “hanouna” (affectionate) and is mainly used in reference to mothers. The origin of the hnayina is unknown. The words of these songs usually express love and intimacy, and gentle admonition
Zalghouta – Zaghrouta
Zalghouta is a sung poetry that consists of two verses, with four standardised rhythmical parts performed by women, in some regions only by married women, through which they express publicly thankfulness, congratulations, a welcome, or a sentiment. Women perform the zalghouta starting with introductory words that differ from one region to another: “Aweeha“, “Aaha“, “Ahey“, or “Ayieha“, intended to attract the attention of listeners and ending with a zaghrouta, a ululation created by a loud high-pitched voice while continuously and rapidly striking the tongue against the palate. The zaghrouta has different names in different regions. It is also known as the zaghrouda, hanhouna and mahaha.
Jazrawi refers to the Jazira region of Syria, in the northeast of the country. In addition to its natural wealth, it has a wealth of cultures through the Arab, Kurdish, Syriac, Armenian, Yazidi and Turkmen citizens who live there (the Jews who lived there have emigrated and there are no longer any of them living there). As a result of this wealth, the musical heritage of the region is varied and is part of an amazing acculturation process that has led to the emergence of a music that identifies better with the region than the cultures it comes from.
This musical acculturation process is manifested in the presence of many traditional songs that are sung in different languages that citizens compete in ascribing to their own culture. However, they agree that this form is part of the heritage of Jazira.
Abu Zeluf and Mawaliya
The structure of Abu Zeluf songs resembles the structure of the Rozana and Ya hnayina but is flexible and can be varied and changed with the region and dialect it is sung in.
A type of collective song accompanied by the dabke at various speeds. It is very common in the western, southern and central regions of Syria.
One of the most common traditional form of songs in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is usually performed at social events and local dabke dances.
A traditional lyrical art in the southern region, specifically the Hauran Plain and Jabal Al-Druze. It is an essential part of wedding parties in the region and has a special dabke dance called Habel Mwadea’. Hawliya songs are light with simple words and without a metrical structure.
While the zaghrouta and zalghouta are generally reserved for weddings and happy occasions, farraqiyat are for funerary rituals, sadness and nostalgia. The name farraqiyat comes from farraq, the separation of lovers and their distance from one another. In some regions, there are women who specialise in this art form and present at the homes of the deceased a performance that dramatically expresses grief and sadness.
Sahja (or Daha)
Songs and a dance from the south, of Bedouin origin, that are very well-known in Jordan, Palestine and right up to the north of the Arabian Peninsula. The name sahja comes from the method of applause during singing; it is not simply applause by clapping the palms together but by rubbing them. The clap is accompanied with rubbing one palm against the other. These songs are distinguished by steady rhythms that regulate the movement of those taking part in the collective dahiya dance.
Like the hawliya, the jawfiya is a traditional lyrical art form found in the south. It also has a special dabke dance. Jawfiya songs are enthusiastic. Their subject matter mainly deals with values of honour such as dignity, strength, bravery, etc. It is said that the name jawfiya refers to the Jawf region of the Arabian Peninsula from where this dabke dance was most probably brought to the region due to the trade caravans travelling between the Arabian Peninsula and Hauran.
The hudaa originates from the slow singing of the camel market. One section of the huda is called the hadwa (horseshoe) or hadawiya. It can be long or short. It is popular at wedding parties and social events. It is sung by the procession accompanying the bride to her new home.
Music in social life
In addition to diversity in the forms of folk songs, there is great diversity in songs related to social activities and events. There is perhaps no social event that is not accompanied by a form of singing or a musical performance. There are two basic genres of this type of music: songs for social events and work songs.
| Songs for social events |
Social events are an opportunity for the community to meet and share in the appropriate expression of the event . The occasion may be a joyous one, such as a wedding or the return of a Hajj pilgrim, a sad occasion, such as a death, weather-related reasons such as seeking rain during a drought, or simply a team game played by children.
Whether these rituals and practices in different regions are similar or different, there are set aspects of their structure and performance that are indispensable, including musical accompaniment and group or individual dances. Traditional forms of accompanying music for social events in Syria include:
Wedding celebrations in many Syrian regions still respect traditional ceremonies and observe the special songs that accompany these ceremonies at each stage of the wedding: preparing the bride, bathing the bride, taking the bride to the home of the groom’s family, the groom leaving the hammam from which he is accompanied by a crowd of young men performing the arada procession, preparing gifts for the bride.
Songs for children´s games
Syria has a young population; a third of Syrians are under the age of 15. This large number of children means that they have an obvious collective presence, unlike in countries with inverted population pyramids, with few children and few opportunities for them to meet.
This social reality provides fertile ground for group games and sports to flourish, not only in homes where children have many siblings, but in the streets and alleys which have become children’s playgrounds in the absence of suitable facilities for them to meet and play.
Some group games for girls are played with songs sung inside the home. Nonetheless, most games are for children of both sexes and children sing their songs indiscriminately, particularly in the countryside where religious rules governing social behaviour are less rigorous than in towns. This is also the case on festival days when children meet together in specially prepared festival areas. There are many singing games that are popular in all areas that have the same songs with some relevant alternatives depending on the prevalent local /regional cultures.
Songs for particular events
In different regions, there are a number of songs related to an event specific to that region or particular regions. These include a trip to the barber in remote villages, celebration of the day preceding Eid, the arada, which is a form of street performance, that usually takes place in a public area and has a set lyrical and dynamic structure even though the words change depending on the town it takes place in or the occasion for which the arada is held.
The Syrian economy is primarily agricultural. Most agricultural land is rain-fed and relies chiefly on rain. If the rain does not fall, farmers perform rain rituals which are socio-religious rituals through special prayers and chants that call upon the sky to bless them with water.
| Music connected to labour |
Syria is an agricultural country. The hard work demanded by some types of crops produced in Syria has a suitable form of song to accompany it, particularly the harvesting of wheat, cotton and olives.
Picking starts in the autumn and requires a large number of seasonal workers. This process is accompanied by two types of musical activity:
- Drummer’s visit: a drummer accompanied by a singer visits the fields. They sing to the field owner and his family. If time permits, the arrival of the drummer turns the event into a dance that the pickers join in with.
- Collective singing: a man or woman with a loud voice or a group of pickers sing. These songs used to be specific to this seasonal social activity. However, it has now died out and there are only songs based on folk forms such as the dalouna, mijana and mawaliya.
Wheat harvest workers are divided into small groups accompanied by a song of the huda form. A person with a loud voice ‘al-hadi’, usually the oldest worker, leads the singing and the tone of the rhythm. There are songs for each stage of the harvest. Along with harvest songs, there are songs for loading the grain, threshing (separating the grain from the seed head), ablation, etc.
Cotton picking requires a lot of workers. This turns picking into an annual social event where people from different places meet. This environment allows the establishment of relations that differ from traditional relations. There is a number of songs that refer to these relations that workers sing as they carry out their work
Continue with Jazz lives in Syria
Feature Image: Palestinian Dabkeh – Source: Sarah Canbel, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Prof. Hassan Abbas was the Program Director of “Culture as Resistance” at the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, American University of Beirut and a leading scholar and expert on Syrian culture, and Syrian traditional music in particular. In his book ‘Traditional music in Syria’ Dr. Hassan Abbas distilled his knowledge of years of extensive research on the musical tradition of Syria. His book is available in Arabic here.
After having battled a long-term illness, Prof. Abbas died in March 2021. The team of the Interactive Heritage Map of Syria project is forever thankful for having had the chance and privilege to work with Prof. Abbas and learn from his brilliant mind.