by Hannibal Saad
The story of the Jazz Lives in Syria festival began in 2004, when I arrived in Syria after I had been living in the US for many years. I encountered a different country than the one I had left in the 90s, when a lot of musicians felt the urge to migrate, because they felt that there were no opportunities for them to play and prosper. It had always been my dream to start a platform for Syrian musicians to cocreate with each other and other international artists and I could sense a fresh energy and new possibilities. It was the perfect time to start something new and once it happened many joined the journey including great musicians, cultural centres and partners such as the Higher Institute of Music and the Swiss Embassy in Damascus. The festival´s unique story was not only a dream coming true, but it marked the beginning of a journey of discovery. I was eager to understand, how a solid ground for the jazz festival scene to flourish and take root could be created. I knew that in order to achieve this, I had to understand its historical developments and the struggle of my forerunners. I started digging into the traces of jazz in Syria and my search for answers led me to a great discovery of a long and rather unnoticed part of Syrian musical history.
The History of Jazz in Syria
Unlike many would think, Syria has a very long and vibrant history with jazz music. Its beginnings can be traced back to the 1930s at the same time when the country discovered tango, rumba and samba music with Aleppo and Damascus as leading cities, each with their own and different jazz scenery.
Under the Sky of Damascus
One of the earliest records of Jazz in Syria can be found in the silent movie Under the Sky of Damascus (Taht sama´a Dimashq). Playing in 1932, the movie is one of Syria´s first silent movie and is until today considered one of the treasures of Syrian cinema, showing a glimpse of Damascus´ jazzy past.
The movie “Under the Sky of Damascus” (Source: Youtube)
Scrolling through old magazines of the early 20th century would occasionally reveal ads for Western Jazz concerts taking place next to Marjeh Square in Damascus. It was Adnan Abu Alshamat himself, the great Syrian composer, who recounted to me, that in 1945 he saw a Jazz Big Band at the Canon Garden in Damascus with the French and Syrian army playing. The Syrian community in Damascus quickly started to adopt these melodies and created their own arrangements. Already in 1943 the musicians Hisham Al-Shamaa, Hassan Derkzenly and Shukri Shawkli founded the first Syrian jazz band and performed until they split in 1947. Hisham Al Shamaa created his own group „The band for contemporary music“ and short after left to Egypt to study at the Music Academy of Fouad I., while Hassan Derkzenly founded a Syrian Jazz band that kept performing in public places as well as on radio and television until 1968.
Not much research has been done on the jazz scene in Aleppo. Records from Aleppo are modest but they reveal the city´s role as a centre for jazz music activity. In the 70s, nightclubs and ballrooms in Aleppo were frequented by families and by the educated middleclass. It was not only the place to perform for the best musicians in town, but it played a key role in bringing jazz music closer to the public audience in their daily life. When we talk about Aleppo, the right person to start with is the Lebanese-Armenian Vatché Yeramian, one of the most influential personalities in the history of jazz music in Syria and the founder of the first Syrian Big Band in Damascus in 1978. He had an exceptional talent, played saxophone and violin, and was known for his humble personality and performance of world-class musical standards.
But despite his great talent he died in poverty in Aleppo. Amongst his students were Nouri Eskandar, Hratch Kassis, Tarek Fahham and Salem Bali. Hratch Kassis, after having studied jazz at Berkley University in Boston in the USA, founded a jazz band alongside other great musicians in Aleppo and performed in the Aleppo Cultural Centre every two weeks. Some made their living playing in nightclubs so that they can perform unpaid in the Cultural Center. It shows how much the jazz scene was already accepted in Syria even before Western institutions started to engage in the scenery. With his brother Berj Kassis and bass player Nazo Hadidian, Hratch founded the Aleppo Big Band in the 90s following the example of Vatché Yeramian in Damascus. Many musicians became active in the Armenian General Benevolent Union from 1995 to 2002 and a Big Band formed in 2005 at the Armenian club. The Armenian community played an important role in spreading jazz music in Aleppo, especially linked to the opening of Dar Al Tarbieh Theatre which was able to host 800 people and was dedicated to concerts and performances by top-notch Aleppian and Armenian musicians.
The city of Aleppo also birthed the famous jazz musician Nadim Darwish, son of Ali Darwish, who was known for reviving traditional Arab music. Aleppine jazz musicians later spread outside of the city and started to tour all around Syria in cities such as Tartous, Lattakia, ar-Raqqa, Qamishli and Hasakeh taking jazz music to new audiences. Music shops, at that time, played a vital role in the distribution of jazz music in Aleppo, such as “Solina” music shop run by the guitarist Radwan Zein Eddin, the “Shadows” shop, and many other music shops in Bab al-Faraj neighbourhood that are turned today into restaurants and stores.
Unfortunately, in the late 80s live music in Aleppo started to fade out, the elite jazz clubs lost their audience and came to play more popular music genres. Also in Damascus, the traces of Syrian jazz get lost during the 80s until Vahe Temrejian and Johnny Commovitch, and their band „Tigers“ revived the scene, resulting in a small peak of Jazz in Aleppo.
Vahe Temrejian´s musical piece Leyli Tawil (Source: Youtube)
The creation of the High Institute of Music and Theatre in the 90s paved the way for the academic study of brass instruments and eventually the official recognition of jazz music, followed by the founding of a brass quintet by musician and founder of the institute Sulhi Al Wadi. Even a jazz café emerged featuring Keyboard player Asem Albunni, bass player Garo Salakian, Saxophonist Iyad Tarazi and drummer Tarek Fahham.
The first Jazz Festival
It was also in the 90s, when the first Jazz Festival took place in Damascus and Aleppo: the first „Euro-Arab Jazz Festival – Jazz Caravan“ was launched in 1995 with the support of the European Commission in several cities including Damascus, Aleppo and Dayr az-Zawr. This pioneering event introduced the concept of corporate sponsorship of cultural activities in Syria with relation to music by bringing together private sponsors without whom this dream would not have been possible. One of the factors which played a key role in increasing the allocated budget to the festival was the Barcelona Declaration in 1995, which recognized Southern Mediterranean countries to be reflected in the European cultural agenda. The festival itself included regional musicians and created partnerships between local and international participants. Within three years (1994 – 1997) the number of bands participating in the festival rose from 6 to 14. The Euro-Arab Jazz Festival became a peak moment for cultural activities with concerts, workshops, photography and design competitions. However, it did not take roots in Syria, when the festival changed its intercultural essence and only European jazz artists performed. This change of interaction and with it the critical lack of Syrian Jazz musicians quickly led to an end of this festival. However, it still left a mark on the development of the international cultural industries in Syria.
The founding of the Syrian Jazz Orchestra
In 2004, I set my hands on creating a platform and a hub for these musicians to thrive and develop. Together with Nada Oman Alaeddine, I organised a first jazz workshop with financial support of the Swiss Ambassador Jaques de Watteville. It was accompanied by the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus and jazzman Amadis Dunkel with his octet, who later started working with us and local musicians in Damascus. The success of this workshop on all levels was unprecedented. We were intrigued by the many great musicians who revealed their talents to us and were hungry for more activities. With support of Athil Hamdan, Cellist and Director of the Higher Institute of Music we were able to gather students of the institute to form to build the jazz scene in Syria. We extended the workshops to other parts of Syria and started to identify and map interested musicians from all over Syria, which had been an unexplored terrain. But the lack of training institutions constituted a major obstacle in the development of top-level jazz in Syria. In 2005, with the establishment of the Big Band, we were able to respond to that lack.
The Big Band started by mastering and performing classical standards from the international jazz repertoire, but ultimately established its own identity as a Syrian or Arab Big Band.
Explore the journey of the Big Band
Syrian Big Band at Jazz Lives in Syria With Houry Apartian (I Got the World on a String) in 2006 (Source: Youtube)
Syrian Big Band at Jazz Lives in Syria 2006 arranged by Kalvin Jones (Source: Youtube)
Syrian Big Band at Jazz Lives in Syria 2005 with Houry Apartian playing the piece “Alone Together” (Source: Youtube)
The resulting unique repertoire quickly became the Syrian Big Band hallmark style: a solid jazz music foundation that can absorb and adopt other music genres and styles including Arabic and Syrian traditional music, as well as the musician´s own musical ideas, without affecting their essence.
Under the many important Syrian jazz composers of the Syrian Jazz Orchestra, it is important to mention the conductor and arranger Nareg Abajian, who arranged an incredible number of 40 beautiful pieces for the Big Band. Until today, Abajian is a vital part of the modern jazz scene in Syria. Other conductors such as Finnish piano player and composer Frank Carlberg wrote and conducted for us, adding a modern yet very special character to the Big Band.
The list of talented Syrian bands is endless and includes passionate musicians like Basel Rajjoub, Omar Harb, Amro Hammour, Viken Tchalian, Nizar Omran, Houry Apartian, Shohag Apartian, Lena Chammamyan, Racha Rizk, Ibrahim Soulaymani, Dulama Shehab, Tarek Skaikar, and others. Many of them, such as Lena Chamamyan, have launched a successful career from the seeds that sprouted from the work with the Syrian Jazz Orchestra.
The successful establishment of the Syrian Big Band became a real incubator for Syrian jazz and musical talents, creating work opportunities, giving exposure to local musicians – a movement that sparked new formations even in the neighbouring countries Lebanon and Jordan. If it wasn´t for Sulhi al-Wadi, who founded the Higher Institute of Music, and director Athil Hamdan, we would have not been able to reach to that point. Their continuous support kept us going even in difficult times.
Jazz Lives in Syria: The festival
The founding year of the Syrian Big Band also marked the great start of the Jazz Lives in Syria Festival which took place from 2005 with free concerts taking place at the Damascus citadel and grew continuously until the war brought everything to a halt in 2011. The festivals were characterized by a great synergy between foreign and local musicians, which turned out to be incredibly successful. After having experienced many difficulties and a few moments of doubts in the beginning, it became a very successful international platform, performing memorable concerts which multiplied fast leading to annual rendezvous of jazz musicians and jazz lovers. The festivals invited musicians from all over the world each year including Switzerland, the Netherlands, Turkey, India, France, Germany, Spain, Canada, USA, Italy and many others. Many international renowned musicians like Danny Blanc, Lyle Link, Joost Kesselaar, Oliver Friedly and Georgos Antoniou did not only come to Syria to perform, but developed strong ties with local musicians, exchanging experience and staying in contact throughout the year.
I may have been the initiator, but the festival only became such a great success because of all the people who participated in it and made it their own. We received great support by foreign ministries, media and the Ministry of Culture from the beginning. Such a project cannot be created by one person, but only as a collective force.
What happened after the war? Read about the Global Week for Syria initiative here.
Feature Image: © Mais Shoubaji