by Rania Kataf
Growing up in Damascus, my childhood memory embodies echoes of al-Muwashah playing in the background of my day-to-day life. Whether it was on the radio on my way to school, hearing that unique musical genre by the profound velvet voice of Fairuz; or with every rolling of the dice in a game of Tawleh (backgammon) in a local café in Salhiyyeh with my grandfather, and the melodies of ‘ya mal al Sham’ by the authentic voice of Sabah Fakhri of Aleppo pleasingly confiscating the ears and minds of those in the coffee shop.
Today, when speaking of al-Muwashahat (plural of Muwashah), this classical yet very modern musical genre is usually linked to Andalusian music, al-Muwashahat al-Andalusia, known for its sensory imagery and unique poetic literary form. This school of Muwashahat began to flourish in modern day Spain during the 9th century; a byproduct of prolific Eastern and Western cultural exchange current in Andalusian society. But Muwashahat has always been a vital part of living heritage in Syria, too, and for me personally an important part of my childhood memories in Damascus.
Listening to al-Muwashahat
With Sara Darwish, a student of the Higher Institute for Music in Damascus, one is able to experience first hand the special atmosphere of listening to al-Muwashah in the beautiful scenery of a traditional courtyard house in Damascus, smelling the scents of Damascene life and hearing the fresh splatter of the fountain in the background.
[Min 0:22] Sara Darwish sings poetry lines from a famous Muwashshah of Andalusia and later composed by the Rahbani Brothers and song by Fairuz, known as ‘Ya Man Hawa Ward Al-riyyadi bi Khaddihi’
[Min 1:23] Drawing on similarities in musical rhythm with Waltz, Sara sings lines from ‘Ya Ghazalan Qad Jafani’. Another famous Muwashah using lyrics from Muhammad Harbali and music of Bahjat Hassan.
[Min 1:46] Sara sings the start of Yamuru Ojban Muwashah, a poem by Fakhri al Baroudi, composed by Omar al Batch. Song by Sabah Fakhri and other tenor singers.
For Ibrahim al-Sheikh Omar, a music teacher and composer, his memories of al-Muwashah are deeply connected to this city. As we walk through one of the ancient alleys of the old city, he tells me about his Damascene home, its open space, and the chirping bird sounds present in the background; singing in rhythm with the water fountain at the center of their courtyard. Al-Sheikh developed his love for music and al-Muwashah at a very young age, he adds, “everything about this city, its element, and the way it communicates with your soul turns you into an artist.”
It is no wonder that even centuries after the fall of Andalusia, Muwashah was revived again in Syria to settle in the voices of artists like Sabah Fakhri, and in the works of Fakhri al Baroudi, Omar al Batch, and the father of Arabic musical theater Abu Khalil Qabbani. In his book on Damascene traditional recipes, Kitab al Tabeekh w Moujam al Maa’koulat al Dimashkiyyeh, Baroudi mentions the unfortunate loss of his book of memoirs when his house caught fire during the coup d’état that took place in 1963, which included his archive and all his personal works of Damascene Muwashahat. Instead of giving up, Baroudi sought the help of Omar al Batch from Aleppo. Together they established a music institute and a band, but more importantly, al Batch incorporated Baroudi’s poems into his works, giving birth to a very special composition of Muwashah.
We also cannot forget the legendary Abu Khalil Qabbani (1835 – 1902), the man who revived many forgotten Muwashahat from our Arabic heritage. Qabbani is considered the father of Syrian theatre and the founder of the operetta in Arabic theatre. He studied Muwashahat believing it defines part of the cultural identity of Damascus. And he recomposed and rewrote twentry-five original Muwashahat including the famous folklore song ‘ya tera tiri ya hamama’, and as I have come to discover, a personal favorite ‘ya mal al Sham’. Qabbani performed many of these pieces in his plays, which ran in Damascus since the 1870’s, yet many of his works remain unknown as they have not been recorded during his lifetime.