1. Intro- Voices of Syrian Music
  2. The Diversity of Syrian Music
  3. Music & Religion
  4. Music & Community in Syria
  5. Jazz Lives in Syria
  6. The Sound of Dayr az-Zawr

by Obeid Alyousef

Obeid Alyousef is a musician who is working on a book to document the endangered musical heritage of his hometown, Dayr az-Zawr. Located East of the Euphrates in the Dayr az-Zawr Governorate, it was one of the hardest hit areas to suffer under the control of the so-called Islamic State. In this interview, Obeid Alyousef talks of his personal connection to this region, its musical traditions and what must be done to save the cultural and musical heritage of Dayr az-Zawr.


Obeid, how did you get into music and what connects you to Dayr az-Zawr?

I was born in 1986 in Dayr az-Zawr and grew up in an artistic family. My father was a painter and as a child I spent a lot of time in his studio. In our house there was an instrument called the oud, which was kept in a cupboard and belonged to a friend of my father. I remember as a child always wanted to play this “thing” – of course, I wasn’t allowed to touch the oud.  My father later told me that everyday I cried and screamed: “I want that thing!”. A few years later my brother started to learn the oud. Secretly, I began to learn from him until my father looked for a teacher for me. Later on I applied to the music faculty in Homs, where I graduated with a degree in music. Following my studies, I worked as a lecturer at the university in Homs. Then the war in Syria began and nothing went according to plan. It was not easy to continue living as normal in Syria. I left Syria and in the end of of 2015 I came to Germany. Since then, I have worked as a musician and started an orchestra project and small musical projects. But Dayr az-Zawr remains my hometown, where my cultural roots are.

Dayr az-Zawr, Hängebrücke über den Euphrat
Famous bridge over the Euphrates river in Dayr az-Zawr © Claus-Peter Haase (CC-BY-NC-SA)
Straßenszene in einem Suq von Dayr az-Zawr
Suq von Dayr az-Zawr © Jean-Claude David (CC-BY-NC-ND)

When did you first have the idea to direct the focus of your research to Dayr az-Zawr?

It was in 2008, when I had the the idea to document the musical heritage of the Euphrates. I started to look for literature and recordings but could not find anything. There were only scattered recordings of weddings or special occasions. And I had a few recordings of my father and some other residents of the city.

My father loved these traditions and every time he played music with his friends, he recorded it. We have kept these recordings as a family archive. Luckily, these recordings have survived, including recordings from the 1940s and earlier. You can barely understand what is being sung.

Video mit Musikaufnahmen aus Dayr az-Zawr (Quelle: Youtube)

So, I began to collect some songs that I could find. I was working on it with a friend back then and was planning to publish everything in a book. Then the war started and our house was burnt. With the fire we lost our instruments and some of our collections. Since then the situation has of course changed. Now, the book will be published in German and I will write the text in Latin as well as Arabic letters. It also explains from a theoretical perspective why these songs are played in this form, what scale they are, and how one can play them best. This is important, so that the scale is understandable for the general European mind as the European musical system doesn´t include quarter tones, which is what distinguishes it to oriental music.  

What is special about the music from Dayr az-Zawr?

The name Dayr az-Zawr in German means something like “the monastery of the visitors”. The word Dayr means monastery, and Zor means visit. There is a story which says that the town got this name because there was a monastery, where visitors could go to, when they could not find a place to sleep. They found shelter in the monastery at night. Whether or not that is true, I don’t know. But this tradition of hospitality is a part of our culture. Now, because of the war, that has likely changed.

The Euphrates flows through our city and there is a particular dialect spoken. It is exactly the same with music. If we examine the subtleties and nondescript details of the culture in Dayr az-Zawr, we can clearly see that political state borders are often only political and not necessary reflect cultural borders. Our dialect is strongly influenced by Iraq and Turkey. We speak with a particular accent, which very closely resembles Iraqi dialect. Many words from our day-to-day parlance have been adopted from Turkish. We sing particular songs at weddings or when we finish primary school. We dance particular dances.

Video mit Musikaufnahmen aus Dayr az-Zawr (Quelle: Youtube)

When the call to prayer sounds from the mosque minarets in Dayr az-Zawr, we hear a particular tone scale and tone, whereas in Aleppo the call to prayer sounds very different – that is natural, as people adopt new things from the places the go to and transform them. Many songs are only sung in Dayr az-Zawr, in the region on the Euphrates. Here, special frequencies and microtones have developed, like the different accents of any language: I can hear three notes of a piece and immediately know that it is from Dayr az-Zawr. Of course, there are songs and sounds that you hear all over Syria.

But in every region there is a special way of improvising and making music. So, for example, it could happen that you find the same text in three, four or five different variations. Often, it is the same melody but sung a little differently. Some only sing up to the dominant and some sing up to the subdominant, others go higher. They are well-known songs that are sung everywhere, but in different interpretations, often varying between the east and the west of Syria.

Video mit Musikaufnahmen aus Dayr az-Zawr (Quelle: Youtube)

Why do you think it is important to document the musical heritage of Dayr az-Zawr?

There are no written sources about the music in Dayr az-Zawr.  But before the war there was life and one could always find someone who knew someone who knew something or had an old sound recording. Now, that no longer exists. We no longer have museums in the region. In Aleppo and Damascus there are still collections as the libraries there were not destroyed. In Dayr az-Zawr everything was either burned, pillaged or sold everything. And in Raqqa, two hours north of Dayr az-Zawr, everything is lost. Instruments were destroyed. All art was banned. But it is still preserved in a few people’s minds. The people who have that knowledge will soon pass away. Many of them have left the country and live in Turkey and some in Jordan. But they won’t live forever. Time is running out. I have the desire to document this heritage because it is important that we do not lose the traditions from this region. I would like to re-record the songs together with a singer.

This is also important from a research point of view: You can find dubious videos on the internet of musicians posing as the composer of certain songs. YouTube videos are not processed, reliable sources and nobody is responsible for their accuracy. Sources could correct this. We need a clear record of the music and its cultural context. Through this collection I could globalise the musical characteristics and traditions of Dayr az-Zawr, so to speak. And that is important. Because nobody knows what is being sung there. If we now create the collection, every musician and researcher has the opportunity to get to know, to study and to experiment with the unique songs from this region with its original sounds.

How far are you with the collection and what challenges do you face with your work?

I have already finished the first phase of my collection book. In total, I have documented between 200 and 300 songs. Now I am in the second phase, in which I check the lyrics and combine them letter by letter with the corresponding notes. After that I will begin with the source research in order to assign the pieces to their composers. It is the most difficult phase as I cannot travel to Syria. There are a few older people who still live in Turkey and Jordan who could help me with this. But it is a big undertaking that I cannot afford. In the last phase, I would like to transmit the music of my home town for German musicians and researchers. For this I have to translate our notation system and our terms into the German notation system and translate the vocabulary. However, I haven’t found any sponsors yet. But I won’t give up.

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