Imagine a dialogue between East and West. A dialogue of hopes and fears, similarities and differences, histories and futures; a conversation charged with emotion and balanced with respect. Imagine scenarios that bridge gaps, forge links: the great diva Fairuz sitting in a Midwest Cafe, with Dick Dale’s Misirlou on the jukebox. Ry Cooder and Abdel Wahab puffing nargileh in a sunlit courtyard deep inside a labyrinthine souq.
Think of ancient civilisations and Middle Eastern aspirations vying and blending with film noir and surf guitars, spy novels and Cold War iconography. Picture the so-called American Dream – Americana – recognising the arts, culture and wisdom of the Middle East. Recognising Syriana.
Now imagine all this given musical form by an array of instruments: the qanun, the ancient 81-string Arabic dulcimer. The double bass, an instrument at home with both Arabic and Western scales. The electric guitar – that symbol of Western popular music everywhere from Beirut to Texas. Imagine oud. Viola. Accordion. Arabic percussion. Violins, seven of them, courtesy of studio outfit the Pan Arab Strings of Damascus.
Syriana, then, is more than just a band. It’s a concept. An attitude. A perspective. A place where themes of tolerance, liberty and hope come wrapped in Arabic rhythms and played through a Western filter. Where free musical interaction is a given - despite the ironies bestowed by political reality. It’s a project without a single dominant instrument. In Syriana the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Road to Damascus begins in London, when Nick "Dubulah" Page and Syrian Qanun player, Abdullah Chhadeh, finally get around to starting a collaborative project discussed some years earlier... Nick, the half-Greek, half-English guitarist/bassist of Trans Global Underground and Temple of Sound, travelling producer for the likes of Mexican anarcho-punks Los de Abajo and the visionary behind the wildly acclaimed Dub Colossus. Abdullah, virtuoso musician, arabic composer and lyricist. Nick and Abdullah were soon augmented by the Irish double bass player, composer and MD Bernard O`Neill, who had worked with Abdullah prior to Syriana.
Not so long ago the pre-Obama world had felt particularly oppressive. Western troops had invaded Iraq. Syria had been publicly branded a ‘rogue state’ by then President George Bush. A new sort of Cold War – the stand off that took place between the USA and the Soviet Union and their allies from the mid 1940s until the early 1990s – felt imminent.
“The Cold War and its iconography had divided East and West,” says Page. “We decided to create a project that would bridge them.”
Syriana would go on to draw further similarly minded musicians from London’s multicultural melting pot: multi-talented Egyptian percussionist, Sherif Ibrahim. The mighty Syrian accordionist, Mazin Abu Sayf. The Jordan-raised Palestinian singer and oud player, Nizar Al-Issa.
In order to get the flavour of the album just right, Page, Chhadeh, O’Neill and Sound Engineer Toby Mills upped and went to Damascus to record strings for the album. They worked with seven Syria-based string players, all esteemed as soloists, bandleaders and musical directors in their own right, at Music Box Studio. They also recorded the stunning vocal of lauded Syrian soprano Lubana Al Quntur - currently Head of Vocal Studies at the prestigious Damascus Conservatoire - at the Chhadeh family home in Bab Touma, old Damascus.
“You need to spend some time with musicians in their own lands to get a true flavour of their musical traditions, culture and styles,” says Page. “Recording with Dub Colossus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was proof of that. The Syriana album idea was a logical next step.”
Their ten-day stretch in Damascus, the capital of Syria – a country that along with Iran, Iraq and Lebanon was known in Arabic as Bilad al Sham - left an indelible mark. The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (and the Arab Capital of Culture in 2008), Damascus’s weight of history overwhelmed the visitors, and rendered the Cold War decades insignificant by comparison.
“We were in a taxi on the ring road around Damascus,” recalls Bernard O’Neill, “when our driver leaned out and pointed to where St Paul was allegedly hoisted over the city wall in a basket. Damascus has a history – along with a charm and vibrancy - that we in the West can only dream about.”
Nonetheless, the fact that many Syrians are unable to leave their country informed the project’s music and lyrics. Sung by Lubana Al Quntur, the power ballad Al Araby (The Arab) tells of diaspora, exile and the yearning for home.
A Fairuz-style musing on alienation and longing, the dreamy Gharrib (Stranger) is a gift for Al Quntur, a London Royal College of music graduate and a singer at ease with both Arabic and operatic vocal styles.
“The central character in Gharrib is an Arab in the West,” says O’Neill of Chhadeh’s lyrics. “As visitors to the Middle East we were made to feel like welcome guests. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case in reverse.”
The Pan Arab Strings lend a celestial wallop to the album’s title track, a road trip fuelled by an East/West super brew of qanun and violins, guitar and double basses. Call-and-response chants from Chhadeh, Page, O’Neill and Nizar Al-Issa keep the pedal to the metal, in an opener that conjures images of desert suns, jewel-like houses and spectacular Crusader castles.
“It’s a song of tolerance, hope and happiness,” says Page with a smile. “And maybe, just maybe, of an epiphany.”
All 1950s guitars, sonorous double bass, dramatic percussion and otherworldly qanun, Syriana is a Paris Texas-like meditation straight from the Syrian desert. “Syriana was the name given to oil producing countries of the region, long before it was colonised by Western nations,” notes O’Neill.
“The Middle East had its borders redrawn by the West in 1921,” says Page of The Great Game, which pitches surf guitars against strings and qanun in a portrait of Western militarism. “It was the start of many things… including the Cold War.”
A Black Zil is a rollicking ode to a Cold War icon: the car favoured by the KGB in Soviet Russia. “Ironically the Syrians bought the jeep-like Zil to use as their main army wagon,” says O’Neill. “It’s part of the Cold War legacy; you still see the odd old Zil careering along the motorway into town.”
Checkpoint Charlie is a noir-ish rendering of East/West tensions that hauls The Spy Who Came In From the Cold into the modern day. The Templehof File takes a Greek-influenced melody (both Chhadeh and Page are Greek Orthodox) to the Arab world: a Damascene street scene meets Athens in Spring.
With the qanun coming in from the East, the guitar from the West and the double bass straddling both continents, Galatian Bridge At Dawn celebrates where Eastern Europe meets Asia across the Bosphorus in Muslim Istanbul. “Which was formerly Christian Constantinople, which was formerly Byzantium and so on,” says Page. “A big, rich, powerful city at the crossroads of empires for a thousand years.”
Elsewhere, pieces for solo qanun and qanun and percussion showcase talent, speak volumes. Chhadeh displays his astounding virtuosity on Al Mazzeh, while three tracks – a bass solo (Al Qaboun); a duet between qanan and daf drum (Jannat al Dounia); and a duet between oud and slide guitar (Love In a Time of Chaos) – should be considered together.
For O’Neill, “They’re pallet cleansers that show details of a much greater frieze, a much bigger picture. Which is what the Syriana project is all about.”
A project destined to develop and travel: The Road To Damascus will be reinterpreted live by members of the original cast where possible, along with new artists chosen to compliment the Syriana aesthetic and a striking visual backdrop of especially commissioned film and animation.
Syriana, then, is where imagination and reality overlap. It’s where questions are asked, evidence is considered and stereotypes are demolished.
East/West. West/East. Borders are down on The Road to Damascus. Prepare to be converted.