Just as Aleppo was receding from the news, it suffers yet again, the devastation of civil war now compounded by the earthquake. How will the city’s renowned musical life be further transformed amidst the ruined buildings and traumatised residents?
A handy introduction to the city’s history is
- Philip Mansel, Aleppo: the rise and fall of Syria’s great merchant city (2018),
with a succinct main text at 73 pages (forming the framework of my outline below), the second half consisting of early travellers’ accounts.
Aleppo was yet another of those “global bazaars” (an image that masks tensions), populated by Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Venetian, and French peoples. Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted rather than living in harmony; while the town had no major religious shrines to exacerbate conflict, rival Christian groups (Armenian, Maronite, Orthodox, Syriac) had a long history of enmity. While the diversity and tolerance of the Ottoman empire is an article of faith, conflicts became increasingly acute after the Ottoman empire crumbled.
The late-17th-century traveller Evliyâ Çelebi made several visits to Aleppo, listing 61 mosques, 217 Koran schools, 5,700 shops in the central market, 7,000 gardens, 105 coffee shops (a regular venue for musicking), and 176 dervish convents.
By the 18th century, the town’s Janissaries were mainly shopkeepers and artisans, in conflict with the ashraf gentry. Tensions between rival power groups grew through the 19th century. Long linked with Constantinople and other regional cities, from 1890 railway lines connected Aleppo to Beirut and Damascus.
Aleppo was a major hub in the deportation of Armenians from Anatolia in the Long March of 1915. Despite obstruction from the Ottoman authorities, the Armenian community there made great efforts to provide relief for the refugees (see e.g. here).
Even in 1922, T.E. Lawrence still found “more friendship between Christian and Mohammedan, Armenian, Arab, Turk, Kurd, and Jew than in perhaps any other great city of the Ottoman empire”. While the city remained multi-denominational, under the French mandate from 1920, Aleppo became subordinate to Damascus. Syria gained full independence in 1944. Many Jews left from 1947, not only to the new state of Israel but around the world, such as Beirut, New York, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires.
Though the city thrived in the 1950s, people continued to emigrate. Tensions, based on religion, increased after the Ba’ath party came to power in 1963 (cf. Everyday life in a Syrian village). In 1986 the Old City was listed as a UNESCO World heritage site. Aleppo was already being described as a “city of memories”. Even the 2011 book My Aleppo portrayed the city as a living culture—but under Bashir Assad, Aleppo, like Syria, was in crisis.
Since the outbreak of civil war
In the early days after the outbreak of the war in 2011, Aleppo seemed immune from the conflict. But by July 2012 it became a centre of the uprising, and the population was soon at the mercy of both the brutal government and rebel militias. The latter established themselves in the sprawling industrial zones in east Aleppo, home to poor migrants with little or no investment in the cosmopolitan culture of the hitherto prosperous west of the city.
Channel 4 reports through the period are impressive (archive here). Meanwhile Waad al-Kateab was making the moving documentary For Sama. Note also the reports of Charles Glass, such as this from 2017 (cf. wiki).
Government forces finally regained control of east Aleppo in December 2016. While the situation remains tense, with predatory militias still operating, the painful process of rebuilding could begin among transformed demographics (detailed report here, and for the collection of cultural memory, see e.g. here).
Aleppo after the war. Source.
Aleppo has long been renowned for its musical life.
Among the accounts of early European travellers that make up the second half of Mansel’s book, some bear on music. He cites Alexander Russell’s A natural history of Aleppo (1756), including this passage:
The coffee-houses are only frequented by the vulgar. The masters of these houses have often, for the entertainment of their customers, a concert of music, a story-teller, and in time of Ramadan particularly, an obscene, low kind of puppet-show, and sometimes tumblers and jugglers; and these, properly speaking, are all their public diversions. […]
The music of the country is of two sorts, one for the field, the other for the chamber. The first makes part of the retinue of the bashaws, and other great military officers, and is used also in their garrisons [cf. The Janissary band]. It consists of a sort of hautboy, shorter, but shriller than ours; trumpets, cymbals, large drums, the upper head of which is beat upon with a heavy drumstick, the lower with a small switch. A vizier-bashaw has nine of these large drums, while a bashaw of two tails has but eight, the distinction by which the music of one may be known from that of the other. Besides these, they have small drums, beat after the manner of our kettle-drums. This music at a distance has a tolerable good effect.
Their chamber-music consists of a dulcimer, guitar, dervises flute, blown in a very particular manner; Arab fiddle, a couple of small drums, and the diff, which serves mainly to beat time to the voice, the worst of all their music; for they bellow so hideously that it spoils what without it would be to some degree harmonious. This diff is a hoop (sometimes with pieces of brass fixed to it to make a jingling), over which a piece of parchment is distended. It is beat with the fingers, and is the true tympanum of the ancients… […]
Besides the above mentioned instruments, they have likewise a sort of bagpipe, which numbers of idle fellows play upon round the skirts of the town, making a pretence to ask a present of such as pass. […]
From A natural history of Aleppo, 2nd edition, 1794.
The print annexed represents a Turkish concert, drawn from the life; in which care has been taken also to show, through a window, the inner court-yard of a house, with the little garden, fountain, &c. and through another is seen part of a mosque, with the minaret, from whence the imams call the people to prayers. The dress of the performers also shows the different kinds wore by the ordinary people, according to their sect, &c. The first, who bears the diff, represents that of an ordinary Turk; the next a slovenly ordinary Christian; the middle figure is a Dervise; the fourth is a Christian of a middle rank, playing upon the Arab fiddle. What is peculiar in his dress is, that the sash of the turbant is strip’d with blue, and his slippers red. The last is an ordinary fellow, beating the small drum with his fingers, as they often do, instead of drumsticks. His head-dress is such as is worn by many Janizaries and commonly by the Arabgarlees, a race of Armenians, who attend upon the Europeans.
Moving on to modern times, I can’t really judge this, but whereas the Ottoman musical heritage of Istanbul has long become a niche market, the Sufi-tinged chamber music of Aleppo seems to play a greater role in the imagined soundscape of outsiders. Long before the civil war, the city had already become regarded as a kind of musical museum—a reified, nostalgic image at odds with the diverse changing genres that are universal in modern cities amidst the growing challenges of daily life.
So perhaps we should begin not with such art-house groups whose patrons were already dwindling, but with a singer from Aleppo whose concerts were hugely popular in Syria and the diaspora. Over his long career, Sabah Fakhri (1933–2021; YouTube topic)—yet another singer who learned his art by serving as a muezzin—popularised the forms muwashahah and qudud:
The liturgy of Aleppo, largely a cappella, was renowned. On CD an introduction to the style is
- Syrie: muezzins d’Alep, chants religieux de l’Islam (Ocora, 1980/1992, recorded in 1975),
with notes by Christian Poché.
After a solo adhan call to prayer sung by Sabri Moudallal (1918–2006; for a playlist devoted to him, largely featuring concert groups, click here), the CD continues with devotional songs led by the qāriʾ Reader of the Qur’an. Following a solo free-tempo qaṣīda is a choral muwashshah hymn, accompanied by frame-drums. The disc also includes instances of salawāt prayer and du’a’ invocation. Here it is:
And here’s a track from Nawa: ancient Sufi invocations and forgotten songs from Aleppo, recorded just before the war (reviews here and here):
Like the liturgy of mosques and lodges, the polished, commodified versions of chamber music traditions that have attracted attention in the niche world-music scene are imbued with Sufism, but they differ in both context and sound. Formerly heard at intimate gatherings in hawsh private houses and public cafés,  these groups showcased long wasla suites (including qaṣīda and muwasshah vocal sections) accompanied by takht instrumental ensemble. The Ensemble Al-Kindi became prominent exponents of this style on the concert stage. Here’s their first album, then comprising an instrumental trio (1988):
One of their early albums was with Sheikh Hamza Shakkûr, Qadiri Sufi singer from Damascus:
Even if to my taste their shows are flawed by the Curse of the Whirling Dervishes, the ensemble went on to work with distinguished singers from Aleppo. Here’s their 2-CD album with Sheikh Habboush:
Sheikh Habboush also features in this 2005 programme for BBC World Routes.
This playlist includes tracks from The Crusades and The Aleppian Music Room, featuring singers Sabri Mudallai and Omar Sarmini:
Here’s the album Orchestre Arabe classique d’Alep (Musiques du Monde, 2006):
I surmise that the social context of lodges and mosques was more enduring than that of the “secular” gatherings, so such recordings were largely an attempt at “salvage” (among many such instances around the world, cf. the suites of late-imperial Beijing); of course, they can never replace detailed studies of changing cultural life. This brief report describes the revival of qudud singing in Aleppo since the end of the war—and hints at its maintenance even under the bombings.
Joseph Eid’s viral image of Abu Omar listening to gramophone, 2017. Source.
The musical life of Syria will now be substantially in the hands of refugees and the diaspora. As music helps people come to terms with pain and loss, this 2015 documentary shows music-making in Zaatari camp, Jordan:
And we should spread the musical net beyond the “classical” genres imbued with Sufism—this article introduces the Aleppo metal scene.
See also Reviving culture: the Yazidis, and other posts under West/central Asia: a roundup; the expressive culture of the regions at the epicentre of the earthquake such as Diyarbakir feature under Some Kurdish bards.
Cf. Uyghur culture in crisis; Trauma: music, art, objects, and China: memory, music, society.
 The booklet to The Aleppian music room CDs mentions a “blind men’s café” still functioning until after World War Two, where blind instrumentalists accompanied parties of women (cf. Blind musicians in China and elsewhere).