Lost Syrian Musical Treasures Rescued from a War Zone

by delarue

War destroys everything including the arts. One recent casualty of the civil war in Syria is nine-member choral group Nawa, a haunting ensemble dedicated to reviving hypnotic, otherworldly thousand-year-old Muslim and Sufi chants and songs. What the group sang could be characterized as Middle Eastern gospel music: it has the same rustic, ominous quality as early African-American spirituals. Sadly, the group disbanded shortly after recording their only album. According to the liner notes for the cd Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs from Aleppo, the members – Mouhammed Ammo, Fawaz Baker, Khaled Al Hafez, Mouhammed Hlouhi, Ibrahim Jaber, Ibrahim and Mouhammed Muslimani, Bashar Al Sayed and Tarek Al Sayed Yehya – have been dispersed across the Middle East and Europe.

The album – streaming at Spotify – has an unusual backstory. Musicologist Jason Hamacher wanted to record centuries-old Jewish devotional songs for a planned anthology, Sacred Voices of Syria, to be captured live in the few remaining Jewish historical sites in Aleppo. Returning to the country four years ago, Hamacher was hounded by government authorities, who barred him from continuing with any further research or recording for the project. Undeterred, he discovered Nawa through a friend and seized the opportunity to record them on the fly. It would be the group’s only release.

One of the its many striking features is how diverse it is, with influences from Iranian, Egyptian and Lebanese folk, classical and religious music. It’s best enjoyed as a suite rather than a series of songs, considering that it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins. One singer will often sing a verse or two, in classical Arabic, and then hand off to another ensemble member. The mens’ voices are steady and stern much of the time, but cut loose on the more lively tunes with dancing, microtonal inflections. Often the choir will build a dusky ambience behind a single, repeating, bitingly chromatic riff. Other times they anchor the music with a practically feral, shamanic, low bass pulse: it’s amazing to hear a human voice go down that low.

The slow, funereal diptych that ends this brief, barely half-hour album has an instantly identifiable Egyptian trance music groove, boomy drums paired off against agile, lithely intertwining oud. It’s music to get lost in. Stream this and consider the casualties.