The Roma have always been travellers. Originally from the north of India – Rajasthan – they slowly migrated west in search of a better life. Passing through the Middle East and Turkey they gradually made their way into the European countries we most identify as being their homes: Romania, Hungary, France, Spain and Ireland. Along the way, they not only influenced the music and culture of the places they travelled through, they also absorbed what they saw and heard. Tony Gatlif's wonderful film Latcho Drom, or 'Safe Journey', tells the story of this musical migration.
Yet the Romani and Middle Eastern musicians don't merely share a geographical history, they also use many of the same instruments when creating their music. Aside from the obvious ones that cross many borders – guitar and violin for example – they play similar versions of the hammered dulcimer and the darbouka, a hand percussion instrument. In the case of the former, many Romani bands use the cimbalom, while the Arab world equivalent is the qanun (aka kanun, ganoun or kanoon).
The four core musicians of Taraf Syriana – Omar Abour Afach, violin; Noemy Braun, cello; Naeem Shawar, qanun; and Sergiu Popa, accordion – each bring their talents and personal history to this project. Afach, a refugee from Syria, now living in Montreal, Canada, was formerly a viola/violinist player with the Syrian National Orchestra and Shawar had been a professor of music teaching qanun in Syria before moving to Montreal.
The Taraf ('taraf' is Romani for band or group) part of the band has similar credentials. Moldavian-born Popa is considered a virtuoso on Romani accordion and like his Syrian bandmates now lives and teaches in Montreal. Braun was classically trained – both in Europe and Canada – and is also a musical innovator. She designed, and plays, a six-stringed cello called a sestarcorda, giving the bass instrument a wider range, thus helping to create the band's unique sound.
The Romani presence in the Middle East dates back centuries and Syria is no exception. Before the civil war, there were estimated to still be around 250,000 of the Dom (name for the Romani community) living in Syria. One of the pieces included on this album, "Abdul Karim's Tango", was composed by Mohammad Abdul Karim, one of Syria's most renowned composers and performers.
Deepens appreciation for Romani music
Listening to "Abdul Karim's Tango", you could be forgiven for thinking it was written in Bucharest or any other Balkan city we commonly associate with the Romani. It sounds and feels identical to songs we've been hearing from those parts of the world for years. Yet it was written by a Syrian composer. Was this music being played in cafes in Damascus at the same time as Karim's contemporaries in Romania were playing similar music in similar venues?
Not only does this change our understanding of what type of music is played and appreciated in Syria, it also deepens our appreciation for Romani music. This is music that has travelled far and wide, becoming deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of the countries the Romani either live in or have passed through. Each of the ten songs on the album stands for this wonderful and rather poignant cross-pollination. The music also embodies the undercurrent of statelessness felt by both Roma and refugees. Why can you find such music everywhere? Because the Roma were forced to wander.
Despite this, the music on the recording is a joy to listen to. The band doesn't limit their repertoire to songs from Syria and so they take us on a musical journey through the Middle East and Europe. "Kevoke" (The Dove), the second song on the album, is a Kurdish folk song, while the album's opening track "Me Dukhhap Tuke" is sung in Romanian by Romani singer Dan Armeanca. Armeanca also joins the band for another one of his songs, "Sare Roma", this time sung in Romani. Both songs are lilting pieces that will get your toes tapping. Appropriately enough, "Sare Roma" encourages listeners to get up, dance and enjoy themselves.
The song "Qudukka al Mayes" takes us deeper into the Arabic side of the band. Written by Iraqi composer Mulla Uthman Al Mawsili, the lyrics describe the experience of being entranced by beauty. Sung by guest vocalist Ayham Abou Ammar, the piece draws us in with heartfelt vocals and beautiful instrumental accompaniment.
As with several other of the album's tracks, the band's sound is fleshed out with additional musicians: Mohamed Raky provides percussion with his darbouka and Nazih Borish adds to the string section with his oud. These additional layers of music bring additional depth and feeling. Even if we can't understand the lyrics, we appreciate the emotions being expressed.
Even when unaccompanied by other musicians, Taraf Syriana remains an emotional force. "Dialogue Intimes", which closes the album, is a beautiful, introspective piece. Moving slowly, the music winds and twists gradually along its own path. It is as if each instrument is telling us part of a story and we are being carried along on a journey, swept along by the emotions people experience as they search for belonging and a new home.
Taraf Syriana, from the band of the same name, is a remarkable recording. Each song deserves our attention. Expressive, emotional, and played with absolute brilliance by a collection of incredibly talented musicians. Not only are the songs wonderful, but they have somehow also managed to weave together two cultures, beautifully and seamlessly.
In a world that sadly seems to be becoming more divisive, this work of art and beauty that celebrates people coming together is one that must be heard. This is an album of great music that will bring joy to anybody who listens to it.
© Qantara.de 2023