Playlist: Out of Syria
Samer Saem Eldahr, the electronic music artist known as Hello Psychaleppo, wrote the music for the play While I Was Waiting (Lincoln Center Festival 2017). In this playlist, he offers an eclectic introduction to the current Syrian music scene. Although limited by what is currently available on Spotify, the list reveals an entire generation of artists in their 20s and 30s that has been disrupted and scattered across the world, trying to stay connected with each other and their culture through music.
“Esset Abl El Noom” by Bu Kolthoum
Bu Kolthoum is probably Syria’s top hip-hop artist. He left Syria in 2013 for Jordan and has since received asylum in Holland. Much like American hip-hop pioneers who had an enormous impact on the English language, he has created a whole new set of words and expressions in Arabic that have become common slang. He’s not copying American hip-hop—he’s creating a wholly original Arabic style. That extends to the beats and rhythms too. He is a one-man operation, who does it all himself, and that gives it a full, intensive expression. This track is from his first album, which he released in 2012. The title means “Bedtime Story.” He made a video for it and his career really took off after that. He’s collaborating with artists in the States and has done some big shows in Europe. He toured with the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians last year, which opened Glastonbury.
“Beta’ammer” by Khebez Dawle
Khebez Dawle is a rock band that was begun by lead singer, Anas Maghrebi, during the Syrian uprising in 2012. They'd played underground in the country for a while, but eventually the band members all had to leave to escape the war. They ended up in Turkey and sold their instruments to pay for spots on a boat going across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece. It’s been hard for the band to stay together so there are always people coming and going. What I love about their music is that they incorporate oriental microtonal scales into something very modern and beautiful. Anas is very comfortable with these scales and his phrasing is beautiful. Their lyrics and the concept of their music—evident in the name of their band which means “Bread for the People” or less poetically “government bread”—are all about fighting oppression. This song is about “rising up from the ashes.”
“Badawiya Lovin’” by Hello Psychaleppo
I started Hello Psychaleppo in Syria in 2009 and then moved to Beirut in 2012. This is when I decided to take music more seriously (I had graduated from the College of Fine and Applied Arts of Aleppo and originally planned on just painting after!) I stayed in Lebanon for three years and released my second album, Ha!, in 2015. That’s where this track is from. It’s a live set album inspired by old Arabic songs and forms. They’re often really long and I wanted to see how I could apply that to electronic music. You’ll notice that this track is nearly 10 minutes long! I also sample a very old Egyptian song that is talking about the beauty of a Bedouin woman. It’s very in your face. For the video, I did the opening animation. I try to keep up my visual art practice by doing all my own visuals for my shows and for my next album I plan on released limited edition vinyl copies that are all handmade and hand printed.
“Hek A’kabra” by Jundi Majhul
Jundi Majhul and Bu Kolthoum were childhood friends and used to rap together when they were kids in Damascus. They had to separate because of the war, and Jundi eventually ended up in France. His new album is very fresh. This track and the whole album are very political. It’s inspired by tunes from the old Syrian television channel—there were only two when we were growing up. He samples stuff from kids’ shows and other things that really inspire our collective memory. He speaks to the issue of Syria from the inside versus Syria from the outside—how Syrians inside the country see Syrians living outside of Syria. It’s political but even more social. These are tiny things that you don’t see on the news but that Syrians feel deeply and really relate to. The ones on the inside want to know “Why did you go and abandon us here?” even though they understand why. After the Arab Spring and everything that has happened, we are forced to dig into our identity. All of these artists come from that place. Digging into our memories, our families, everything that we have. It’s a very sensitive issue. How can you express yourself and bring people together? I personally don’t make my music political because I am still trying to make sense of everything, but these issues need to be talked about and the Syrian hip-hop movement is very important for that.
“November 22” by Kinan Azmeh
Kinan Azmeh is an amazing Syrian clarinet player who lives in New York. He’s played everywhere and with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble in some of the world’s biggest venues. He’s a genius. Back in Aleppo, I met him before I was doing any kind of music. I introduced myself after the concert and then a few years later, when I started making music, he contacted me to say “Hey! This is great music!” It was a huge honor. What I appreciate about him is how honestly he presents himself. This is very expressive music and, technically, I am impressed by how he mixes the classical way of playing the clarinet with his Syrian musical background and memories. It’s mesmerizing. He’s a classical musician but he’s extremely open to all kinds of music. I chose this song mostly because the melody is beautiful and the title—just the date November 22—makes it feel very intimate, evoking a specific mood. I also love how surprising the sound of the piece is in the middle of the playlist. Modern music in Syria is so diverse and I really wanted to put it together in a way that paints a portrait.
“Ard'dyar” by Boshoco
The name Boshoco is an old ice cream sandwich in Syria and the memory of that is very vibrant for all of us, bringing us back to our childhood. It’s a playful name and people connect with it. Boshoco is an electronic music duo from Aleppo, now based in Turkey. One of the guys is Philippe Zarif and the other one is Nihad Alabsi. Philippe moved to Lebanon in 2012 and then he moved to Turkey, where they started working on this project. This is more house/minimal techno/EDM music. They sample old Arabic songs and instruments, and collaborate with contemporary Arabic singers. Philippe has Canadian nationality but Nihad doesn’t, so they’re trying to figure out where they can go to still work together. This is a struggle for all Syrian artists. We’re often stuck in a place, but we keep playing music!
“Ya Bnayya” by Omar Souleyman
Really, who is better than Björk at discovering new talent? Omar is a worldwide star now. He is such a great character and very unique in what he does. He’s a Shabi artist. This is wedding music for us; it’s happy stuff for dancing. There are a lot of different styles of Shabi, and Omar is more about quicker beats and subtler vocals. Omar’s music has been evolving since he started traveling the world, as he adds new layers. He’s not political at all, but you just can’t help but love him.
“Henna W Zahr” by Lena Chamamyan
All ages relate to Lena. My parents love her. My grandparents if they were alive would love her. She sings traditional music, but with a jazz feel to it, which is so cool. Her voice is really soft and so bright. Even though she’s of Armenian heritage and lives in Europe now, she’s the new face of traditional modern vocal music for Syrians. She always picks the right people to work with. Nareg Abajian, the great jazz pianist and artist, worked on her first album and they redid old traditional songs with a completely modern, jazz feel. She also has great originals.
Listen to the full playlist on Spotify.
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About the Curator
Samer Saem Eldahr (Hello Psychaleppo) hails from Aleppo, Syria—alluded to in his current project, Hello Psychaleppo—and makes his home in Minnesota. His music uses melodies of the Arab Bedouin “Mawwals” and the ecstatic strains of tarab, threaded through industrial structures made from dubstep, drum and bass, electro, and trip-hop. Hello Psychaleppo has released two albums, 2013’s Gool L’ah and 2014’s Ha!