Is it the paved streets of Gaziantep’s Old City, its Covered Pazar (Market), the citadel clinging to the hill, or the smell of cardamom? Whatever it is, the proximity to Aleppo–in geography, culture, and history–is palpable. Gaziantep has two surnames: its original name, Antep, meaning “Good Spring,” and “Little Aleppo,” both given to the city in Ottoman days. Located in Southeastern Turkey, it is indeed less than 80 miles from Aleppo. It is now home to two million inhabitants, among them hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Syria who fled the continuous attacks, bombings, and destruction of the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
Ibrahim Muslimani was forced to leave his native Aleppo and chose to settle in Gaziantep in 2012. The young musician, researcher, and founder of Nawa Band brought with him his most precious heritage and lifelong passion: music. This is music he has been documenting, protecting and sharing. It’s music from his masters, his history, his hometown.
Born into a musical family, Muslimani started his career at 11-years-old, accompanying his brother with percussion on the daf–thelarge framed drum largely used in popular and classical Middle-Eastern music. He also played a variety of other drums and sang. Soon, Music was Ibrahim’s life: “Music travels through the materiality of life and gives soul to the flesh… Music is my passion, my own soul,” he says.
Classical Arabic music relies on common elements to give it a certain unity. Throughout the region, the same musical instruments such as the Oud, the Qanun, the Darbukkah, and the Daf are used. Both religious and secular compositions and improvisations are based on the unique melodic and aesthetic system of the Maqam, a melodic mode. Mawwal, Muwashah, and Layali are all genres or specific vocal and poetic musical forms, while Sama’i or Taqsim are instrumental forms. Despite these similarities, and because of multiple travels, exchanges, and specificities, lots of musical contrasts emerged within geographical and historical contexts particular to cities or countries. In this way, musical suites in Andalusian Nubah or Aleppine Wasla can be similar in their structure, but very different in regards to the poetry, rhythm, composition, and improvisations.
Aleppo, Capital of Music
Before it suffered from the Syrian regime’s attacks, Aleppo was the region’s capital of music, a reputation and status earned through history and cultural exchanges along the Silk Road. Its particular geographical location probably gave Aleppo the potential to develop an extraordinary artistic richness with its own very peculiar aesthetics. Aleppo became a prominent centre for both sacred and secular Middle-Eastern Music, carrying one of the finest and highest musical traditions.
In Aleppo, music is everywhere, it is food for the body and soul, heard through Sufi chants, church choirs, popular songs, and dances. But the city is especially known for two vocal and poetic genres: the Muwashah and the Qudud, both religious and secular. “Muwashahat and Qudud are diverse. They are sung poetry about God, about Love, about Seduction, about lots of things. You can’t really make a distinction between religious or non-religious songs. We sing to all of them, we dance to all of them, with the same passion and love, because this is part of our lives, our culture, our art,” says Muslimani.
Taught by the best music masters of Aleppo, Ibrahim Muslimani quickly understood the value of this musical heritage. Unfortunately, because of a mostly oral history and a lack of preservation, only a few archives remain. “Probably more than 1200 Muwashahat were composed in Aleppo. Today only 200 are documented, transcribed, recorded and known,” Muslimani says. “I started Nawa to avoid having this musical heritage be forgotten and thus to disappear. This musical heritage I had the chance to discover and study is immensely rare. I want the people to have access, listen to and remember these extraordinary treasures.”
Today, as Aleppo’s heritage risks falling into oblivion, Ibrahim’s work of remembrance is even more important.
With Nawa, he documents, archives and performs Muwashahat, Qudud, and other musical pieces from Aleppo in order to revive them, connect them to the present, and share them with the public. This is not a quiet and easy voyage. Ibrahim had to reform the band with musicians now living in both Gaziantep and Istanbul. But from Syria to Turkey, the voyage slowly moves on and makes small steps. Nawa performed a few concerts in Turkey, participated in Amar Chebib’s documentary “Wajd: songs of separation,” and released an album “Nawa – Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs from Aleppo” in 2014 in collaboration with Lost Origin Productions, a label based in Washington, D.C. This album is a unique collection of songs, melodies, and chanted invocations that were previously unrecorded.
It is a long road, but there is something in Ibrahim’s smile, and as the music begins it seems that she whispers. That despite History’s twists, she’ll find her way, to reach our bodies, hearts, and souls, through ages, space, and time.