Before War, A Punk Drummer Preserved Syrian Chants

Aug 7, 2014

Before the civil war in Syria destroyed ancient religious sites — and scattered some of the oldest Christian communities in the world — Jason Hamacher made several trips there, taking photos and recording ancient Sufi and Christian chants.

The project got its start when Hamacher read in a book about "the world's oldest Christian music." He tracked down From the Holy Mountain author William Dalrymple, who told him there were no recordings of the music — and that "it's not a monastery in the desert; it is a Syrian Orthodox church in the middle of the city of Aleppo." Hamacher ended up staying at that church as a guest of the archbishop, who has since been kidnapped by rebels.

As Hamacher tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, he is planning a series of albums called Sacred Voices of Syria. The first, which was released this summer on his own Lost Origin Productions, is called Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs From Aleppo. Hamacher isn't coming at this from the perspective of a musicologist, or as a member of a religious community. He's a drummer who's played in several punk bands in the Washington, D.C., area, including Frodus, Decahedron and Regents. You can hear their conversation at the audio link.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Before the Civil War in Syria destroyed ancient religious sites and scattered some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, my guest Jason Hamacher made several trips there, taking photos and recording ancient Christian and Sufi chants. The archbishop, who hosted one of his stays in Aleppo, has since been kidnapped by rebels. The chaos and destruction have made Hamacher's documentation more important. He's planning a series of albums called "Sacred Voices Of Syria."

The first, which was released this summer, is called "Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs from Aleppo."

Hamacher isn't coming at this from the perspective of a musicologist or a member of a religious community. He's a drummer who's played in several punk bands in the Washington, D.C. area, including the group Frodus. He founded Lost Origin Productions to distribute his recordings and photographs. A little later, we'll hear some of the ancient Christian chants he recorded.

Let's start with a track from the new album of "Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs."



GROSS: That's music from the new album "Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs from Aleppo" recorded by my guest Jason Hamacher.

Jason, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JASON HAMACHER: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: I have to tell you, if I had to choose something to release as the single from the album, I would choose this. I think this would be a hit...


GROSS: ...To put it in kind of pop categories. I mean, it's so catchy. What response is this music supposed to get? Like, this is a Sufi chant.

HAMACHER: Correct.

GROSS: Sufi is the mystical part of - it's considered like, the mystical realm of Islam.

HAMACHER: Like the mystical, really esoteric form of Islam. And it is a way to align yourself and the group to God. A way to kind of, really center and focus themselves towards God.

GROSS: So set the scene for us when you recorded this. Where were you and who were the men who you recorded?

HAMACHER: Sure. So I was in the city of Aleppo, which is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. You know, there's evidence that it at least goes back 8,000 years. And this is one of the last things I ever did in Syria before the war broke out, this is in 2010. And we all were - there was a very informal - actually, it really threw me off guard actually, how informal everyone was. Like, two guys who kind of joking around, one guy was kicking the other guy in the pants, one guy was smoking. And then, everyone left and they all came back in these white robes; they were kind of flowing robes. And everything - like, everything changed at that moment. The entire vibe, the whole atmosphere of the place changed and became a very holy environment.

GROSS: So who are the men who you recorded? Are they Sufi themselves or is this just like a musical project for them?

HAMACHER: No, it's a combo of both. A handful of them have grown up in the tradition and everyone - obviously, you're not like, a professional Sufi, you know? Some guys were leather workers. One guy was an architect. You know, all kinds of different things. The group founder was actually 17 years old and then his older brother who was 21 at the time of recording, he is the main voice. And he was actually - he sung at a lot of the different Sufi lodges around the city. And a couple of them are professional musicians that you know, held the Sufi beliefs and they kind of banded together and created this ensemble. And to be honest, you know, I had just met them and then had all these grandiose ideas of doing all this work with them and was never able to return.

GROSS: Because of the war.

HAMACHER: Because of the war. I mean, the war happened three and a half months after this. And so they've all fled. They're at different parts of the earth now.

GROSS: Jason, you're a punk rocker.

HAMACHER: (Laughter).

GROSS: I mean, you've played with several different punk bands in Washington...


GROSS: ...So what made you think of going to Syria to record ancient religious music?

HAMACHER: So I was in a band called Decahedron; that's the band that came after Frodus. And that band broke up, and the next day I was at a friends house and we wanted to form - we wanted to do something new with ourselves, creatively. Something that would challenge ourselves but also force us to do research and learn and do something new. And so we came up with a concept of forming a rock orchestra with several of our friends to score music to some ancient chant. And so we kind of sat around brainstorming and then gave each other homework assignments. Everyone has to find one piece of chant - doesn't matter what faith or what tradition. One item and email it to each other and then we'll come up with a song in two weeks time - to see what it sounded like. And it spun my mind completely in a million different directions and reminded me of a book that I had read, called "From the Holy Mountain" by William Dalrymple, where he described in this book, the world's oldest Christian music was what I remembered being in a monastery in the deserts of Syria.

GROSS: So you actually contacted William Dalrymple, right?

HAMACHER: (Laughter) Correct.

GROSS: And what did you want to get from him?

HAMACHER: So to my surprise, he actually responded within four hours.

He was like, this is a great idea; unfortunately I don't have a copy of the music that you're looking for. If you ever go to Syria, this is what you tell a taxi driver at the airport in Aleppo. Good luck.

And the piece of information that he told me that really changed everything was, he said, it's not a monastery in the desert. It is a Syrian Orthodox Church in the middle of the city of Aleppo.

So then I found an email address, and I did the same thing, like - these are the books I read, this is the author I spoke to. I would love to get this music.

And then two days later, the Archbishop of the United States for the Syrian Orthodox church emailed me from Teaneck, New Jersey. He was very supportive and said that he did not have the music I was looking for but had music that was similar, that was of a different practice, inside the Orthodox church.

And I asked, well, where do I get the music that I'm looking for?

And he's like, well, what we don't have a CD to give you.

I was like, meaning you just have one in the United States, or you don't have one, period?

He's like, well, we don't have one.

I was like, you've been doing this 1,800 years. There's no recording?

He's like, no.

I was like, do you want me to make one for you?

And that was the genesis of how I started doing all of this, which snowballed into so many other things.

GROSS: So in addition to recording the Sufi music that we've heard...


GROSS: ...That's featured on your new album of music that you recorded in Syria, you also recorded ancient Christian music in Syria.


GROSS: Including something that I want to play and this is from a forthcoming album called "Sacred Voices Of Syria." And this is a version of "The Lord's Prayer."

HAMACHER: Correct.

GROSS: Before we hear some of it, just tell us a little bit about this specific recording.

HAMACHER: So this is the Lord's prayer done in the Syriac language and it is the Archbishop of Aleppo - it's his nephew, who's actually Chaldean Orthodox Christian but worked at the church. And this is in 2007. And I really wanted to record his nephew and his friend based on what I was hearing during church services. So one night when the bishop was gone, they just got the keys to the cathedral and we went in and recorded at like one in the morning. It was one of the most sacred, really holy experiences I had in Syria. We went in and it was the cathedral of Saint Ephraim and it was just the two of them - the two voices - and it was so beautiful and so holy. And they both sang for about an hour.

This is what they started with, as kind of a - "The Lord's Prayer," the beginning of the chant recording.

GROSS: And is it right to call this ancient music?

HAMACHER: Oh, yes. This is ancient. Like, this tradition would be well over a thousand years old.

GROSS: OK. Let's hear a little bit of it. This is "The Lord's Prayer," as recorded by my guest Jason Hamacher in Syria. He's not performing; he's recording two Syrian men doing this. One of them is the nephew of the archbishop?

HAMACHER: Correct.



UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in foreign language).

GROSS: So that was recorded in the cathedral and you can hear the echo.

HAMACHER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: So you recorded this in 2007. One of the two people we heard is the nephew of the archbishop. The archbishop was very friendly to you. You had met him on an earlier trip. He let you stay...

HAMACHER: Yeah, I lived with him. Yeah. In 2006, on my first trip we stayed with him. And in 2007, I was there for a month and went to everything with him. I went to - I photographed Holy Week with the archbishop. I went to every meeting, every church service, everything.

GROSS: He was kidnapped during the war. What do you know about what happened?

HAMACHER: No one knows anything. There was all kinds of rumors.

He got kidnapped with another gentleman, it was another - archbishop of the - in Syria they call it the Rum Orthodox. I think it's the Greek Orthodox in Syria.

And so the story that I was told was the Greek Orthodox bishop had gone to do a humanitarian aid run towards the border of Turkey and was kind of frightful about returning by himself. So he called - the bishop I worked with, his name is Yohanna - so he called Bishop Yohanna and said, hey, is it possible, can you help me come back safely?

And he was like, yes, I'll come with my driver and I'll pick you up and we'll go back home.

And this is like, an hour and a half outside of Aleppo. And so he went, picked him up, they were coming back and from what I understand, their car was surrounded, their driver was taken out and executed. And then someone got in the car and drove off and that's it.

GROSS: So you must have a lot of photographs of ancient sites in Syria that have been fully or partially destroyed by the Civil War?

HAMACHER: Correct. The perfect example is, there was a neighborhood called Jdeideh. It's actually the Armenian quarter of the city. And they had the absolute best restaurants. There were these five, six, seven hundred-year-old mansions that had a covered - the restaurants were set up in these courtyards and the food was just unbelievable. The food from Aleppo has been regarded throughout history as some of the best Middle Eastern food on earth. The Ottoman sultans would actually have their chefs either train in Aleppo or bring someone from Aleppo to learn how to do this amazing cooking.

Almost that entire neighborhood is gone, leveled. There was a place called the Sissi House that was in Jdeideh that I used to eat at all the time. And it was bombed; gone. Like, someone sent me a photo and I couldn't even - they're like, do you think this is the Sissi House?

I couldn't even understand what I was looking at. There's so much of that.

GROSS: The cathedral that you recorded the ancient version of "The Lord's Prayer" that we heard, is that cathedral still standing? Was that cathedral affected by the bombing and the shelling in Syria?

HAMACHER: It still stands. It's riddled with bullet holes. Everything has suffered damage.

GROSS: My guest is Jason Hamacher. His new album of recordings he made in Syria is called "Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations And Forgotten Songs From Aleppo."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Jason Hamacher. Before the civil war in Syria he made several trips there, taking photos and recording ancient Christian and Sufi chants. His new album is called "NAWA: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs From Aleppo." It's the first in his planned series of albums, "Sacred Voices Of Syria." There's another song I want to play from your forthcoming album - forthcoming series of albums of ancient Christian chants from Syria. And this is called the "Al Haw Tar'o."

HAMACHER: Correct. You just spoke Syriac, by the way.

GROSS: So what is Syriac?

HAMACHER: Syriac is the language. It's a form of Aramaic. The ancient language of the Near East.

GROSS: So it's the language of Jesus's time.

HAMACHER: Correct. And so it's the spoken language of the early church. And so that was one of my draws to this community is that it's one of the few communities that still speak and act in Syriac - Aramaic.

GROSS: And where did you record this?

HAMACHER: This is recorded - it took years to figure out how to record this. You know, Aleppo is noisy. There's cars everywhere. And I did this on an Islamic holiday - the night of Eid in 2008 - when everyone was inside celebrating with their families. And the Cathedral of Saint George's was too loud, so we did this in the hallway of their private school. And the whole recording was actually pretty amazing. So we - you know, it's this huge moment. And the Archbishop and an elder take a deep breath, and then we started doing the recording and, you know, broken glass - it was very cold and - yeah, it was a pretty amazing experience.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is the "Al Haw Tar'o" from a forthcoming album of Syrian Orthodox Christian music.


GROSS: That will be on Smithsonian Folkways as recorded by my guest, Jason Hamacher.


ARCHBISHOP: (Chanting in Syriac).

GROSS: That's music from the Syrian Orthodox Church. It's very ancient music, as recorded in Syria by my guest, Jason Hamacher, who's been trying to document various parts of Syrian culture. But that project was halted by the civil war.


GROSS: Listening to that, it sounds almost cantorial. It reminds me of some like Jewish music - some Hebrew music.

HAMACHER: Of course.

GROSS: You say of course. Why do you say of course?

HAMACHER: Yeah. Well, of course meaning, you know, at the time when the Jews were meeting in a cave in Antioch - which was like an hour away from where I did the recording - they were Jews that believed, you know. Like they hadn't called themselves Christians yet. Like, that happened later. And so the theory is that this is the music between the bridge, between the synagogue and the church. And there's very striking similarities between the two.

GROSS: So are there many recordings of music from the Syrian Orthodox Church like the ancient music from the church?

HAMACHER: Yes. There's about eight different traditions, and many of them are documented, except this one. And that is because this one tradition is only practiced in this one building on earth, and that's the Saint George's Cathedral in Aleppo. Inside of this tradition, there are hundreds of chants - 900. It used to be thousands. And through war and everything else over the millennia, a good portion of these have been lost and forgotten. And so I wanted to record the individuals that know everything - not just portions, but the experts - the people that know all of it. And at the time of recording, there were five. It's now down to three. I mean, it's kind of a metaphor to everything that's been happening in Syria. It's like there's so much rich history and cultural relics that have been physically damaged by bombs, bullets, war, death. But then there are all these amazing chants that can live on.

GROSS: Jason, thank you so much for talking with us.

HAMACHER: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Jason Hamacher recorded and produced the new album "NAWA: Ancient Sufi Invocation And Forgotten Songs From Aleppo." He's the founder of Lost Origin Productions. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.