for String Quartet Duration ca. 12 minutes
SYRIAN FOLK SONGS – Book 1
I. Oh, the tawny beauty
II. As she leaves her father’s home
طالعة من بيت أبوها
III. Blessed are your wedding garments
IV. Under my parents’ watchful eyes
The Syrian Folk Songs project is a long-term effort to re-imagine rural and urban folk music from historical ‘Greater Syria’ for the medium of the string quartet. The primary aim is to highlight the beauty and variety of the folk music found in the region at different periods in time. To do so is to recognize that national borders are problematic because they are artificial constructs, manipulated by politicians and put into place by force. Despite this, culture permeates them. By seeking out the beauty of folk music from this region, made by people of varied religions, and cultures, one can begin to find the very human nuance and complexity in what is often misrepresented as monolithic.
The difference between Syria today and ‘Greater Syria’ of one hundred years ago, is striking. Until about 1920 ‘Greater Syria’ included what is now Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, the Gaza Strip, and southern Turkey (Alexandretta). Even in my lifetime, the borders of modern Syria have changed and seem to do so frequently because of the civil war. The motivation for this project is in no way nationalistic. Rather it is humanistic.
I titled this collection ‘Syrian Folk Songs’ only because I became acquainted with them through Syrian artists, like the great Sabah Fakhri (1933 – 2021), or the lesser known Jamila Nassour (1932 – 2001), whose stage name was Karawaan, and who was a family friend in Damascus. As I learned more about these songs, it became clear that they were not a product of the modern Syrian nation. Rather, they came from areas of what is now Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, etc. These melodies were repurposed by later generations of artists, like the Lebanese Samira Tawfiq, or preserved, albeit in a modern way, by folkloric groups the Palestinian El-Funoun troupe. Their interpretations have fueled my imagination and I am indebted to all these artists.
Why the string quartet? Because I have met many musicians from the region who play classical western music and I would like them to have a sense of belonging in some part of the repertoire. Likewise, these pieces are also for anyone not from the region who would like to explore this music and its culture, or the sentiments expressed in it. Of course, this music is also for audiences as well. Though the work of fostering human connections and understanding through the arts is slow, and requires patience, it is what I can do to help make the world a little better.
The first song in this collection gives voice to one who is suffering from unrequited love; Oh, the tawny beauty, I am tired oh dear heart / Your love has thrown me / You with the wide eyes / Have put pain in my heart.
The second song is from Aleppo and is from the perspective of a young man who sees the a young woman going from her father’s home to the neighbor’s. On her way there he stops her and asks her; Oh beautiful one, quench my thirst and let me see your cheeks/’Go away you pathetic guy’ she replied, ‘my cheeks are like the apples of Damascus.’
The third song is a traditional Palestinian village song. “The groom marches almost naked between two lines of his closest relatives, each handing him a piece of the distinctive wedding attire to wear for the special night. Blessed are your garments, Muhammad (typical groom’s name); / Your mouth is chatting with us, but your eyes are all over the bride’ / Blessed is the “’iqal” (traditional black wool double rings that hold the head dress), put it on Muhammad, blessed is the ‘iqal / Your mouth is chatting with us, but your eyers are on the doe (his birde). The final song has its origins in modern day Iraq and is from a genre called mulia. The lyrics tell the story of a love sick son who crossed the bridge so often to see his beloved, that the bridge collapsed. His parents, aware of his lovesickness, are keeping a close eye on him. According to the late musicologist, Hassan Abbas, the word mulia is connected to the Mesopotamian goddess of war and fertility, Ishtar. The word has connotations of abundance, fullness, satisfaction etc.
 Liner from ‘Zaghareed (Music From The Palestinian Holy Land)’ on the Sounds True label, 1999.
 Abbass, Hassan (2018) ‘Traditional Music in Syria’ Beirut: UNESCO.
The ultimate goal of the Syrian Folk Songs project is complete about sixteen movements that will eventually be published in volume. My goal is to compose variety of difficulty levels for the movements, and label them as such, so that both students and professional levels can perform them. Once the full set is published, I will encourage each performer to choose any group of the movements and to change the order of each movement as they see fit. For the time being, I will publish them in a series of four movements per ‘book’.