Get out, Bashar. Bashar, you´re a liar. To hell with you and your speeches. Freedom is at the door. Get out, Bashar.
These are the first lines of a catchy tune that has become the anthem of the Syrian uprising since Syrians took to the streets in March 2011: “Yalla irhal, ya Bashar”. Its edgy lyrics echo the demands of protesters after four decades of regime control.
Folk singer Ibrahim Kashoush led anti-regime demonstrations in Hama with a husky voice over the steady beat of music, until June 2011, a few days after one of the largest demonstrations ever held in Syria, when he was found floating dead in the Orontes river with his throat slit.
Kashoush's killing was a sinister message of what could happen to anyone speaking out against Syria's ruling family, but it did not silence the people who sang “Yalla irhal” in the streets nor the activists who engaged in creative campaigns to drive the authorities crazy.
An animation called “The Voice of Resistance” by Lebanese media network Kharabeesh from December 2011 illustrates how loudspeakers playing revolutionary music were hidden in streets and in official government buildings, amplifying the voice of Kashoush.
From the beginning of the uprising, it was clear from the persecution of Syrian musicians, poets, and artists, including the satirical cartoonist Ali Ferzat, whose hands were broken during arrest last year, that one of the main targets of the regime would be Syria's budding civic movement.
Creative mobilizations of all kinds, including sit-ins, civil disobedience campaigns, banners, cartoons, graffiti, and poetry, gained momentum in public spaces as well as online. There is an archive of stories about this on the portal Syria Untold, a website that I co-founded.
The wall of fear and silence that took decades to build was broken in a matter of weeks, even as the regime displayed unprecedented brutality against peaceful dissent. Music, with its mobilizing and uplifting power, was at the core of the civic movement, increasingly difficult to silence.
“You need freedom for true art”
In the words of Syrian pianist Malek Jandali, “Dictators, in general, are fearful of art and music, because it’s the search for truth and beauty.” In an interview with Syria Untold, Jandali describes, how Syrian art was controlled by the ruling family, starting with the national anthem.
Syria’s coast is home to the world’s oldest music notation, and the Ugaritic alphabet, which is thought to be the civilization’s first alphabet. But instead of paying homage to the country’s rich history, the national anthem begins with a reference to the military, the “guardians of the homeland. Why don’t we talk about Syrian inventions like the alphabet and music, instead of military forces and war?
Jandali, whose family home was ransacked and whose parents were beaten in retaliation for his music, says that the Syrian revolution has allowed for the birth of a generation of artists, breaking away from the long tradition of official propaganda embedded in art.
“That was not art. You need freedom to produce. You need freedom for true art, for knowledge and culture, for innovation and progress. Without freedom, there is nothing,” he says.
The search for beauty that Jandali identifies, permeates through all Syrian music genre and styles, from the irreverent folk songs chanted at demonstrations to the classical piano notes of his “Syria Anthem of the Free”.
It also extends to music genres that are known for challenging social norms, such as heavy metal and hip hop.
Satanism and blood-sucking are just some of the things members of the Syrian metal band Anarchadia have been accused of. They self-define as anarchists and were among the first to stand up in support for public resistance against the Assad regime.
Syrian metal music fan “Mounir” told Syria Untold:
Rock and metal music, with its gloomy outfits, loud music and spiked bracelets, have always been deeply connected to rebellion, to revolution and raging against the machine. So the fact that Syrians who listen to hard music are mostly anti-regime is not a coincidence.
Anarchadia fled the country, escaping detention, harassment and death threats. So did Syrian-Palestinian hip hop group Refugees of Rap, whose third album, The Age Of Silence, is a metaphor of the darkness Syria was plunged into decades.
The Age of Silence is over. How can so much injustice come from just one man? You should stand up and say it straight from your heart, wake up from your fear. There is nothing to fear, you can say what you want, the Age of Silence is over.
From war to rebirth of life
Even as they are surrounded by the horror of war and the escalation of violence, many Syrians have managed to channel grief and destruction into creativity and life.
Using parts of rockets, unexploded mortar shells and bullet casings, ceramist Abu Ali al-Bitar, from the devastated city of Duma, has produced a “creative montage” that includes lamps, canes, a toilet made of rockets, and a wide array of musical instruments.
“I created art from the epitome of pain and destruction,” Abu Ali says in an interview with Syria Untold. “The Syrian people are smart and courageous, and the world stands witness to our ancient culture and civilization. We are a people of peace, not a people of war, and we are not bloodthirsty.”
“Bullet shells can be used for all kinds of art,” he sings, while he shows how to use his hand-made instruments. “I used the rockets for the Oriental bass, like the drum and the tympana, which everyone knows are made of copper.”
Today, three years into the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, civic activists are no longer only fighting the Assad regime but also extremist groups like the Islamic front of Iraq and Syria who are gaining ground in the power vacuum of “liberated” areas. Open displays of art and creativity, such as music, have become a target for these groups, who have even raided wedding parties and public celebrations to stop music and singing.
Silencing musicians by force is part of an attempt to impose political and religious agendas that clash with the diversity and richness of the Syrian social fabric.The popular resistance against these new forms of oppression has been as strong as it was in the face of the regime. Protesters have chanted it, loud and clear, throughout the liberated areas: “ISIS, get out of our country. Assad and ISIS are one.”
The video at top is of a crowd singing “Yalla irhal, ya Bashar” led by the late Ibrahim Qashoush with English subtitles and added music (via The Revolting Syrian – July 2011).
Music Freedom Day on 3 March 2014 is an annual event to highlight and create awareness about the persecution, banning, imprisonment and killing of musicians which takes place because they have touched on sensitive or controversial issues in their song lyrics or on stage while performing. Hashtag: #musicfreedomday