The Road To Damascus

Syriana, 2010

The Road to Damascus begins in London, when Nick "Dubulah" Page and Syrian Qanun player, Abdullah Chhadeh, finally get around to starting a collaborative project discussed some years earlier... Nick, the half-Greek, half-English guitarist/bassist of Trans Global Underground and Temple of Sound, travelling producer for the likes of Mexican anarcho-punks Los de Abajo and the visionary behind the wildly acclaimed Dub Colossus. Abdullah, virtuoso musician, arabic composer and lyricist. Nick and Abdullah were soon augmented by the Irish double bass player, composer and MD Bernard O`Neill, who had worked with Abdullah prior to Syriana.

Not so long ago the pre-Obama world had felt particularly oppressive. Western troops had invaded Iraq. Syria had been publicly branded a 'rogue state' by then President George Bush. A new sort of Cold War - the stand off that took place between the USA and the Soviet Union and their allies from the mid 1940s until the early 1990s - felt imminent.

"The Cold War and its iconography had divided East and West," says Page. "We decided to create a project that would bridge them."

Syriana would go on to draw further similarly minded musicians from London's multicultural melting pot: multi-talented Egyptian percussionist, Sherif Ibrahim. The mighty Syrian accordionist, Mazin Abu Sayf. The Jordan-raised Palestinian singer and oud player, Nizar Al-Issa.

In order to get the flavour of the album just right, Page, Chhadeh, O'Neill and Sound Engineer Toby Mills upped and went to Damascus to record strings for the album. They worked with seven Syria-based string players, all esteemed as soloists, bandleaders and musical directors in their own right, at Music Box Studio. They also recorded the stunning vocal of lauded Syrian soprano Lubana Al Quntur - currently Head of Vocal Studies at the prestigious Damascus Conservatoire - at the Chhadeh family home in Bab Touma, old Damascus.

"You need to spend some time with musicians in their own lands to get a true flavour of their musical traditions, culture and styles," says Page. "Recording with Dub Colossus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was proof of that. The Syriana album idea was a logical next step."

Their ten-day stretch in Damascus, the capital of Syria - a country that along with Iran, Iraq and Lebanon was known in Arabic as Bilad al Sham - left an indelible mark. The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (and the Arab Capital of Culture in 2008), Damascus's weight of history overwhelmed the visitors, and rendered the Cold War decades insignificant by comparison.

"We were in a taxi on the ring road around Damascus," recalls Bernard O'Neill, "when our driver leaned out and pointed to where St Paul was allegedly hoisted over the city wall in a basket. Damascus has a history - along with a charm and vibrancy - that we in the West can only dream about."

Nonetheless, the fact that many Syrians are unable to leave their country informed the project's music and lyrics. Sung by Lubana Al Quntur, the power ballad Al Araby (The Arab) tells of diaspora, exile and the yearning for home.

A Fairuz-style musing on alienation and longing, the dreamy Gharrib (Stranger) is a gift for Al Quntur, a London Royal College of music graduate and a singer at ease with both Arabic and operatic vocal styles.

"The central character in Gharrib is an Arab in the West," says O'Neill of Chhadeh's lyrics. "As visitors to the Middle East we were made to feel like welcome guests. Unfortunately this isn't always the case in reverse."

The Pan Arab Strings lend a celestial wallop to the album's title track, a road trip fuelled by an East/West super brew of qanun and violins, guitar and double basses. Call-and-response chants from Chhadeh, Page, O'Neill and Nizar Al-Issa keep the pedal to the metal, in an opener that conjures images of desert suns, jewel-like houses and spectacular Crusader castles.

"It's a song of tolerance, hope and happiness," says Page with a smile. "And maybe, just maybe, of an epiphany."

All 1950s guitars, sonorous double bass, dramatic percussion and otherworldly qanun, Syriana is a Paris Texas-like meditation straight from the Syrian desert. "Syriana was the name given to oil producing countries of the region, long before it was colonised by Western nations," notes O'Neill.

"The Middle East had its borders redrawn by the West in 1921," says Page of The Great Game, which pitches surf guitars against strings and qanun in a portrait of Western militarism. "It was the start of many things... including the Cold War."

A Black Zil is a rollicking ode to a Cold War icon: the car favoured by the KGB in Soviet Russia. "Ironically the Syrians bought the jeep-like Zil to use as their main army wagon," says O'Neill. "It's part of the Cold War legacy; you still see the odd old Zil careering along the motorway into town."

Checkpoint Charlie is a noir-ish rendering of East/West tensions that hauls The Spy Who Came In From the Cold into the modern day. The Templehof File takes a Greek-influenced melody (both Chhadeh and Page are Greek Orthodox) to the Arab world: a Damascene street scene meets Athens in Spring.

With the qanun coming in from the East, the guitar from the West and the double bass straddling both continents, Galatian Bridge At Dawn celebrates where Eastern Europe meets Asia across the Bosphorus in Muslim Istanbul. "Which was formerly Christian Constantinople, which was formerly Byzantium and so on," says Page. "A big, rich, powerful city at the crossroads of empires for a thousand years."

Elsewhere, pieces for solo qanun and qanun and percussion showcase talent, speak volumes. Chhadeh displays his astounding virtuosity on Al Mazzeh, while three tracks - a bass solo (Al Qaboun); a duet between qanan and daf drum (Jannat al Dounia); and a duet between oud and slide guitar (Love In a Time of Chaos) - should be considered together.

For O'Neill, "They're pallet cleansers that show details of a much greater frieze, a much bigger picture. Which is what the Syriana project is all about."

A project destined to develop and travel: The Road To Damascus will be reinterpreted live by members of the original cast where possible, along with new artists chosen to compliment the Syriana aesthetic and a striking visual backdrop of especially commissioned film and animation.

Syriana, then, is where imagination and reality overlap. It's where questions are asked, evidence is considered and stereotypes are demolished. East/West. West/East. Borders are down on The Road to Damascus. Prepare to be converted.

Reviews

  • World Music Central critic's choice - One of the top world music albums of 2011 The Road To Damascus - Syriana (Real World) Conceived in London, part-recorded in Syria and produced with due deference to the culture, this road trip represents a veritable Damascene conversion for Count Dubulah (aka Nick Page). World Music Central
  • Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival: from strength to strength ...bringing people together to work through differences and celebrate each other's culture." Which basically sums up the music of Syriana, who, later that night, take to the stage with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This isn't just a group, it's a concept. They even have a mission statement of sorts: "a place where themes of tolerance, liberty and hope come wrapped in Arabic rhythms and played through a western filter". Which is a pretty apt description of their current album Road to Damascus, a sumptuous blend of electric guitar and oud, strings and Arabic percussion. Read the full article here The National
  • They were at their most evocative in Al Araby... ...soaring over the top of music that had a limpid loveliness about it. Film-maker Niccolo Piazza created a backdrop of images which ranged from the psychedelic to the eerily beautiful, with vivid shots of sculpted sand dunes, rolling desert skies, rolling tanks of the North Africa campaign. Liverpool Echo (Live review from Philharmonc Hall as part of Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival) (UK)
  • An event to charm the senses while stiring the mind. The sound rises in the East, to weave its patterns with the west. Cultures, both ancient and contemporary, mix and mingle, adding strength to traditions while also renewing them. Music forms a bridge here where mere words have often been barrier. Exotic timbres intrigue the ear, with conventional European tones providing a point of reference. Niccolo Piazza's projected graphics...striking and apt, confirming impressions...extra dimension by technology, Syriana retains its essential humanity in the committed performances by the five artists. ...i left an audience happily engrossed...as photographs gave force to the songs. EDP (Live review from Norwich Arts Centre) (UK)
  • ...the record sounds like an anthem for the revolution that had yet to happen. Their soundworld mingles cold-war spy film soundtracks with Middle Eastern flourishes, the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie offering obvious parallels for the Syrian musicians who had to be recorded at home because they were denied exit visas. "Black Zil", for example, combined a riot of jazzy stings with rapped goblet drum... When Al Issa, against a projected lysergic Arabesque kaleidoscope, sang "Al Araby" to a dignified, stately backing of recorded strings, its longing for freedom was newly moving. Along with "Al Araby", the centrepiece was "Gharrib". Al Issa's warm voice lifted the song about an exile contemplating events at home into something both specifically contemporary and utterly universal. The Financial Times (Live review from Haymarket, Basingstoke) (UK)
  • ... an exciting experiment worthy of the Real World label. The CD comes with a codex of Arabian fables and the hand of British techno-meisters which won't suit traditionalists, but it is pitched at the Womad audience. There's plenty of hyperbole. Dominion Post (NZ)
  • Gently mesmerising. Limelight (UK)
  • stunning... Conceived in London and recorded in Damascus, this fascinating CD collection is a true fusion on many levels, traversing space and time, reinventing and subverting stereotypes, consciously marrying ancient Middle Eastern sounds with Parisian cafe music...The vocals are both stunning and spooky, the swirling music at once mysterious and totally accessible. Rock 'n' Reel (UK)
  • ...taking the listener on a trip from the west to the Middle East... Blissful sweeping passages evoking sandy desert plains, the urban, the hustle and bustle of souqs. The Quietus (UK)
  • ...atmospheric and menacing... Desert fusion:a soundtrack in search of a movie...the results are atmospheric and menacing on "Galatian Bridge At Dawn" sweet and seductive on "Al Araby", one of two diva-led songs, with the playing always intricate and involving. Uncut (UK)
  • Songlines - You should have been there... Syriana who after the success of their WOMAD performance this summer, celebrated their debut album launch with an exclusive concert...the albums highly evocative and atmospheric pieces were transcribed very effectively to the stage with the addition of three talented musicians, all hailing from Arab countries. Shades of film noir and spy stories, fighter planes, black and white photos of the Middle East in the 50's, desert landscapes and Cold War memories were all used to great effect in the thought-provoking and striking visual backdrop of the specially commissioned film and animation by the Italian-born filmmaker Nico Piazza. The Two songs, 'Gharibb' and 'Al Araby' were revisited by oud player Nizar Al-Issa with his velvety yet intoxicating tenor voice. The melodic lines of the oud complemented perfectly the Ennio Morriconesque touches of (Nick) Page's surf guitar most notably in 'Galatian Bridge'. Three new numbers were played which clearly demonstrated that Syriana are here to stay and deliver their special brew of East meets West music. Songlines (review from live performance at Islington Town Hall) (UK)
  • Intriguing and inspiring. The beauty of the opening track alone is enough to make this a worthy investment. Quickly dispelling any fears of overt politicisation,forms a stunning reminder of the depth of musical talent nurtured by the rich culture of the Middle East, transcending the conflicts of today. The album takes us on a vivid journey from London to Damascus and beyond, with guitar and double bass complemented by qanun, oud, daf drum and Arabic vocals. Part recorded in Syria, authenticity and respect for traditions receive a light and imaginative touch, gracefully bringing the Middle East back into our musical hemisphere. Intriguing and inspiring. Epoch Times (UK)
  • This is a fusion project in the true sense of the word... ...with Middle Eastern, Greek and other musical flavours brewing in an eclectic pot of beefed up percussion and jazzy bass, and overall an epic film soundtrack quality. The whole works surprising well and this may prove to be one of the surprise musical packages of the year that crosses over to a wider audience...The riff-laden 'Black zil' has a definite 1960s feel and is an outstanding track on the album as is the lovely piece named after the group which showcases the beautiful stringed instrument that is the qanun and a tune that lingers long on the mind. Real World are to be commended for sticking their neck out with this particular project, but judging by the sounds contained herein this looks. UK VIbe Online (UK)
  • ...results are intoxicating. ...Syriana is as much an album as a mood teetering on the tightrope between East and West. Featuring Arabic strings, surf guitar and qanun, a dulcimer beloved of Cold War film soundtracks, these 13 songs concentrate on building atmosphere...like shisha smoke, the results are intoxicating. The Times Playlist (UK)
  • ...truly remarkable sound Syriana The Road To Damascus. This album really is multicultural...contributors from England, Egypt, Syria and Jordan producing a truly remarkable sound. G3 (UK)
  • Live review from Womad Charlton Park 2010 One of the highlights of this summer's Womad was the rousing debut performance by the current lineup of the UK-Middle Eastern band Syriana. The songs range from moody atmospheric pieces such as The Road to Damascus to the more gutsy Black Zil - which would both make great film music - and the adventurous The Great Game, in which a vocal chorus and drifting qanun solos are matched against thunderous guitar lines. As when playing live, Syriana are at their best when most experimental. The Guardian (UK)
  • ...impressive and distinguished It's difficult to find fault with Page's preparation, research and approach for the resulting album, The Road To Damascus. The string section is a hugely important feature - adding presence, colour and texture to Gharibb (Stranger) and the title track. ..accurately executed and polished until extra shiny. The playing is imperious throughout...parts of the title track seem to resemble U2 jamming in the Syrian desert....it sounds impressive and distinguished. There is no doubting the tremendous skill and talent that has gone into creation, not just in terms of musicianship but also the level of ambition and organisation required to get a project like this working. MusicOMH (UK)
  • Subtle electric touches... ...this artfully conceived project from former Transglobal Underground bass man Nick Page sounds like the soundtrack to some Middle East-set Cold War spy drama that was never made. ...the lush melodies and widescreen sweep are hard to resist. Daily Telegraph (UK)
  • ...deserves to be heard as widely as possible ...(The) Road to Damascus is an album that sketches a musical picture so bold that it deserves to be heard as widely as possible. ...it combines the qanun's skittering, metallic microtones with unobtrusive, rhythmical bass and the lurching leaps of Middle eastern string sections....what really pulls you in are the sultry vocals of Lubana al Quntar on 'Gharibb', (and) the ripples of sound that trill through the second track 'Syriana'. New Internationalist
  • Songlines Top Of The World Album Count Dubulah's Damascene Conversion Road to Damascus floats along to some beautiful vocals from Lubana Al Quntar, stirring violins from the Pan Arab Strings of Damascus and rippling scales courtesy of Syrian qanun (zither) player Abdullah Chhadeh. Highlights include the eerie, panoramic 'Road To Damascus' which at live gigs is set to some wonderfully captured images of Damascus' ancient souk from Italian Nico Piazza, and 'Al Araby' featuring Al Quntar's swooning vocals. But it is the uptempo 'A Black Zil' that is perhaps the stand-out track, set to rollicking darbuka (goblet drum) and qanun before Talvin Singh-like beats break in halfway through. A beautiful, surprising album, it is fittingly dedicated to a man who did more to promote East-West musical understanding than most, the sorely missed Charlie Gillett. Songlines (UK)
  • World Music album of the year - might just be that! ...there isn't a bad moment in the whole hour that this album kept me entranced. Syriana have made a real stir with their first EP 'Al Bidayeh' but the album knocks that into the proverbial 'Cocked hat'. ...full of Eastern influences, especially in the percussion and the qanun, an ancient Arabic version of the dulcimer but there are moments where the music crosses over and picks up Western influences or crosses over into Russian swing and the music takes on majesty and a sense of real power. On tracks like 'Galatian Bridge at Dawn' there is a wonderful sense of the city beginning to wake and the major chords that peal out over the strings and bass work suggest a real Harry Lime feeling of both charm and danger. 'Black Zil' skitters and trips away with a lightness of touch that no Zil (a Russian Staff car) ever managed and you are transported to James Bond territory chasing houri's through the streets of the Soukh. On the other hand 'Al Mazzeh' is classic Arabic head music. The Man in The White Suit is alive and well in 'The Great Game' and 'Al Qaboun' with its deep double bass is Omar Sharif appearing out of the desert vastnesses. Clichés, yes, but the mind is drawn to the clichés because the music is so brilliantly evocative that you have find images to hang on it. All through the album you will pick up the ensemble playing - all of the instruments, be they Eastern, Western or Eastern European - have moments in the spotlight but they never seem to hog the light; there as needed and then away again. The music lends itself to this style of playing and the musicians are able enough to bring what is needed and just what is needed. This is an album that improves after every listening and somehow manages to remain fresh and also deeply aged. World Music album of the year - might just be at that. musicnews.com (UK)