Lovers of Arab music know Aleppo by the name Em el-Tarab – the “mother of tarab.” Tarab roughly translates as “ecstasy” and refers to a state of spiritual up-lifting and enchantment that is induced by this type of music. Although today the term is often loosely applied to any type of traditional Arab music, Tarab actually refers to a particular musical culture that was popular from the 19th until the first half of the 20th century.
At that time, Aleppo was the centre of Tarab culture and home to many famous singers, musicians and composers. One of the most unique elements of the city’s musical life was a group of people known as the sammīʿah. Literally “those who listen well,” the sammīʿah were a cultivated musical audience, a cadre of educated and professional listeners, and they were famous across the entire Arab world for their connoisseurship and expertise. Together with the musicians, they formed the Ahl el-Tarab, the Tarab community.
Aleppians are very proud of their legacy of good listeners. One will often hear that many of the major Arab musicians rose to fame only after having gained the approval of the city’s sammi’ah. One example is a story that circulates around the famous Egyptian singer Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. At the beginning of his career, in the 1930s, he came to perform in Aleppo. During his first concert, he was astonished when the udience consisted of only a handful of listeners, but decided to perform anyway. During the second night and after the sammīʿah had spread the news about his great musicianship, the concert hall overflowed with the more than two thousand people who wanted to hear him.
Aleppo’s professional listeners not only functioned as what today would be the role of a jury or musical critic; during a musical performance, singers and musicians would rely on them to help create the right atmosphere of Tarab: The sammīʿah had to be “with” the performer, they had to feel and be attuned to her emotions and have trained their ears to register every single musical and melodic movement. At especially uplifting moments, they would react ecstatically, praising the singer through shouting exclamations such as Āh! Allāh! Yā ʿaynī! Yā rūḥī! (“God!” and “Oh, my eye!”, “Oh, my soul!”), encouraging him to enchant the audience even further.
One great example of the distinct vocal texture produced by the sammīʿah is the following recording of the Aleppo-born singer Adeeb ad-Dayekh (1938-2001). He performs a mawwal, one of the poetic vocal genres typical to Aleppo and is accompanied by a Nay flute. At times, the reactions of the community of listeners gathered around him resemble the echoing sound of the nay, imitating the singer’s voice in the exact same pitch (e.g 25:00). At others, the singer himself becomes part of the sammi’ah, animating the nay player through exclaiming Allāh and rūḥī, rūḥī yā Muḥammed (“Go, go Muhammed”) (e.g. 28:01; 32:00).
A wonderful and rather amusing passage occurs around minute 52:00, when Adeeb ad-Dayekh sings in praise of Leyla, a dark woman. Leyla was the love of the Umayyad poet Qais al-Mulawwah. When she was forced to marry someone else and then died from illness, Mulawwah is said to have wandered off into the desert, where he remained until the end of his life, reciting love poems. Because he was so obsessed with Leyla, people called him Majnūn, Arabic for crazy or mad. Their tragic love story became well known throughout the Arab and Persian world as Leyla and Majnun. In the passage here, Adeeb ad-Dayekh sings a poem about Mulawwah as a young boy having fallen in love with Leyla and about seeking to cure her when she was ill. He then sings in praise of her darkness, comparing it to black musk. At this last verse, the crowd bursts into cheers, with one particularly assertive sammīʿe shouting “the ears of those who have a dark one have perked up [upon hearing this]! … He who has a brunette shall stand up!” The rest of the audience affirms him, shouting “Of course!” After over one minute of cheers and light hearted comments, Adeeb ad-Dayekh praises his audience with the following words: “By God, the good deed is yours. If it weren’t for your beautiful souls, I wouldn’t be able to perform.” From the distance, one hears a member of the audience responding “the favour is yours, Adeeb!” to whom the former sammīʿe retorts, “Seems like you have a brunette! That’s why you raise your voice.” Finally, the singer ends this bawdy chatter by resuming his mawwal to be followed by another round of cheers, praise and joyful exclamations.
As important as a good audience is at secular performances, it is most valued within the realm of religion. As it is said in the Qur’an, for those who listen in faith, focused hearing is required to memorise the message of the Qur’an and gain the mercy of God: Wa idha quri’a-l-Qur’anu fastamiʿū lahu w-anṣitū laʿallakum turḥamūn. (“And when the Qur’an is recited, listen to it attentively and hearken, so that you may receive mercy.”) (The Qur’an, al-A‘rāf 7.204).
Although some Muslim scholars prescribe silence when listening to the Qur’an, within the Aleppian tradition, the listener is allowed to respond, as long as this shows his engagement with the recitation and is not a distraction from it. Listen, for example, to the following recording
of the famous Egyptian Qur’an reciter ‘Abdul-Basit ‘Abdus-Samad taken at the Grand Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo in 1958. One can hear that his voice resonates in a cacophony of ecstatic sighs and voices of encouragement and approval throughout the entire recital. Several times (e.g. at minute 14.30, 16:10) one sammīʿe exclaims in the unmistakably heavy accent of Aleppo: “Allāh! Allāh yʿaṭīk min faḍlo wa iḥsāno (“Allah! May God give you his grace and kindness”!) Compared to the silence of a classical concert hall, there is indeed something magical and enchanting in this intimate and shared appreciation of melodic beauty, where the audience’s voice becomes part of the musical performance itself.
The Egyptian musician and musicologist Kamil al-Khulaʿī (1881-1931) described the good listener as a person of high spirits and good will, as someone who is genuinely and sincerely affected by music and teaches the rest of the audience how to listen closely. There is no doubt that we can learn something from Aleppo’s legacy of professional listeners. They remind us of the importance of a good audience. They also teach us that listening is a creative act and that interaction should be cultivated. Today, we can preserve Aleppo’s musical heritage and train ourselves not to foreground the ever-present stream of media images depicting the city’s physical destruction but instead to focus on what remains unheard.
This article was written in collaboration with AlHakam Shaar and draws in part on the two following books: Jonathan Shannon (2009) “Among the Jasmine Trees” and Ali Jihad Racy (2004) “Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab”. Both are excellent sources for the study of Syrian Music and Tarab music respectively.
Clara Wenz first visited Aleppo in 2008. After graduating from the Munich School of Philosophy in 2010, she worked and lived for several years in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Clara is a PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, where she conducts research on the musical heritage of Aleppo.