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Mustafa Said stretches out his hand expectantly. Looking into his sightless eyes, I realise what he wants me to do. I take hold of his wrist and guide his hand to the broken vinyl record on the table. He runs his finger along its bitten rim thoughtfully and says: “We can rescue this.”
Said, 36, is the director of the Foundation for Arab Music Archiving & Research (Amar) in Lebanon, where I meet him on a bright February day. Outside the window, green hills studded with pale apartment blocks roll down towards the dazzling Mediterranean. It is here, high in the mountains above the noise of Beirut, that some of the Arab world’s most valuable music is stored.
Egypt and the Levant have a rich and varied musical heritage that has been preserved in recorded form since the 1890s. Yet the sound that dominates airwaves and memories today — what to many is “classical Arab music” — represents only a narrow part of this spectrum: mid-20th-century singers such as Egypt’s Umm Kulthum, who, backed by stirring orchestras, soundtracked a golden age of cultural confidence, political independence and pan-Arab nationalism. While undeniably rousing, this music has tended to eclipse the region’s other traditions.
In particular danger of being forgotten is music from the nahda era, a late 19th- and early 20th-century cultural renaissance marked by a rapidly modernising society and extraordinary musical innovation. Performed by smaller ensembles, nahda music offered instrumentalists ample scope for solos and improvisation, while singers stretched their voices with exaggerated melisma.
Today, countless recordings have been lost and a rich seam of music risks disappearing into oblivion. Said and his team are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The threats come from several directions. One is war. Culture often becomes collateral damage, or is even deliberately targeted. Witness the looting and arson of Baghdad’s National Library and Archive during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or Isis’s destruction of Palmyra’s monuments in 2015.
Storehouses of Arab recordings were destroyed in Berlin (home of the internationally minded Odeon label) during the second world war and in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.
Neglect and a lack of government funding to protect cultural heritage are a more insidious danger. Most of the precious music that still survives is held in private collections; where state sound archives exist, some independent researchers are deterred from using them by their inaccessibility, while little progress has been made with digitisation.
Only those specifically researching music from the Gulf will find a substantial digital archive, courtesy of deep-pocketed Qatar.
Although governments may just have more pressing demands than preserving their oldest music, some musicologists suggest that in certain countries the neglect is deliberate. “Most [authoritarian] governments destroy their own culture,” says Said. “Dictators need to change people’s tastes to separate them from their past and identity.”
Since governments are not conspicuously fighting to preserve the oldest recordings of Arab music, the task is left to passionate individuals. That is where Said comes in. Though Amar operates with a tiny team and no state funding, it is the only music preservation project of its scale in the region, providing rare recordings to academics and reintroducing forgotten styles to contemporary musicians.
Sharif Sehnaoui, a guitarist and key figure in Beirut’s music scene, calls its work “essential”, saying: “There is nothing similar in the Arab world. If they keep going as they are, they will become the central point of the history of Arab music.”
New musical acquisitions are processed lovingly at Amar. Sound engineer Lama Qasem, 24, shows me how recordings move through the archive. Said searches antiques shops and flea markets across the region for records. They are dusted, catalogued and stored in units that take up an entire wall of the building.
When they are ready for digitisation, they are cleaned in a device that resembles a launch pad for a miniature UFO; sonic vibrations, anti-static brushes and a foamy solution get the dirt out of the grooves. Once a disc has been digitally recorded, Qasem uses software to remove as much distortion as she can.
She plays me a 1921 recording of Muhyiddin Bayun playing the long-necked lute known as the buzuq. Bayun was a prominent Beiruti singer and instrumentalist, whose concerts in the early 1920s sold out weeks in advance. Qasem plays me the same song at different stages of the restoration process. Each time, the notes sound cleaner and stronger. The past comes closer.
Amar has been running for 10 years with two people at its heart. One is Said. The other is Kamal Kassar, a 70-year-old Lebanese businessman and music fan who has conducted music-collecting expeditions around the Arab world since the 1970s.
In 2007, he bought the collection of an Egyptian who had died, leaving behind 3,000 records that his family didn’t want. Kassar shipped the lot to his house in Beirut and, on seeing how well the collection was curated, decided it needed to be shared.
Soon Kassar was laying the foundations for an ambitious archive in the terraced garden of his own home. It was purpose-built to protect the vulnerable records within, with climate controls to prevent mould and fireproof stone in the walls and floors. Its mountain location, above humid Beirut, means that even if one of Lebanon’s many power cuts disrupts the climate controls for a whole day, the records will remain safe and dry.
Kassar assembled a team including Said, who was only 25 when he joined in 2009. Blind since birth and a prodigious oud player, Said has always loved music. When he was growing up in Egypt, his grandmother would take him to learn from Sufi musicians near the grand Ahmad al-Badawi Mosque in Tanta on the Nile Delta. He recalls staying up late as a child to listen to a radio broadcast called Records from a Past Age.
While Kassar bankrolls the project, Said collects the records and oversees the archiving. Under his stewardship, Amar’s collection has grown from 3,000 records to more than 8,000, alongside other formats like cassette and reel-to-reel tapes.
One format is even older: Qasem shows me a wax cylinder, the first commercial medium for recording sound. The Levantine Arabic word for music recorded on vinyl or CD, ostwana, is actually Arabic for “cylinder”, and is derived from these largely forgotten artefacts.
Loading the cylinder into a polished wooden phonograph, Qasem turns a crank on the side. The brass horn crackles to life and I am surprised to hear singing in English. It is a musical version of Dr Faustus from 1887; jaunty but distorted, it might be mistaken for experimental noise music.
We’re hearing English, Said says, because the Arabic cylinders are too fragile to play for visitors. Each can only be played a few times before its song is eroded away forever.
Amar also makes new recordings of what Kassar calls “waning traditions”, such as Egyptian Coptic singing and Yazidi New Year celebrations. But its archive is not easily accessible to the public because Amar is not intended to be a museum.
The centre’s approach to preservation is tailored to the peculiarities of nahda music, which was defined by improvisation. Songs were not written down and would change with each rendition — so in order to preserve this music, it needs to be played again.
Said has his own musical group, Asil, which tours internationally and plays new compositions inspired by ancient sources, offering a blueprint for the work Amar hopes to inspire; Qasem recently joined as a percussionist. “We want to have more music composed in this tradition,” says Said, “to bring it back to life.”
While Amar is now established in the region’s musical scene, another ambitious archive is preparing to launch. The Syrian Cassette Archives deals with a different period of music but is no less a product of one man’s drive — in this case Mark Gergis, a 49-year-old musician and curator.
I meet Gergis outside his flat in Homerton, east London. He leads me inside to show me more than 400 tapes that he collected over 12 years of visits to Syria. By 2020, he hopes to have this music freely available online. Unlike Amar, it is for everyone: for those who only know Syria from its destruction, but also for Syrians who have fled their country but not their culture.
The sky is grey outside; I can hear children at a nearby school shouting and reggae drifting from a parked car. It feels very far from Damascus. Gergis lights a cigarette and explains how his path led to Syria. Growing up in America with an Iraqi father and a Californian mother, his first experiences of Arab music were limited to “family weddings and smoky cars”.
In his twenties, he became interested in Syria as “the last bastion of a sovereign Arab state that hadn’t kowtowed to the west”. There was also a desire to connect with his roots — he couldn’t go to his father’s homeland for fear of military conscription, and Syria was right next door.
He first visited in 1997 and fell in love with Damascus straight away. He began frequenting its music stalls, where vendors blasted the hottest new tapes out of car speakers. It was there that he started collecting the cassettes he is now laying out before me, with handwritten labels and retro covers featuring poorly cropped artist portraits and surrealist feats of pre-Photoshop collage.
Working with the record label Sublime Frequencies, Gergis introduced the Syrian music he encountered to a western audience and travelled widely in Syria to look for tapes, buying from record labels, street vendors, even taxi drivers. His visits stopped when war broke out in 2011.
“I didn’t know 2009 would be the last time I was there,” he says, quietly. From overseas, he watched Syria fall apart on the news. “It was heartbreaking to see, and to follow the stories of my Syrian friends fleeing the country.”
He plays me songs from his collection and offers an animated commentary on folky ballads, children’s music, Koranic recitations and frenetic dabke, a popular musical style performed at weddings.
Like Amar’s Kamal Kassar, Gergis wants this music to be more widely known. He will soon launch a crowdfunding campaign; as well as the online archive, he plans to release a compilation album of highlights and to host live performances from featured artists.
As we listen, I’m struck by the range of styles on display. I ask why he has put so much time into this project, why it matters. He draws heavily on his cigarette before replying: “It matters because the tapes may tell a story in the future that needs to be told, to Syrians or to the wider world. It becomes part of a cultural collective memory that might fade away otherwise.”
A well-known Arabic saying goes: “Fairuz in the morning, Umm Kulthum in the evening” — listening instructions that many music lovers and radio stations follow. The expression shows just how large a handful of singers loom in Arab music; others include Syria’s Sabah Fakhri and Iraq’s Nathem al-Ghazali. Their prominence is due not only to their talent and business sense, but also to their political connections.
Umm Kulthum was a vocal supporter of Gamal Abdel Nasser, second president of post-independence Egypt; in turn, his admiration for her broadened her artistic platform. “These massive stars,” says Iraqi musician Khyam Allami, “one word from them could change the tide of feeling towards a leader within an hour. If Nasser went against Umm Kulthum, it would have been a disaster for Nasser.”
Amar’s Said and Kassar both argue that the popularity of such artists, all linked to the political elite, eclipsed many other brilliant musicians, including those whose work Amar is trying to preserve. Said suggests that this has since been compounded by the selective memory that is a characteristic of authoritarian governments.
Allami expands on this idea as he tells me about his efforts to establish a digital sound archive for Iraq in 2011. He oversaw the training of Iraqi archivists British Library Sound Archive, but the project stalled due to lack of funding from Iraq and the EU.
Though he acknowledges the country’s troubles, he points out that it also has huge oil wealth. “In times of war, upheaval and political crisis, the last thing really controlling governments care about is culture,” he says. “You see that all over the world.
“If [a government] cared about its population, it would care about preserving and disseminating their culture,” he adds. “But by doing that you empower people. Autocratic governments want control . . . That’s probably half the reason why culture is not respected, because it would allow people to connect with their history. It would give them a sense of dignity.”
Beyond empowerment, the power of cultural archives in the Arab world is to underline that diversity has always been a key part of the region’s story. This work becomes subversive when it troubles the simplified narratives autocratic leaders require to rule. “The strength of the Arab world is in its diversity, that’s why it [has been] held ransom since the Ottomans,” says Allami.
“I don’t see why there has to be one national music. Why can’t there be national musics?”
This article has been amended to reflect the fact that the training Khyam Allami oversaw was at the British Library Sound Archive; the project stalled due to lack of funding from Iraq and the EU
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