Jason Hamacher has spent almost a decade on a project to preserve the sacred music of Syria’s embattled religious minorities, for which he credits lousy cell reception and an overactive imagination.
He first got the idea while driving through Washington, D.C., talking on the phone with a fellow punk rock musician — back when using your phone while driving was legal.
His friend mentioned hearing “an amazing chant from Serbia” recently, but Hamacher misheard it as “Syria” before entering a tunnel and losing the signal. During those 20 seconds, he half-remembered a book about a Syrian desert monastery where the monks still sing hymns written by the earliest Christians, and his mind began racing.
By the time he called his friend back, he was ready to fly to Damascus with his microphones and camera. Serbia would have to wait.
At Washington’s Dumbarton Oaks museum last week, Hamacher played samples of his recordings and described his multiple trips to Syria, which took place between 2007 and 2010. His last visit ended just months before the country erupted in civil war.
He quickly began to focus on Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and home to many of its Jews, as well as its Syriac Orthodox and Armenian Christians. The city, which may be one of the oldest continuously settled places in the world, has also seen the most destruction of any Syrian city in the present conflict.
The music he documented has, in many cases, never been written down, much less recorded with professional equipment. Some of the hymns date back nearly 1,800 years, and are even older than the ancient churches where Hamacher recorded them.
Hamacher insists he “was never paid by the Syrian government in any way,” though he credits its now-closed Washington embassy with helping to “cut so much red tape.” High-placed officials in Bashar Assad’s regime, he says, helped him access Aleppo’s ancient and modern sites, together with its cultural and religious practices. But it came with a price: his lecture last week described repeated run-ins that his friends and contacts made with Assad’s secret police.
At the close of his talk, he played an excerpt of Aleppo’s ancient Christian hymns over a montage of his photographs, depicting a city that in many ways no longer exists. Against the spice markets and the mosques, synagogues and churches, his audience heard intricate, serpentine and fluttering melodies that shared musical roots with Jewish temple chant and Islamic cantillation, sung by men who seemed to sense the fragility of their spiritual and musical heritage.
Among the photographs was a 2006 gathering of Christian bishops and Muslim leaders, alongside text explaining that “half of these men have been executed, abducted or injured” since the start of the civil war.
Hamacher said assembling his project has taken so long because, in his words, “I’m still punk.” The tragedy of Syria’s bloody war, and the resulting profitability of his project, made him cautious not to “let a company take advantage of a country destroying itself.” Instead, he has poured his own money into the project, under the name Lost Origin Productions.
The company has already released one album of Sufi music, “Nawa,” and has another due in April, entitled “Forty Martyrs.” The new LP, which features hymns from the centuries-old Armenian Christian tradition, will coincide with the centennial of the genocide which eliminated over a million of the Middle East’s Armenians, and forced many of the others to flee to their national home in the Caucasus.
Like a century ago, today’s Syrian Christians face unprecedented pressure to abandon their homes, while Islamic State terrorists have purged entire areas in neighboring Iraq of non-Muslims. Amid the chaos, Hamacher says his goal is “to show Syria the way it is,” capturing a moment that may soon be gone.
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