Aleppian wasla music and whirling dervish dance from Syria
New York, New York
The Aleppo Ensemble is a New York-based group devoted to performing and preserving the rich heritage of wasla music, song, poetry, and dance from Aleppo. The group’s mission has been made all the more urgent in recent years with the physical and cultural destruction of Aleppo, long the cultural capital of Syria where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions came together. Through their work, they strive to reach Syrian refugees as well as Syrian Americans whose history in the U.S. goes back over a hundred years, two groups that share the fear that they are witnessing the destruction of their homeland. The Aleppo Ensemble’s music and story is a timely reminder that cultural traditions are often deeply held across time and place, often in spite of historic humanitarian crises.
The wasla is a musical suite that is the focal point for evening gatherings devoted to traditional Arab classical music. Dating back hundreds of years, the Aleppian wasla is heard at both Sufi religious events and secular performances. Based on various Syrian and Arabic maqams (modes), the wasla includes both improvised and composed instrumental and vocal pieces.
Aleppo Ensemble founder and oud virtuoso Mohamed Alsiadi grew up in a music-loving Sufi household in Syria. Living through the civil war that ravaged the country from 1979 to 1982 made him realize the need to preserve the legacy of Aleppian waslas. After that war concluded his mother found a box of wasla cassettes that he came to treasure. Alsiadi spent eight years studying with oud master Nadim Al Darwish, the son of Ali Al Darwish, an early 20th century musician and scholar who has been called one of Aleppo’s most famous musical sons. Alsiadi began collecting and transcribing waslas from Syrian musicians and radio stations while also launching an accomplished career as a performer and academic.
In 1996 Alsiadi moved to the United States, where he is now on the faculties at both Fordham and Rutgers. He co-founded the Aleppo Ensemble with percussionist A. P. Joseph, whose grandparents immigrated from Syria to the United States. The ensemble also includes vocalists Faraj Abyad and Sumar Frejat, as well as Yasser Abu Mustafa on violin, Zafer Tawil on qanun (a plucked zither shaped like a trapezoid), and Nazier Massri on daf (frame drum) and riq (tambourine). At special events like weddings the ensemble is joined by whirling dervishes. A mystical Sufi dance traced to the 12th century, dervishes recite the devotional Islamic prayer known as a dhikr, and dance and twirl into what has been described as an ecstatic state of trance. “The idea is that there’s nobody mediating between you and God, so you can twirl and transcend your way to God,” says Alsiadi. Two whirling dervishes, Adnan Tarakji and Yasser Darwish, will join the Aleppo Ensemble in Richmond.
As the city and culture of Aleppo are once again suffering from the devastating effects of civil war, Alsiadi has brought its music to venues as prestigious as Carnegie Hall, where he has performed with his collaborator, the pianist and composer Malek Jandali. But also part of his mission is posting videos of waslas on YouTube where Syrian refugees around the world can see them. “Wasla is one of the few things they cannot destroy,” says Alsiadi, “because you cannot shoot music. You cannot kill music. Words sway thoughts, music moves hearts, and together they can spur action and affect the course of history.”