Suryaniler/Syriacs /Turkey
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Suryaniler/Syriacs: Religious music, Folk Music
Kalan 252/253 (2 CD set)

cd cover This album opens a door into a hidden corridor of history that until now has only been available to insiders. For many centuries, Syriacs were identified with Christianity, but the history of this Mesopotamian population settled in South-East Anatolia can be traced as far as five thousand years ago. When they embraced the new faith in the first Century A.D., their tradition in all fields of intellectual education - grammar and poetry, philosophy and natural sciences - naturally made them preservers the original teachings of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the early Saints and Hermits of the desert. So the textual foundations of Christianity were laid in their language. But in the East, among the original Christian populations, the statements on the nature of Christ by Arius and Nestor gained widespread acceptance. They were condemned as heresies by the Councils of Nicea (Iznik) and Byzantium in the fourth Century: the hegemony of the Church of Byzantium brought the substitution of Syriac with Greek. The same issue would later lead to the schism between the Greek Church and Rome, where Latin was adopted in liturgy and for the holy texts by the Roman Catholic church. The First Crusade, when the Latins conquered and robbed Byzantium and desecrated St. Sophia, irreparablly damaged the unity of Christianity, and all these divisions were reflected in the Syriac church; there were Nestorian Syriacs (in Urfa) and Monophysit Syriacs (in Antioch/Antakia). Syriac apostles brought Christianity to Iraq and further east, to India and China, and today there are independent churches in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, India, all over Europe as well as in the USA and Brazil. With the expansion of Islam, Syriacs found themselves located in a mostly Muslim area and their beliefs were influenced by Muslim philosophy, to some extent becoming a link between the two major monotheist religions.

In this maze of relationships the Syriac population remarkably maintained its cultural identity, held together by religiously inspired art and the language of sacred texts as well as secular music. The sacred music is based on modes similar to the Byzantine and Gregorian modes; what we hear here might well be the closest to the original Greek lithurgy of Byzantium that we'll ever get. Many of these modes were used as a basis for the more complex makams developed during Ottoman times, representing the ancient layer of Greek music that sets the Turkish apart from the music of other countries with a Muslim majority.

The two CDs, one dedicated to religious and one to folk music, come in an handsome package that includes a four-language booklet with many illustrations and maps. However the English translation is quite convoluted and at times positively puzzling. There's no indication about time or date of the recordings, their sources, or the instrument played, this being a major limitation for scholars. Some of the tracks have clicks and pops that suggest analog records, some have sudden edits and background noises that might come from field recordings.

The church music is performed by voices only or with atmospheric organ accompaniment, all the voices singing the same melody in constant harmony: only once is an oud heard. The voices are raw - this is a worshipping community, not a professional choir. Gregorian plainchant and the Psalms from the rites of the Lebanese Catholic Church are two genres of music that enjoyed some popularity lately, but this is the real deal, a strong music whose power of evocation comes from a deep connection to its ancient, sacred sources.

The folk music was more heavily influenced by Arabic and Kurdish styles, and the second CD is more variable in intensity. Some of the tracks retain a very special quality, as in the polyphonic introduction and accompaniment with stringed instruments to the melody sung in the Merdinli makam.

This is the first collection worldwide dedicated to Syriac music and both the ethnomusicologist and the interested listener will find in it endless reasons for enjoyment and interest. - Francesco Martinelli.

CD available by special order from cdRoots (

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