How a punk rocker from DC got interested in ancient songs from Syria

The World
View of Aleppo’s public park from a rooftop. Many buildings in the background have been damaged or destroyed.

View of Aleppo’s public park from a rooftop. Many buildings in the background have been damaged or destroyed. 

Courtesy of Jason Hamacher

You wouldn't peg Jason Hamacher as a guy who would end up in Syria. But, as he says, "punk rock is an ethic and attitude, not a look or a style."

Hamacher is a punk rock drummer from Washington, DC, and what really interests him these days is exploring new sounds. That's why he went to Aleppo, Syria, on multiple trips between 2006 and 2010.

This was before the civil war that erupted in 2011, during a time when people like Hamacher could travel easily to the Syria to locate obscure musicians.

"I was sitting in the lobby of my hotel, complaining to a friend of mine — who is one of Aleppo's emerging violin players — how I can't get into anything," he recalls of one trip. "I was like, "Do you have any idea where I could record real Sufi music?" And he started laughing, "Do you know who my grandfather was?" I said no. 

The reply: "My grandfather was the head sheikh of the most influential Sufi order in Aleppo. And this specific Sufi order produced some of the most famous Middle Eastern singers in history."

Hamacher soon found himself in the courtyard of a 500-year-old house in the old city of Aleppo, recording musicians never before heard or seen by Westerners.

These days, the old city is little more than a heap of rubble, destroyed by years of fighting between rebels and the government. It also doesn't look like the civil war in Syria will end any time soon. 

But while the country is in tatters and off-limits to outsiders, Hamacher wants to keep preserving the lost songs of Aleppo, remnants of a time and place when there was peace in Syria.

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