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The Birth of Syrian Alternative Music

by Archives March 24, 2009

It might seem an impossible challenge – establishing a new brand of music in conservative Syria. Yet this is what Michael Al Asmar, a 27-year-old Damascus-based Syrian, has accomplished with his alternative music record label, Majal, which means someone who wants to be a musician.
Before Majal’s creation, hundreds of alternative Syrian musicians had approached agents like Al Asmar, yet always got the same response, “mafi majal”, which means, “there is no way to do this.” A reasonable response, given the fact that the Syrian alternative music scene has, until recently, been non-existent.
The first time foreign music was introduced to extremely conservative Syria was in the 70s, when disco and rock began to influence traditional Arabic music. Cover bands began coming out in the 80s, and a decade later Syria saw the birth of alternative music bands. This new wave spread and climaxed to a point where a small number of Syrians wanted to create records in the new millennium. Although the want was there for a select few, this new musical genre wasn’t widely accepted because of the widespread dominance of Arabic pop. Accepting a new style was hard, especially in a country so deeply steeped in tradition.
Frustrated with this situation, Al Asmar decided to take the first step in changing it. Al Asmar is a graphic designer by profession, as well as an art director for several Syrian magazines, and a lyricist and bass player in two alternative bands. Al Asmar used his experience in the industry to establish the first label to produce music that is not Arabic mainstream pop.
The artists on Majal play everything from world music to ethnic music, with pure hard rock with Arabic lyrics in between. The label also produces Jordanian and Lebanese projects in other languages, such as French and English. The production cost of these CDs is quite high – there are few studios in Syria that are willing to work with these kinds of artists. Light engineers and sound engineers are also hard to find.
Al Asmar says it’s hard to find stores that are willing to sell his label’s CDs. To make matters worse, there are no copyrights laws in Syria, so shops can copy albums and sell them legally. CDs are sold at $3 a piece, but burnt records cost only $1. Given the situation, Majal is currently trying to find cheaper ways to create albums, like reducing the printing quality. Majal also gives a free compilation CD with all their other artists as an extra bonus when buying one of the company’s albums, a desperate move which makes them actually lose money; however Al Asmar says copyright laws are in the process of being enshrined, so the company is willing to sacrifice some money.
The only way for Al Asmar to make money is to organize large, sponsored concerts. However it’s hard to sell tickets because many Syrians don’t make much money, and aren’t willing to spend their salaries on a kind of music they know little about. Still, Al Asmar organized the Souria chabab (Syrian Youth) festival, which was the country’s first event to showcase alternative music. It took Al Asmar 10 years to organize the festival, which was finally held in 2007 and toured four major Syrian cities. A total of 50,000 people showed up to watch six Syrian alternative bands, dubbing it a success for Majal.
Still, Al Asmar continues to struggle with money, and hopes to get a new break in two years when he believes the new copyright laws will be enforced. The label owner also says he will begin marketing his music to people who live outside the country, “[the music] is unique, genuine and represents the Syrian wave. Syrian bands are unique in their style.”

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