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The Road to Damascus

George Luke

Real World Records


Syriana is a three-way collaboration led by Abdullah Chhadeh, a virtuoso player of the qanun (an ancient 81-stringed Arabic dulcimer). A few years ago, Chhadeh started collaborating with former Trans Global Underground guitarist/ producer Nick 'Dubulah' Page. Rounding up the trio is Irish double bass player Bernard O'Neill (famous, among other things, for being Rolf Harris' music director).

The album was written and recorded in London, at Real World Studios in Wiltshire and in Damascus; other bit players include Egyptian percussionist Sherif Ibrahim, Jordan-raised Palestinian singer and oud player Nizar Issa, and the Pan-Arab Strings of Damascus. The band recently made their stage debut at Womad, where they were very warmly received.

There are times as a reviewer when you feel that you're being ever-so-gently led to think a certain way about that shiny new CD that's just dropped through your letterbox. With this one, for instance, comes a press release that mentions film scores a lot. It talks about film noir and spy novels; it even throws in a few lines from reviews the album has had (in the Observer and the Financial Times, no less) which mention film scores and spies dressed in white linen suits. I put the CD on, determined not to think about films ... and found myself thinking of nothing else. There's a generous dose of Bollywood in there, rubbing shoulders with sounds that could have come from of any of the million-plus old B movies set in the desert. The band themselves seem to be leading you in this line of thought, with track titles such as 'The Templehof File', 'Checkpoint Charlie' and 'The Great Game'.

But it's not just spy movies that Syriana draw inspiration from; Chhadeh and Page are both Greek Orthodox, and occasionally take Greek melodies and give them an Arab makeover - most notably on 'The Templehof File'. 'The Cold War and its iconography had divided East and West,' says Page. 'We decided to create a project that would bridge them.' 'We were in a taxi on the ring road around Damascus,' adds O'Neill, 'when our driver leaned out and pointed to where St Paul  was allegedly hoisted over the city wall in a basket. Damascus has a history - along with a charm and vibrancy - that we in the West can only dream about.'

This intersection of cultures comes to the fore when Lubana Al Qintar lends her haunting voice to 'Gharibb' (meaning 'stranger'). The story of an Arab mistreated on arrival in the West contrasts with the band's own experience of welcome in the East, a reminder that we have not always been careful enough about deciding who we accept as a neighbour. The title track is more optimistic, with a heavy nudge towards its Biblical reference. Taken one way, St Paul's experience is of being transformed by an experience of the other, the unfamiliar made profound. It's a 'song of tolerance, hope and happiness', says Page. And maybe, just maybe, of an epiphany.

George Luke