BEIRUT: Lena Chamamyan’s ‘Shamat’ Brings Out Long Sequestered Folk S

By Hanan Nasser

Daily Star, Lebanon

Aug 4 2007


BEIRUT: "Oh mother, don’t. Oh aunt what do you want of me? I beg you
to let me be and leave the beautiful one alone … She has driven me
insane with her gazelle’s eyes."

With these imploring words Syrian musician Lena Chamamyan begins her
latest album "Shamat," or beauty spots, a compilation of modern yet
folkloric Middle Eastern songs.

Chamamyan, who is of Armenian descent, studied oriental song at the
Aleppo conservatory after earning a degree in business in 2002. She
integrates everything from jazz standards to Armenian folk songs into
her music.

"Shamat" stems from the joint effort of Chamamyan and fellow Syrian
musician Basel Rajoub, who plays saxophone and trumpet on the album.

Rajoub studied Middle Eastern and European classical music as well
as jazz, all of which influence his sound, which is accented by such
instruments as piano and brass.

On the first of the album’s nine songs, a lover complains of his
family’s constant interference in his personal life, a common practice
in traditional societies. The song, "Yomma Lala (Mother Don’t, Don’t),"
features a piano that puts listeners on guard for a melancholic piece,
which is further accentuated by Chamamyan’s delicate voice. Then,
midway through the track, an accordion comes in and creates a
distinctively Parisian ambiance.

In addition to love songs, "Shamat" explores patriotic songs, lyrics
with roots in liturgy and the traditional wedding music that is still
played in Syrian villages today.

"Shamat" is Chamamyan and Rajoub’s second album together. Their first,
"Hal Asmar Ellon (Oh Dark Skinned One, Tell Them)" was released in
2006. Last year, Chamamyan and Rajoub won the first-ever Moyen-Orient
Music Award, for a competition organized by Radio Monte Carlo and
the European Commission.

According to the liner notes for "Shamat," Chamamyan and Rajoub
consider their latest album another step in a journey "to shed more
light on some of the folkloric songs that … remain confined to
their native towns and neighborhoods."

True to their word, the album has one heartbreaking song, "Daouny
Ajoud (Let Me Cry Abundantly)," which was translated from a Syriac
hymn in which the Virgin Mary laments the death of her son.

An Eastern Aramaic language, Syriac was spoken throughout the Levant in
the days before Arabic became a dominant language. It was the language
of literature throughout the region from the second through the eighth
century. Though it has fallen out of mainstream circulation, Syriac
is still spoken in small, scattered communities in Syria, Lebanon,
Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Israel, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Chamamyan and Rajoub use their knowledge of oriental music and jazz
to crack open traditional songs and give them a personal touch. They
employ a wide range of Western and Middle Eastern instruments such as
the oud, Turkish dohol – a double-headed cylindrical drum – Turkish
clarinet, bozok, derbakke, saxophone, accordion, cello and violin,
among others.

The third track on "Shamat," entitled "Seher (Magic)," an oriental
jazz piece, illustrates the duo’s ability to marry seemingly disparate
musical influences. The end result is a humorous piece that draws
on the saxophone, rek, derbakke, percussion and Chamamyan’s voice
as instruments. The song sends listeners swinging off their seats,
only to bring them back and send them off again.

Another up-tempo piece is "Kabl El Isha (Before Nightfall)," a song
that is typically sung for weddings in villages in northeast Syria.

The lyrics paint a picture of villagers lining up in the heart of
the town to dance the dabkeh and praise the values of eternal love,
albeit enshrined in marriage vows. The words translate the villagers’
attachment to land and nature. The piece relies mainly on the derbakke
and the dohol and is livened up by the presence of saxophone, piano,
cello and percussion.

The Armenian population has a long history in Syria. Most arrived
after escaping mass killings by Ottoman Turks in 1915. Some 1.5
million Armenians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled south and
eventually settled in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere.

There are currently some 200,000 Armenians in Syria, many of whom
reside in Aleppo.

As an ode to her origins, Chamamyan concludes her album with a
traditional Armenian song, "Sareri Hovin Mernem (To Die for the
Cold Wind)." Unaccompanied by any instrument, Chamamyan sings of
the overwhelming pain caused by the separation of two lovers. She
dedicates the song to all the lovers in the world who are kept apart
by circumstances more powerful than their bond.