As you might have heard on NPR’s Fresh Air the other day, Jason Hamacher is a punk drummer (and massage therapist) who has recently become a preservationist of ancient, previously unrecorded Syrian liturgical music, which he is now releasing for our ears in a series entitled Sacred Voices of Syria. This summer, he released Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs From Aleppo. We at Afropop were intrigued by this unlikely scenario, so we got the wild story straight from Hamacher. To find out more about Hamacher’s projects and see Hamacher’s gorgeous photographs, check out his website.
Sam Backer: Let’s just talk a little bit about the project and how you got started with it.
Jason Hamacher: Well, the genesis of the project was: a couple of friends of mine and I wanted to form an orchestra of rock musicians, meaning a section of guitars, a section of bass, and then approach songwriting symphonically, as opposed to four-part or three-part rock songs. So the concept was to find some old chant and score music to it, and, through a series of events, I kind of stumbled into this hole in history where there were the world’s oldest Christian chants, and I had a really good performance recording of it.
So, how did you find the chants?
I was driving through DC, and my friend called to say, “Dude, I found these rad chants from Serbia.” I was like, “I’ve never been to Syria. That’s incredible!” He was like, “No… Serbia.” And then the phone disconnected, and my mind spun out of control. At that point I had been to Egypt. I had been all over the Near East except Syria and Lebanon. And there was a book by a guy named William Dalrymple where he describes these chants. And I was like, “Man, I gotta go find these chants.” Then I went through a tunnel by the Smithsonian Zoo in DC, and I called my friend back. I was like, “Remember that book where the guy finds the chants in the desert? That’s what we gotta hear!” He’s like, “I said Serbia.” I was like, “Forget Serbia! Actually, you do your Serbia research. I’ll go do the Syria research, and we’ll link up later this week.” So I got the book out. It’s called From the Holy Mountain by a guy named William Dalrymple, and I searched for the two pages out of 400 where it talks about these monks or whatever. I couldn’t find it, and I got really antsy and emailed William Dalrymple and completely lied in my subject. It was like, “Potential speaking engagement in Washington DC.” And I did it harmlessly enough, because, I figured, if the email address I found goes to him or his agent or his publisher, that would make someone at least read the email– or at least open it. So I was like, “These are the bands I used to be in. I read the book. I’m trying to find this music. Could you point me to a CD or recording?” I was never expecting to hear from the guy. Like, right now, he has a book on New York Times bestseller list. He’s a famed English author and journalist.
A book about what?
I think it’s something to do with India. I don’t know what it’s about. I don’t know what his newest book is about. But the old book was a travel book where he retraces the steps of a Byzantine monk. It’s a travel log from 400 or 500 or something. And this guy, William, retraces the steps and kind of discovers all these religious oddities and history along the way.
And so William, to my utter shock, emailed me four hours later saying, “Hey, this is a great idea. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a recording. It’s not a bunch of monks in the desert. It’s this one church in the world’s oldest inhabited city. The city’s called Aleppo. It’s in Syria. If you go, this is what you tell a taxi driver when you get to the airport.” I was like, “Woah, awesome!” Just super excited. And he said it was a Syrian orthodox monastery. Three years before, I was on tour with some friends–their band was called the International Noise Conspiracy, from Sweden–and we had time off, and I went by myself to Turkey to photograph. And I went to all these Syrian orthodox monasteries randomly.
That’s where they still speak Syriac Aramaic, and I had heard that, if you went to these monasteries, they’d let you in and give you a tour. And I went for it, and, because I was by myself, I was asked to come in and have lunch with the archbishop of the region. And I was like, “I’ve met with one of the bishops. That guy’s gotta have a recording of this stuff!” And then I tried to hunt him down, and I just found email@example.com. Just an email address.
So, I emailed the address saying, “Hey, this is the book I read. These are the monasteries that I went to. These are the bands I used to be in. I’d really like to get a recording of this, so I can write my heavy metal odyssey.” You know–whatever! To my surprise, the archbishop of the United States emailed me two days later saying, “This is a great idea. Next time you’re in New York”–because he was in Teaneck, NJ–“you should come meet with me, so we can discuss this.”
And I was like, “Holy– What is happening?” This was nine years ago. Exactly nine years ago. So we talked on the phone, and I was super nervous speaking with the archbishop. And he was really, really friendly, unbelievably welcoming, but he was said, “Unfortunately, I don’t have the music you’re looking for. I have other types of music from our tradition, but not the one that you’re looking for.” And I said, “Well, where do I find it?” And he’s like, “We don’t have a CD.” I was like, “We as in your office, or we as in humanity?” He’s like, “There’s no recording of it.” It’s like… “1800 years, and there’s no recording of this stuff?” He’s like, “No.” I said, “Do you want me to make one?” And he was like, “Do you know how?” I was like, “Yes.” He’s like, “Sure. Come meet with me, and let’s discuss it.”
And that’s a long story, but that’s how everything started. So I put together a proposal and went to go meet with him in Teaneck in 2005, and I went to Syria in 2006, just as a preliminary trip to just go hear the stuff. Like, how do you prepare a recording if you don’t even know what it sounds like? Or what the place looks like, or what’s the power or the logistics of everything? So I brought a friend of mine who runs a mastering place here in New York called Bonati Mastering. He did an internship in Japan where he used to… He’s an acoustic engineer. That’s his term. He would help this Japanese company map out symphonic spaces. So he was like really audiophile. So we went, and I took my camera, being a photographer. And then I came home with the idea. “Now know what it would take to make these recordings. Now I have to ask the Syrian government for permission.” Because I went as a tourist. And then I had to apply for a special visa.
So, were you doing this through the proper channels the whole time?
Kind of. We have to define proper. The first time I went, it was under the radar, as a tourist. Not necessarily under the radar, but it wasn’t some official thing. But then it had to become official, because you can’t just take a bunch of equipment into Syria. They ask for serial numbers, and you have to submit a list of what you’re bringing, and it took months and months and months for someone to even pay attention to the proposal at the embassy. And then finally someone read it, and, luck have it, the guy was at a funeral at this church two weeks beforehand with his father in Syria and had heard the music and was like, “This stuff sounds incredible. I can’t believe there’s a guy in DC that knows what this is and wants to record it.”
That’s how the official capacity of everything started. So then he called me, and he was like, “Mr. Hamacher from Lost Origin Productions…” Now, anytime someone calls and says that, I get nervous. It’s like, no one’s asking for Jason. Someone’s asking by my last name. Someone’s in trouble. And he said, “Yeah, I just read your proposal. I think it’s great. When are you available to come and meet with the ambassador?” I was like, “Woah… When do you want me to come?” He goes, “How about Tuesday?” I’m like, “Tuesday it is!” And, fortunately, in DC, I lived maybe 10 minutes, not even, from the Syrian embassy. So I nervously put on a suit and got the whole thing together and went. He’s now the ambassador to China. His name is Ahmad Mustafa. He was then the ambassador to the United States. And he green-lit every idea I had. All of them. To my utter shock and surprise.
The original concept was to go record every single chant from this church, all 900 of them. It’d be hours upon hours upon hours. And then I wanted to photograph the community, and they were, originally, pre-WWI, from Urfa, Syria, but it’s now Urfa, Turkey. And they had to leave, and the Armenian holocaust of WWI… It’s this big, really dense history, but I wanted to photograph their escape route and all of their community relics. And he said, “I love the idea. Let’s do it.” But I hadn’t brought any of my photographs. So he says, “I would love to see some of your photography when you have the chance.” So I came back and met with him and showed him my photos of Aleppo. And he was like, “OK. I really like your photography. Let’s make this commercially available. How do we do that?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “Let’s do a book.” And then he explained that there was a book on Damascus that he had literally bought off Amazon to give away as his diplomatic gift. And he wanted to have a book on Aleppo, and he really liked my eye for the culture and my interest in people and things like that. Most of the books on the country, and specifically Aleppo, that I’ve seen are really concentrated on architecture, and I frame architecture through the lens of the people that are in it… if that makes any sense. So, I guess this is a good time to point out that I was never hired by the Syrian embassy or the Syrian government, but they were so supportive of my cultural endeavors that they cut all the red tape, which was a big deal.
So then you went, and…
Yeah! So then I went, and someone, one of my friends, said, “You need to have academic support for this.” I was like, “Why?” I didn’t go to college. I played drums and toured in hardcore bands. He was like, “Trust me, you just need academic support.” So I called all of these Ivy League schools. I got on the Internet and researched what departments, like the musicology department or the theology department… Who would have any interest in stuff like this? And, literally, it was the first phone call was to Harvard… “Hello,” and this is a voicemail message, “My name is Jason Hamacher. I’m going to Syria working with the Syrian Orthodox Church. Let me know if you need anything. Here’s my phone number.”
And, you know, just whatever! I called a bunch of places like that. And, to my surprise and excitement, Yale called immediately and was like, “We have nothing in our archives on the Syrian Orthodox Church, and we would love to discuss doing some form of video for one of our doctorate programs. We really could use it.” And I was like, “Let’s do it!” So I ended up meeting with Yale, and the second trip I went on was specifically for Yale and to start working on this book. And there are a lot of stories like that where… I just called.
That’s how I started working with Folkways. I called the Smithsonian. Literally, I called Folkways, and I said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea.” This is before I even went to Syria. “The world’s oldest Christian music, I really want to record it. I’ve got permission to do so. Does Folkways want to put this out?” It turned into an informal conversation, and then the assistant director, Atesh Sonneborn, actually was like… [Laughs]. Someone introduced me to him as Tesh. His name is Atesh. Right? So, I wrote this email that’s horribly embarrassing. I wrote, “Tesh, here’s my idea, blah blah blah.” He emails me back: “Ason.” Takes the J off of Jason. I was like, “This guy’s incredible. He’s got a sense of humor. This is amazing.”
And so, from the very beginning, Folkways… They only accept projects when they’re 100 percent finished, but they supported my concept from its very inception, and they wrote me this amazing letter of recommendation that I took to the Syrian embassy, that I showed the church, that I showed Yale… “What I stumbled into is of value.”
If you don’t mind me asking, how did you fund these trips?
Well, it’s funny. Speaking of funding, it doesn’t take that much money to do this stuff. You just have to go. But, the very first time I went, the Orthodox Church paid for my plane tickets, and then I actually stayed with the archbishop of Aleppo at the church. And they have a little room that Josh and I stayed in. And it was incredible. We were there for 10 days. We ate with them, we hung out with them. And this is the bishop that got abducted. He’s gone. He was kidnapped last year by terrorists. And that’s where I stayed. Then the second time, when I came for Yale, they housed me for a month in a little room, like a small little shower. Again, you know, for that trip I got some light funding from Yale, nothing definitive at all. I still work, I’m a massage therapist, you know what I mean?
And then, after my second trip, I had a photo exhibit on the ancient synagogue. I got to photograph the ancient synagogue in Aleppo, which, and I didn’t realize it at the time, was a major deal, to be able to see it, let alone photograph it.
So, the funding for all of these trips… It’s not like I’m making a living off of doing this at all. I mean, it’s one of the things I talk about–making money for this kind of thing. Money isn’t a motivating factor for me in any of this. Sometimes money is demotivating. For instance, at work, when they do performance-based incentives, it infuriates me. It means whoever’s doing that thinks you can do better. Like you’re not doing your best, and they think that if you get paid the extra whatever, you’ll be even better. That’s my little money spiel. Anyways, I end up getting hired by a museum in New York, as their explorer and their photographer, called the Sephardic Heritage Museum. That was a job. I got paid by them. I would go to Syria for them and photograph and assess the Jewish properties in North Syria. I can’t say definitively, but I’m pretty confident: I think I’m the only person to have ever been given that permission. So it was crazy, man. I found a room full of tombs, dug out sort of Indiana Jones style. Got the military to unlock doors that hadn’t been opened for decades. Found all kinds of relics… It was crazy. It was a dream come true.
What’s really interesting is that it seems like people were so supportive… One would assume that there were all kinds of organizations working on this, but I guess what you found was no, there weren’t.
Well, maybe there are. But I think this is where the hardcore punk-rock ethics come in, from being young… If you wanted to go on tour, and you didn’t have a booking agent, you just did it. Like the Sufi album that just came out. I haven’t released a record for 20 years on my own! The very first record I did was literally 20 years ago, and I had no idea what I was doing, and I still… I realized, “I really don’t know what I’m doing.” So that’s when I ended up getting a hold of Jim Thompson [Electric Cowbell Records] and asking him for some guidance on how to release an album. It’s been a long time, you know?
I mean, in the world of academics, there are definitely people that work on all of this, but that’s not my world. I don’t know what people are doing. I just kind of go for it. And then, through doing it, I’ve actually met a lot of people in the academic world that have been working on all of this, but I’m usually not concerned about permission, or about going through the proper channels, rather. I just try to figure out the first person I should speak to, not their subordinates. I try to go directly to the source of getting the permission or someone to let me know if the idea will work or not. At one point, honestly, I was trying to get the Syrian embassy to get me a helicopter to go around the city of Aleppo, so I could photograph from the air! They were like, “Uhhhh…” I said, “I don’t know! Can’t we get a military helicopter or something? We can just go up and take a couple of overhead shots?” They were like, “What?” I mean, if we’re doing a book, let’s do a book! I was like, “I don’t know what it takes, but let’s get a helicopter!” And they were like, “…” I just ask and see what the answer is.
Another thing that I think is really interesting is that this is a complicated culture. This is a deep, intense, centuries-old culture, and yet it seems like you’re able to really engage with it.
Well, first off, I grew up in church. If you take faith out of it–I’m just talking history–the Syrian Orthodox Church helped vote in the New Testament, you know? They go back to Antioch, the beginnings of all of that. And then the city of Aleppo, period. I mean, 8,000 years old? Just having a deep appreciation, with a deep interest in history, is what fueled all of this. And being really interested in people. What’s it like living in the world’s oldest city day to day? It’s interesting. What do you do? If you want to go get spices, you have to go to the spice area of the souq that was there 800 years ago. If you want to get soap, you go to the soap guy that’s made it for 1,000 years. And, a lot of the time, I would be by myself. I can’t speak Arabic. I can’t even speak another language. The first two times I went, the bishop assigned some deacons. Like, a deacon–his name was Ephram–who spoke English and was kind of my translator when I needed it.
Fortunately and unfortunately, people know English. And some people used to get angry with me, or frustrated, saying, “Why don’t you know Arabic? You’re in my country.” I was like, “You have a choice. I could devote the time to learning your language, or I could help you preserve your culture. Your call.” You know, get your joking bluff. And everyone would just kind of laugh it off, but it’s true. I’ve got a family and kids and a house and all that stuff. And two other careers. So, it’s kind of like, I have to pick and choose. I joke around. My life is kind of in triage all the time. What needs to happen immediately? And then making all of the decisions to make that happen. So, as far as delving into the depths of the culture… I’m a researcher, but lightly, not in the academic sense. I kind of hold myself as the bridge between the moderately interested and the academic world. I know enough to hold my own, but not enough to hold it in the academic world. And I recognize that my brain doesn’t even think like that. I ask questions that are not common. You know what I mean? Or, I’d rather engage in different aspects of it. So I think that’s what kind of led to me doing as much as I have. For instance, with the Syrian Orthodox Church… There’s a lot of work done on that church. Ninety percent of it is academic, and I get lost reading. I have all the books, and they’re all incredibly interesting. But you can’t just lay down or kick back and read about the liturgical history of the Syriac language as it compares to Arabic and Hebrew… You know what I mean? I like the concept, but I get lost in the details. Does that make sense?
So, I think people pick up on it, as me being interested and everything, and just kind of wanting to learn as much as possible.
I guess the thing that’s giving a lot of juice to this project now is the fact of this war that’s been tearing Syria apart for the last three years. So, as you were preserving this ancient culture, it almost feels as if you were also incidentally preserving the last minute before everything went bad. Could you talk about that a little bit?
You kind of hit on it exactly. A friend of mine from the city, he feels that I did the same thing as well. I was there between 2006 to October of 2010, going back and forth, slated for return in May of 2011. And, even in April, I was going to go, because no one thought that the war… I was on an interview last night, and it’s not even being called a civil war, it’s being called a mutating civil crisis, or something. For me, being accepted by the community there, by all the different aspects of Syrian community and society, was pretty amazing. Now, looking back at it, it’s utterly heartwrenching. I didn’t time any of the releasing of any of this. I had a child four years ago, and she was three months old on my last trip to Syria, in 2010. Then the war started, and I stopped working on everything related to Syria, kind of out of solidarity to the struggle, you know? That was still when it was down south, and it wasn’t major… Don’t get me wrong, it was still intense, but it hadn’t turned into what it is now. Then it started to get worse and worse and worse. And then it started to appear frequently on the news, for the first time. Egypt was kind of waning down, for the time being, and so all kinds of people started asking me, “What do you think? What do you think? What do you think?” And I was like, “Man…” Specifically to the book that I had been working on, I was like, “OK, I need to pick this book back up now to show people what this place is like. Syria is not what they see on the news at all. I need to do it.” And, the day I started working on it, the war broke out in Aleppo, and my Syrian friend… I was on Facebook chat with him, trying to get captions, and it was heavy. He was like, “Dude, there are gunfights on my street.” I was like, “Should you be on your computer?” It was a really intense thing. He was like, “If I don’t make it through the night, you have got to show people what our country was really like, and you’ve got to show people that we are civilized.” I was like, “Man…” Honestly, I cried. I was just like, “Dude, it’s really heavy. It’s also an honor that you think I can do that.” It’s an honor to me to have someone… That guy’s family has been in the city for 750 years. His family used to even rule Aleppo, centuries ago. To have someone that’s been that entrenched in the city for so long think that I represent him, artistically, was heavy. And so I started working on it, and then it went from showing people what it’s like to showing people what it used to be like, because it just took a turn for the worse, and it’s still there. That’s when I kind of kicked in all the other albums, like the Sufi album, to start to release all the other recordings I did besides the one for Folkways.
Do you ever think that you might, if this ends, go back?
I’d go back in a heartbeat. Actually, I did an article for the Washington Post. It started off as this big essay, and it got morphed over the edit process, but I would love to go back. I honestly wanted to buy a place there. I’ve been to a lot of the earth, and it was one of the most impressive places I’ve ever been to. Just to go back and see it, or see some of the places and take my kids. It’s a weird thing to even have kids. My mom was a social worker. This interview will be archived somewhere that my kids who are in school can listen to… Do you know what I mean? It’s just an interesting point in time as a parent, and then doing all of this work on something historic, and then hopefully at some point getting to go back and see it. I would love to. I don’t know… It’s definitely not safe for me to go right now. I’m on the list on both sides, I would think.