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The Road to Damacus


All tracks written and arranged by Abdullah Chhadeh, Bernard O’Neill and Dubulah


Album out on September 20, 2010




Real World Records (CDRW176)


UK Distribution by Proper








A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

Though original founders, Nick Page, Abdullah Chhadeh and Bernard O’Neill view their highly original group as a project, to audiences, Syriana is more likely to be seen as a big, bold band of nomadically shifting super musicians who generate music highly evocative of their Middle-Eastern roots influences/roots, infused with Western drive and implications. I’ve seen Syriana perform live twice, each time with a slightly different line-up.  In the first instance, this great collective knocked me out last September, at WOMAD’s Tower of London weekend, with their three originators, half-British, half-Greek guitarist/bassist/percussion/composer Nick “Dubulah” Page, Syrian Qanun (81 string ancient Arabic dulcimer) master/oud player/composer/singer Abdullah Chhadeh and Irish double bass player/pianist/composer Bernard O`Neill. My next encounter with this distinctive group was at WOMAD Charlton Park in July, with Page and O’Neill performing the musical honours with Jordon raised Palestinian singer supreme Nizar al Issa on Oud and Vox, Iba Abu Khalaf on percussion & Mounir Baziz playing violin.  

But however the dynamic musicians that comprise Syriana group, you’re liable to get hooked on their beautifully wrought, oft surprising sounds. This sublime album features Abdullah Chhadeh on Qanun, Oud, Whistling, Percussion and Backing vocals, Bernard O’Neill on Double Bass, Piano and Backing Vocals and Dubulah aka Nick Page on Guitars, Programming, Keyboards, Percussion and Backing Vocals along with the Pan Arab Strings of Damascus. All of the tracks have been arranged by the aforementioned trio of talented musicians and Arabic Lyrics are courtesy of Abdullah Chhadeh. Also featured on this uniquely compelling collection are Lubana Al Quntar: Vocals, Mazzin Abu Sayf: Accordion, Nizar Issa: Backing Vocals, Patrick Dunn: 4 + 5 String Viola, and Sherif Ibrahim on Arabic Percussion.

What is Syriana about? If I wanted to be oblique, I’d say a little of everything. To the group’s founders however, their music reflects ‘the effect of the cold war on their lives’ as well as their reaction to GW Bush’s all too familiar attempts to revive ‘cold war thinking’ in the recent past. I can dig it, or to tell the truth, I really can’t, therefore I assimilate with Syriana’s intent to re-access their influences anew, like any free thinking individual/ music lover would. In the bad ole GW days Syria was on the verge of being roped into that old fear perpetuating corral that US spin doctors termed ‘The Axis of Evil’, so much so that the term, ‘Syriana’ has now become short-hand for Arabia in general, i.e. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. For Page and O’Neill, spies, secret agents and underground, number rather than name type scenarios were part and parcel of their youthful landscapes and those intrigues are reflected in their music, which draws its cleverly draped drollness from many a Westerners glib, uninformed, often downright manufactured, TV and cinematic versions of the ‘other’ and Middle Eastern climes. A love of movie themes and the music of 1950’s Arabia further enable Syriana’s music to be both achingly beautiful and wryly smile worthy at the same time.  And for those of us who’s noses still retain a bit of frost from those pointlessly finger-pointing days, fondly dubious memories of the time when we were too easily snowed under by blanket statements are resurrected as well.

The title track, ‘The Road to Damascus’, conjures up mental images of shifting sands and swaying camels making their way over vast expanses of desert, yet with a sense of the urban surroundings bordering the scene. The track’s persistently punctuating drumming and moaning vocals, which seem to lend a feeling of heat and strife, eventually give way to Chhadeh’s tinkling, expressive Qanun, while cooling strings breeze in to let us know that in some cases, there is relief – for some and Page’s guitar reminds us of the increasing Westernisation of our ever-shrinking world. This vision has been further seared into memory by the pointedly concise camera work of Italian film director Nico Piazza, which accompanied Syriana’s stunning set at WOMAD Charlton Park.

‘Syriana’ a subtly hypnotic track, initially centres on the strident bass playing of Bernard O’Neill and the delicate yet strong Qanun playing of Abdullah Chhadeh, with Page’s lush guitar adding emphasis. The eighteen stringed Qanun is mastered by few but executed to powerfully resonating effect by Chhadeh here. I remember the Syrian virtuoso encouraging the crowd at the Tower of London last September, to travel to Syria, and be both surprised by its deep beauty and antiquities and warmly welcomed by its people. This lovely composition encourages one to make that effort.

‘Gharibb’ (Stranger) exudes distinct leanings towards the past, while perhaps, musing on a present, timeless situation, in which a seductive female singer, Lubana Al Quntar seemingly, finds herself considering said stranger’s pleasure, while a warning chorus of vocalists seem to be advising her to consider her background and reputation against the repercussions of giving in to temptation.  It is a charming track, reeking with atmosphere and affection for its subject matter, which, without translation, one can only guess at - belly dancers, whether amateur or professional may be tempted to keep pace.

There are traces of the foreign climes akin to ‘60’s secret agent films in ‘Black Zil’. The drum picks up where the guitar leaves off, though the intrigue is still there, topped off by some seriously go-go, Man from Uncle-esque beats. Those who were ‘there in the day’ may want to reminisce though dance. But just when you think you may have captured the groove, it speeds up, with the help of Chhadeh’s Qanun and Dubulah’s spicy percussion, onto new terrain, taking listeners along on its’ unexpectedly twisting ride.

‘Galatian Bridge at Dawn’ is majestic in scale, and given its title, specific in intent, with a genuinely Cinema-Scope feel. Superbly effective oud playing from Chhadeh, and ever-heightening drama, courtesy of The Pan Arab Strings of Damascus spawn thoughts of intrigue in the blazing sun, peppered with dark-edged riffs suggestive of possible double dealings by night. One of the highlights of Syriana’s WOMAD Charlton Park set, and indeed, of WOMAD 2010 itself, this is a soaring composition you will return to, to savour again and again.

‘Al Mazzeh’ exudes musicianship of the highest degree, elemental yet rudimentary, flowing, yet fluctuating. Its’ beauty is elevated by the skill of its’ playing, but that aspect is never over-emphasised, rather, the pieces’ trickling tendencies shimmer as lightly as sunlight over wavering water, delighting the senses as they do so. As low key as the composition before it was grand, this expressively performed piece is a masterwork of control, seamless and invisible enough to enable full appreciation of Chhadeh’s unsurpassed talent and skill as a most masterful Qanun player.

‘Al Araby’ seems to speak of romance, forbidden or surreptitious, perhaps, though never, gratuitous. Its’ singer, Lubana Al Quntar is backed by a lushly framed sound-scape of discreetly tapped drums, hesitant oud and the ample gorgeousness of The Pan Arab Strings of Damascus whose musicians seem to glide effortlessly over their instruments, cushioning the aforementioned in poetic lyricism.

‘The Great Game’ positions us back in an intriguing landscape of espionage, where anything may be proposed, but few may survive their propositions, either way. Hypnotic, double tapped drums and subtly phrased chanting, as elusive as it is compelling, paves the way for O’Neill’s supreme big bass playing. We are once again in a land of heat, desert and hitherto unknown possibilities and dangers.

Briefly elusive ‘Jannat al Dunia’ inspires a curiosity almost as great as its escalating sounds. Like the towering sands of the desert itself, this mirage like composition ultimately seems to have a presence larger than the contents of its character.

‘The Templehof File’ reminds us that each of these compelling compositions serves as a kind of mini-drama, with its own cast of characters, premise and actions. That is an idea nearly as intriguing as this piece itself and just as rife with possibilities. Its myriad of sounds makes me want to see it performed live again, and with any luck, an opportunity to do that will present itself in the not too distant future, at Syriana’s upcoming album launch in October. Oud, drums and sweeping strings suggest over-laden caravans with riders seeking to flee bittersweet memories of fleeting flirtations.

O’Neill’s double bass strums an atmospheric intro to ‘Al Qaboun, which conjures up winding alleyways reminding us just how vibrant an instrument a double bass can be in the hands of a master. The fact that there is no other instrument but O’Neill’s on this track is indicative of the surprises Syriana unravels for listeners as their sound-scape progresses.

Richly lush, multi-layered, spaghetti western influenced ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ never loses sight of its ironic centre-point, mixing it with straight up musicianship and clearly strummed oud, twangy electric guitar and unwavering percussion.  Everything about this track is full on and ‘out there’ from its guest strings of Damascus and western (as in American wild west) overtones moving across its’ middle eastern undertones, which ultimately, victoriously emerge as the most infectious layer of all.

‘Love in a Time of Chaos’ opens on a tentatively pensive note, its’ oud intermingling cautiously with its’ over-ridingly expansive guitar. One instrument wavers into the background, while the other rises to the fore, though, at times, the striving guitar almost seems to be asking the oud whether it would be alright for it to come out into the open – an appropriately inconclusive conclusion.

Happily, this is one story which can, potentially, have a happy ending.  If you don’t hesitate, you too can have the rare joy of basking in the glow of Syriana’s considerable mystique. Their London album launch is set to take place on October 2nd at Islington’s Assembly Hall on Upper Street, N1.
See you there!



Syriana – 2010

Photo by York Tillyer

Buy CD, album or download here:

London show & album launch

Saturday, 2 October, 7:30pm

Islington Assembly Hall, Upper Street, London N1 2UD

Tickets: £15 + booking fee

To buy online:




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