Rocking the Arabic Way (profile of Syrian musician Anas Abd al-Moumen)

Words Nadia Muhanna

rocking-the-arabic-way

While other fourth-graders were nervously leafing through their notes on their way to the exam, Anas Abd al-Moumen was grooving to the rhythm of the latest Metallica album. Already at the age of nine, he was obsessed with rock music and played the guitar. Today, at 28, he has founded two rock bands and released his first album on the Syrian market.

Together with other Syrian musicians, Abd al-Moumen wants to create a new musical genre in Syria: Arabic rock. “Why should we only listen to Western rock? Why can’t we have our own rock music that reflects us in the same way that Western rock reflects the West?” Abd al-Moumen asked.

Not all Syrians feel the same about rock and heavy metal though, and Abd al-Moumen believes the genre is misunderstood in many Arab countries. “Rock music has been misjudged for a while,” he said, explaining that some associate it with Satanism and devil worship. “But as more rock groups perform in Syria, people are starting to understand it better.”

Prejudice isn’t the only problem facing young musicians. The absence of an established music industry and the unparalleled level of piracy in Syria make music production a costly venture with little profit. In addition, major production companies and radio channels are mostly interested in commercial music. “They say there is no public interest in high-quality music,” Abd al-Moumen said. “That’s not true. They should give the public a chance to listen to other kinds of music and leave them to judge for themselves.”

Abd al-Moumen believes that Syrian audiences have a taste for good music. He says that even in remote villages, where there is no musical education, people prefer Fairouz to commercial music. “We have the talent to produce and the audience to listen. We need what’s in between!”

After founding his own band, Anas & Friends, Abd al-Moumen produced his first album, Mahjour (Abandoned), at his own expense in 2006. The album, which deals with young Syrians’ everyday problems, has been labeled ‘alternative’ and ‘elite’.

Abd al-Moumen believes that rock never was elitist and rejects the idea of alternative music altogether. “We’re not an alternative and we don’t want to push anyone off the music scene,” he said. “We just offer the audience other choices.”

The ‘alternative’ bands and singers were finally given the chance to showcase their talent in 2006 during the government-sponsored Shabab Souria (Syria’s Youth) festival. The young musicians toured Aleppo, Lattakia, Tartous and Damascus and drew thousands of music lovers.

“It was an amazing experience,” Abd al-Moumen said. “In order to reach audiences, we need the media to give us the first push. Shabab Souria was an important step towards that.”

He admits, however, that much more needs to be done. Young musicians need stages to perform on, and media support and sponsors to reach out to their audiences.

Given these tough circumstances, Abd al-Moumen knew it would be almost impossible to live from high-quality music in Syria. This is why he studied media instead of music at university. “I never wanted music to become my profession,” he explained. “If music were my only source of income, I would have to compromise the quality of my work.”

As a media graduate, Abd al-Moumen is now preparing an MBA and works at an oil company to make ends meet. “I could take the easy way out,” he said. “I could write a light song and make a flashy video clip. If you have the right networking skills, it’s the easiest way to fame and wealth. But for me, music isn’t about money, it’s about passion.”

Abd al-Moumen is currently working on a new album, this time with another band called Gene. While they know that they have a long way to go, the six band members remain very enthusiastic about the album, which they hope to release this summer. “When you believe in your talent, it’s your duty to express it! We want to demonstrate the musical variety in Syria. Hand in hand we’ll reach our goal.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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