United in Songs

Husam al-Din Brimo, founder of the country’s first choral society, has given an age-old musical form a distinct Syrian tone.

United in Song

Photos Carole al-Farah

As a child, Husam al-Din Brimo couldn’t wait for Sunday to come around – and it wasn’t only because it was a holiday from school. Rather, he loved to sing in his church’s choir. In fact, he was so keen on choral music that after finishing his studies at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, the young graduate took off for France and Switzerland to meet professional choir singers and study his favourite art form up close and personal.

“France and Switzerland have a long history in choral music,” Brimo, now 47, said. “After travelling there I understood that singing in a choir is more than just opening my mouth and singing; it’s a very complicated art form.”

With that in mind, Brimo returned to Syria in 1999 and started an independent project to promote choir singing in the country. Since that time, he has focused his energies on teaching choral music to both amateur and professional singers and also established a number of small choirs.

Fast forward nine years and Brimo is the proud choir master of Luna, the country’s first choral society. The society is made up of five choirs – Sana (Glory), Alwan (Colours), Kaws Kuzah (Rainbow), Ward (Rose) and Cham (Damascus) – with singers ranging from three to 60 years old, split into groups according to age. Brimo has also put together a group of 50 musicians to accompany them.

“When I joined Luna six years ago I knew virtually nothing about choral music,” Rahaf Rseys, 14, said. “Singing in the choir has changed my life. It has helped me express myself better. In Luna there are choirs for singers up to 60 years old and I want to continue singing until I get into the last choir.”

Musical fusion

In addition to performing classical Western choir music, the society also sings Arabic songs in their traditional style or in European arrangements. “I want children and adults to be open to other cultures, this is why I find it very important that the Luna choirs present songs from all over the globe with each song in its native language,” Brimo said.

Religious coexistence is another important theme running through Brimo’s project. As such, he has added both Christian and Muslim songs to the choirs’ must-sing repertoire. The sight of young Muslim and Christian singers in the Kaws Kuzah choir rehearsing Islamic songs in St. Carlos Church in Kassa, a suburb of Damascus, speaks to the success of Brimo’s dream.

It is this message of universal tolerance which resonates among Syrians of all backgrounds. “When I first heard about the Luna choral society in a local newspaper I immediately searched for Brimo and enrolled my children in the Sana choir,” Nisreen al-Zaher, a mother of two young choir members, said. “For me, the social quality of the choir is as important as the musical one. I want my children to learn that they are not the centre of the world and that other people exist as well. Luna teaches just that.”

At a recent concert performed by the Alwan choir at the Damascus Opera House, the audience sang along with the seven to 13-year-old choir members as they performed much-loved songs by Lebanon’s Rahbani brothers.

“I loved the show,” a middle-aged woman in the audience said. “It’s so great hear Syrian choirs performing Arab songs instead of listening to the usual European chorales.”

Slow success

The standing ovation Alwan choir received at the Opera House is a long way from Brimo’s early days of promoting choir singing in Syria. Back in 1999, when he founded the first Luna choir, Kaws Kuza, its 20 founding members sang for free and had to fund their own concerts.

“Chorale singing isn’t a local art form,” Brimo said. “Lacking any history in chorale singing, Syrians have traditionally had little interest, if any, in this art form. This is why it has been so challenging to promote choral music, not only audience-wise but even among the singers themselves.”

These days Luna performs regularly – last year the group held 30 concerts – earning enough from ticket sales to pay the singers. The troupe also has a dedicated local following, all but ensuring its future success. Some ambitions, however, will have to remain on hold. Brimo would love to record an album of the Alwan choir performing original material, but a lack of funds and rampant music piracy have turned him off the idea.

“If I had an extra couple of million Syrian pounds that I’d be willing to throw away I might consider recording an album,” Brimo said. “But CD piracy in Syria means it’s almost impossible to make any profits. Such a poor investment would mean the end of the Luna choirs.”

The Luna Choral Society
The Luna choral society is made up of five choirs. Singers range from three to 60 years old and are split into five groups according to age. A group of 50 musicians accompanies them. The choirs are: 

  • Sana (Glory) for children aged 3 to 6.
  • Alwan (Colours) for children aged 7 to 13. The choir performs international songs in their original language.
  • Ward (Rose) for teenagers aged 14 to 18. The choir performs classical Western songs.
  • Kaws Kuzah (Rainbow) for professional choral music singers.
  • Cham (Damascus) for 18 to 60-year-old amateur singers. The choir performs classical Arabic songs.
  • Nada (Dew) a group of musicians that accompanies.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

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