Despite its horrors (or perhaps because of them), the Syrian chapter of the "Arab Spring" has produced some daring and innovative new music.
Combined with zajal (rhyming poetry), music continues to be the main vehicle used to mobilize the crowd in daily street protests. Often, it's one man with a microphone, sometimes accompanied by a tabla (goblet drum), belting out revolutionary slogans like "Irhal Irhal ya Bashar!" (Leave, leave Bashar!) and "Ya Mahlaha el-Horriyeh!" (Freedom is so beautiful!)
The most iconic such singer was the notorious Ibrahim Qashoush from the city of Hamah, whose sarcastic anti-regime rhymes quickly became anthems of the revolution. In July 2011, Qashoush was found dead with his vocal chords mutilated; a sobering reminder of the price of publically speaking against the Syrian president.
Shortly after that, a new underground band called "Nos Tefaha" (Half an Apple) created a Facebook page and started publishing anti-regime songs on their YouTube page. Nos Tefaha originated from the occupied Syrian Golan, where apples are the main agricultural product, hence their name.
Although the Golan is far from the Syrian military's reach, dissent still could not be freely expressed there as its population is split into pro- and anti-Assad clans, and escalating tensions have occasionally lead to violence. In that climate, the band members chose to work anonymously.
Nos Tefaha's first three songs, "Mazoot" (Diesel Fuel), "Hooss" (Shush), and "Beesho" (Diminutive name for Bashar al-Assad), were released on YouTube around the end of 2011. The musicians are invisible on any of the video clips which consisted of rudimentary animations and included the lyrics. The songs received a fair amount of attention on YouTube with the third one being played 44,000 times.
The songs were relatively short and used a small ensemble of traditional Arabic instruments. Their sparse arrangement left space for a disgruntled but resigned mixed choir to deliver caustic political commentary about the Syrian regime and the president himself. They represented a huge leap in the political song in Syria, since the mere mention of the president by name in a derogatory way would have been unimaginable a year earlier.
Nos Tefaha's founder and songwriter, Madaa Moghrabi, explains how their music came about. "I started alone with the first song Mazoot. I felt that my heart was going to explode if I didn't say something about all this hope and frustration we felt in the Golan. I sang and played the oud, then I invited a few friends to sing with me. That's how the first three songs were recorded."
Emboldened by the accelerating pace of the revolution on the streets in 2012, Nos Tefaha released two new songs: "Mahall Zghir We Msakkir" (A small shop that's closed) and "Lesh Darb El-Nar" (Why are you firing?).
The new attitude in these songs is defiant and noticeably more confrontational than the first three as the band seems to have relegated passive sarcasm to 2011. But despite voicing anger about the regime, their lyrics carry an explicit message of non-violent resistance based on civil disobedience and boycott. "We believe in non-violent struggle, and we think that civil disobedience is a possible path to victory for the people," explains Moghrabi.
Both songs repeat a common refrain of "justice, dignity and freedom." Mahal Zghir was aimed at Damascus residents and talks about a shop owner who practiced civil disobedience by closing his shop. Lesh Darb el-Nar pays tribute to a long list of young women activists, including a murdered Kurdish student (prompting two lines in Kurdish).
"I wanted to sing a section in Kurdish language because the Kurdish minority in Syria is part and parcel of the population," explains Moghrabi. "I also wanted to pay tribute to Syrian female activists of all religions who stood as symbols for non-violent struggle."
Both songs stylistically similar, they are fast paced and use a combination of Western Rock music and Arabic music, including dabke (Levantine line dance), masterfully blended together. "I really love the sound of the electric guitar used in rock music, especially with the distortion sound effect," explains Moghrabi. "That sound can mimic human screaming, and I felt it would convey the revolution's energy very well."
The dabke pairing with the electric guitar was very appropriate since the former can also deliver sustained high energy. But most of all, dabke by now accurately evokes the atmosphere of street protests in Syria in the last couple of years where it became customary to line dance and chant to the sound of heavy drums when the crowd feels safe in an open space.
In July, Nos Tefaha created a rap song for the soundtrack of the Season 2 trailer for the series Al-Shabbih Al-Awwal (Top Goon -- Diaries of a Little Dictator) by underground Syrian puppet theatre group Masasit Mati that recently came out publically on Al-Jazeera. This was perhaps an inevitable collaboration between two rising groups of artists very much aligned in their political message and their initially anonymous approach to publishing resistance art.
Arabic rap music is by now a familiar and well-established genre for expressing dissent thanks to the pioneering work of Palestinian group DAM in the last decade. Moghrabi had the opportunity to perform with them on two occasions, but for this song he collaborated with Palestinian rapper Anan Qasseem from the "Awlad El-Harah" band in Nazareth. In that song Nos Tefaha reiterate their familiar political message: "We want to build Syria, one country for all. Together we want to build this country in dignity, freedom and justice."
Nos Tefaha's modest repertoire of six songs so far involved dozens of musicians who, except for Moghrabi, have decided to remain anonymous. "There's no band in the proper sense of the word," adds Moghrabi. "The musicians of Nos Tefaha have never all met together in the same rehearsal space as one band. We record our songs in installments. Some musicians are even in different countries and upload their tracks over the Internet."
Besides safety concerns, Moghrabi explains the other reason for anonymity: "In a revolution, there's a shared attitude that recognition as an individual doesn't matter; the only thing that matters is the group artistic contribution," he concludes.