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Cultural Hybridity in the Music of the Syriac Churches

Cultural identities have always been in a state of flux. The music of the Syriac Orthodox Church from
the fourth century offers an example of such processes of change. The adjective "Syriac" in the name of this oriental church refers to a national identity, but the development and characteristics of its music
can be explained by transnational and -cultural encounters.

In the border triangle of Syria, Iraq and Turkey there is a fertile area called Mesopotamia. In this area, a cultural mosaic has emerged from various ethnic and religious elements, which has undergone a
changeable development through the ages. Here, in the early days of Christianity, the Syriac Church
was founded as the national church of the Syrian Christian communities (Surian, Assyrian, Chaldean),
the successors of the Arameans. Its missions covered the entire territory of the then Roman Empire, of
which Syria was a part. The Christian communities here lived under the rule of changing powers; the Ottoman, the Arab-Islamic, the Roman and the Persian empires and were always part of their societies.

The Syriac churches [1] have their own liturgies and their own musical traditions. The approximately 800 melodies that make up the songbook of the Syriac churches, the Beth Gazo, bear witness to the flight, displacement and migration of their bearers. The emergence of this musical culture in an environment of changing power relations always meant that it was in danger of being forgotten and lost. At the same time, however, the constant exchange of Syrian-Christian musicians with their neighbouring ethnic groups has produced an enriching interculturality: Beth Gazo contains hymns from literature written in Greek, and the melodies sound in keys from the Arabic-Islamic musical culture (Maqamat).

Many Syrian Christians had to leave their old settlement areas in several waves through history up to the present due to difficult living conditions. Due to political persecution, expulsions, natural disasters or religious intolerance, the majority of Syrian Christians have increasingly been living in the Western diaspora since the beginning of the 20th century. The largest Syrian Christian communities today live in Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA and Canada. There they find a new home where they redesign and expand their religious and ethnic identity. The cultural exchange was also stimulating for the music of the Syriac churches. For example, it is common nowadays for Beth Gazo music to be accompanied in liturgical practice by musical instruments such as keyboard, oud or qanun. A few centuries ago, this would have been unthinkable, as this music was originally purely vocal music. Attempts at polyphony or transcriptions of the melodies according to the European notation system also testify to a change in this (musical) culture promoted by transcultural exchange.

Migration and intercultural encounters have always shaped and intertwined societies. Today, migration
and cultural exchange processes are increasingly unfolding a transnational dynamic. Nevertheless, at least unconsciously, people often still cling to a traditional understanding of culture that conceives of cultures as clearly delimitable, stable entities that are homogeneous in national, ethnic or religious terms and can be clearly distinguished from other "cultural circles". Such an understanding does not do justice to the inner differentiation of societies and cultures, nor to that of individuals. It therefore fails to grasp the fact that people from cultural groups who have changed their place of residence are shaped by several cultures. To this day, many culture bearers from the NAWA region, such as the Kurdish, Arab, Christian Oriental cultures, adhere to such an understanding of cultures as "cultural groups“. In order to protect their culture, they are constantly concerned with preserving the supposed
authenticity, purity and originality of traditions. Cultures, however, have expanded their places of
origin and thus their contexts; the presupposed boundaries between cultural circles are transgressed by the appropriation of new cultural aesthetics, values and modes of action.


Contemporary migrant artists who identify as Arab, Kurdish, Syrian-Christian, etc. have internalised at
least two systems of cultural meaning, they are bi- and multicultural people with hybrid identities. This
enriches their art, but poses a challenge especially for the younger generations to redefine their cultural identity in the majority society. It is true that the change of a collective identity is not the result of the change of individuals, but always embedded in larger social processes such as migration, cultural
exchange or globalisation. Individual subjects can, however, be multipliers of such changes. The paths
that this change can take can be shown through cultural education.


In the educational systems of Arab countries, the term cultural education is mostly associated with what is still taught about culture in national studies classes. The important role that art and culture can play in a society is still ignored in Arab education systems. Cultural education is essential to enable migrant cultural minorities to truly participate in culture and society. Only through it can marginalised cultural bearers be represented and their individualities become visible. In the context of migration, cultural education can show that bicultural and multicultural people do not form a homogenous mass, but it is the prerequisite for ensuring that people, cultures and the arts are not culturalised, instrumentalised and excluded.


The history of Syrian Christian music shows the significant socio-cultural role that community music
plays in cultural exchange. In cultures of the NAWA region, it can be observed how the coexisting
musical cultures of the same cultural space have been influenced by each other and enrich each other.
How the "future music" of this region will sound against the background of hybrid identity formation
processes can only be guessed at.

[1] The plural form stands for several Syrian church organisations with different patriarchates, congregations, liturgies and church traditions, which can be divided into East and West Syrian churches.

 

 

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