From Aleppo to the World: the Forgotten Voice That Lit Stages for a Decade

Aleppine music is said to be one of the most demanding genres for a singer to master, yet Amer and Basheer decided to give it a try.

Amer performing at Jerash Festival, Jordan.

Amer performing at Jerash Festival, Jordan.
© Amer performing at Jerash Festival, Jordan.

‘Sheikhs and Sultans of Tarab1’ is a band name that may be familiar to many across the Arab World, especially among those who admire the traditional Aleppine music. It was the year 2003 when Amer Ajami and his friend Basheer, decided to form this ensemble, along with a number of friends from Aleppo who worked in this field. Aleppine music is said to be one of the most demanding genres for a singer to master, yet Amer and Basheer decided to give it a try.

Inspired by icons such as Sabah Fakhri, who succeeded to spread this music genre across the Arab World, Amer received his education at the Aleppo Institute of Music and then through private lessons with a renowned specialized tutor back home.

Amer is one of the thousands of Syrian refugees who left their homes seeking safety in Jordan and yearning to achieve what they have started back home. Life did not stop when they left home: For Amer, building and leading a successful band remained a central goal of his.

The band’s career launched with appearances in local and nation-wide festivals in Syria before being featured in musical events across the Arab World. From Tunisia to Jordan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon, the ‘Sheikhs and Sultans of Tarab’ lit stages at major festivals such as the Sousse International Festival (Tunisia) in 2003 and the Jerash Festival for Culture & Arts (Jordan) in 2004. Amer eventually managed to partner with a touristic restaurant-resort in Jerash, 48 kilometers north of the Jordanian capital Amman between 2010 and 2012, granting his ensemble a platform to display their talent on a regular basis, travelling between Syria and Jordan.

PHOTO-2022-07-06-16-59-11 4

Amer performing with his band at the Sousse International Festival.

PHOTO-2022-07-06-16-59-11 3

Sheikhs & Sultans of Tarab at the Sousse International Festival.

2012 changed the life of millions of Syrians, including Amer, forever. It is the year when the Syria conflict started and Amer had to flee his hometown, leaving his band and ambitions behind to save his family, composed of his wife and three children. Nevertheless, Amer hadn’t expected the different challenges that would come through from being a growing artist to becoming an asylum-seeker.

“I tried to overcome the challenges I faced through music”.

After arriving to Jordan, Amer was determined to continue singing and secured appearances at local restaurants and during wedding ceremonies in order to secure a modest income and provide for his family. “It was not easy” he recalls, “as finding gigs around Amman was not always a given”. However, Amer, with his experience and knowledge of the Aleppine music genre, and through his acquaintances in Jerash, managed to sign a contract as a resident singer at the same touristic restaurant-resort.

He was familiar with the city as he had previously taken part in its festival. But this time, it was different. He had to search new talents for his band, mostly composed of Jordanians, and without his partner Basheer, who currently resides in Tunisia. “I aim to conserve the Aleppine genre, keep it alive and pass it on to the younger generations” he added.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, just like anyone else, Amer’s work was impacted, with the total interruption of events and festivals in Jordan. As a result, Amer and his family were dependent on UNHCR’s emergency COVID-19 cash assistance. Eventually when the lockdowns subsided, Amer attempted to carry out various temporary jobs to cover his household’s most basic needs, spanning from marketing Syrian traditional food to soaps made in Aleppo.

“When you witness the events that occurred prior to the pandemic, you learn how to adapt to any future changes”.

Currently, Amer makes impromptu appearances at local restaurants in Amman and Fuhais, with the gradual return to normal life after the economic hit from the pandemic. With these challenges at hand, Amer had to borrow from acquaintances to survive, and the living cost became too heavy to carry. Nonetheless, he remains hopeful to find the suitable platform, enabling him to re-introduce himself to the public, deliver his talent, and add his personal touch in this form of art, allowing him to translate his passion into a source of income to sustain a decent living for him and his family. “Hard work will pay off eventually” he said.

Watch the interview here!

1 Tarab: in Arabic culture, it refers to the merging and articulation of music and emotional transformation. It also refers to the heightened sense of emotion or excitement when one is listening to classical Arabic melodies and lyrics.