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Posted on September 30th, 2012, by

The Allepian Waslah, literally ďextensionĒĚor ďstretchĒĚ, is a multisectional form of music consisting of several related vocal and instrumental compositions from the same maqam-melodic mode. ¬†Aleppian Waslah, also known as Al Waslah or Al-Halabiah, has a big role in the recovery and revitalization of individual and collective memory through its poetry, tunes and dances.¬† Al Waslah is an organic, living poetic and musical form of memories inherited from the past that also incorporates the present history of Arabs.¬† Al Waslah is both revolving and evolving, and its components come from different social groups because Al Waslah is without borders.¬† In this paper, I will present my initial findings on the cultural role of Al Waslah in New York’s Syrian and Lebanese communities, based on several key sources.

The Al Waslah is an essential part of the cultural life of Arab, Jewish, and Christian communities.   It is a unique phenomenon in the culture because it manages to unite different cultural and religious communities.  At the same time, the Al Waslah contributes to the preservation of cultural identity of Arab and Jewish communities in different parts of the world.  Remarkably, the components of Al Waslah have been used in Syrian and Jewish synagogues, Arab Christian churches, as well as the weddings of Arab Muslims, Jews and Christians.   Thus, the Al Waslah is deeply rooted in the culture of different communities.  At the same time, this component of Muslim, Jewish and Christian culture has migrated with the population from its place of origin to areas populated by Arabs and Jews.  In migrating with diverse groups, the Al Waslah has allowed these groups to distinguish themselves from local, dominating cultural groups.   The Lebanese and Syrian communities in New York, which have managed to significantly maintain their cultural identity, have used the Al Waslah to help preserve their cultural identity and maintain ties to their motherland.  The importance of Al Waslah for Arabs, Jews and Christian cultures can hardly be underestimated, but it is particularly important for ethnic minorities, such as Lebanese and Syrian communities in large cities like New York, where different cultures coexist and interact.

Historically, the Al Waslah was closely associated with the Middle East, but the phenomenon is paradoxical in that it is found in cultures which are traditionally viewed as antagonistic, if not hostile, to Muslim, Judaist, and Christian cultures.  Additionally, the Al Waslah transcends time and physical location, marking it as an art form.  The Al Waslah is still an essential element of Syrian-Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures, but today is spread is found not only in the Middle East, but some of the most remote parts of the world.

In New York City, anything but remote or isolated, Syrian-American, Lebanese-American, and Jewish-Syrian have preserved the Al Waslah as an essential element of their culture.  In fact, the Allepian Waslah has become one of the most important factors shaping the cultural identity of these diverse ethnic groups.

In A.K. Rasmussen’s book ďMusic of Multicultural America: A Study of Twelve Musical CommunitiesĒĚ, the author studies the music and cultural life of twelve different communities in America, showing that music is closely intertwined with the cultural identity of diverse ethnic groups. ¬†¬†Like the Al Waslah’s cultural significance in New York’s Arab and Jewish communities, Rasmussen proves that music has a significant impact on other ethnic communities. ¬†Al Waslah has become an essential component of the cultural life of both communities, and is still widely used during wedding ceremonies. ¬†Rasmussen’s book is also very important in comparing the role of Al Waslah in Syrian and Lebanese-American communities to other musical styles and ethnic groups. ¬†Though Rasmussen studies the distinct elements of twelve different communities, she also finds common threads among diverse communities.

Rasmussen shows that music is an essential component of social life, where the cultural identity of ethnic minorities is revealed.   The author uncovers the cultural power of music, where it not only evokes strong emotions and influences aesthetic feelings of the audience, but also conveys the cultural peculiarities of each ethnic group.  Al Waslah is particularly noteworthy because the author shows that Jewish and Arab communities preserved it and conveyed it from one generation to another as a valuable cultural heritage and a historical experience of the people.

The Al Waslah, which originally appeared in the Near East, is not a static component of Jewish or Arab culture. ¬†It is a dynamic component of culture which progresses and accompanies cultural groups. ¬†ďMagic Carpet- Alleppo-in-Flatbush: The Story of a Unique Ethnic Jewish CommunityĒĚ by J.A.D. Sutton reveals that the Al Waslah is an integral part of the cultural life of Jewish community, ďexportedĒĚ from Israel to the U.S.¬† ¬†In New York, the cultural centers of Jewish communities maintain and develop traditions and customs, and preserve cultural identity Ēď and the Al Waslah is ever-present there. ¬†The Al Waslah is one of the essential elements of the cultural life in Jewish-American communities, where it is heard at every wedding and at most musical events.

Sutton argues that the Al Waslah is an essential part of the cultural identity of Jewish-Americans and helps them distinguish themselves from the rest of American society.  At the same time, the author shows that different generations of Jewish immigrants have maintained their cultural links throughout the past century due to the Al Waslah.  The Al Waslah has linked different generations of Jewish immigrants to New York City, both old and new.  Here Sutton provides clear evidence that the Al Waslah is conveyed from one generation to another, and while younger generations of Jewish-Americans have grown up in a multicultural environment, they still remain devoted to Jewish culture due to Al Waslah.   The author extrapolates the significance of the Al Waslah from a purely musical, artistic phenomenon to a cultural one.   Thus, the Al Waslah becomes a cultural phenomenon that unites the New York City-Jewish community.

The idea of a uniting power of the Aln Waslah and the view on this musical form as a complex cultural phenomenon is found in other books as well as in the views of the people. ¬†Specialists observe the same trends and cultural power of the Al Waslah not only in the Jewish community, but also in Arab-Muslim and Arab-Christian communities. ¬†¬†Sutton fortifies Rasmussen’s thesis, which emphasizes the cultural implications of music and to move beyond the traditional perception of music as simply an art form. ¬†¬†Instead, both Sutton and Rasmussen contend that the Al Waslah, as well as other musical forms, should be viewed from a broader point of view. ¬†Moreover, they have uniting power, which accelerates two seemingly contrasting forces: interaction of diverse cultures and preservation of cultural identity.

The Al Waslah has survived in the Jewish-American community, despite the impact of American culture and the clash of traditional Jewish culture and contemporary American culture.  Yet the Al Waslah is not an element of Jewish culture alone.  Other communities, including the Syrian and Lebanese communities in New York, have managed to preserve this element of their culture which helps them feel themselves a part of Syrian and Lebanese culture in global terms.  Thus, the Al Waslah links ethnic communities in different parts of the world, including New York City, with their motherlands and their original cultures.

Moreover, the Al Waslah does not simply help to preserve cultural identity but also popularizes and spreads Jewish and Arab cultures in large cities like New York.  For instance, an interview with Shadi Jameel, a singer of Al Waslah in New York City, proves that the Al Waslah contributes to the popularization of Arab culture in the city and stimulates cultural interaction between representatives of different communities, including Arab and Jewish communities.  At the same time, Shadi Jameel points out that the Al Waslah helps to maintain their ties to their motherlands.  Shadi Jameel sings the Al Waslah at weddings and parties in Jewish-Syrian communities, where it is more than just a song or piece of entertainment.  The Allepian Waslah has a spiritual power of returning Jewish Syrians to their native places.

The Jameel interview supports the ideas suggested by Sutton and Rasmussen, as Jameel says that the Jewish-Syrian community manages to preserve the Al Waslah in both Jewish and Syrian community, despite controversies between them.  Instead, both Jews and Syrians feel a certain cultural closeness to each other.  At this point, the role of the Jews in Syria, at the heart of Aleppo and Damascus, must be stressed.

The fact that the Al Waslah is still popular in New York proves that this music, as a cultural element, can overcome geographical distance and eliminate borders between states and communities.  On the other hand, it does not eliminate, but conversely strengthens the cultural identity of representatives of different ethnic communities.

The Al Walsah is just one manifestation of the great cultural power of music as a tool to preserve cultural identity and accelerate cultural interaction between different ethnic groups. ¬†¬†Ray Allen and Lois Wilken, editors of ďIsland Sounds in the Global City: Caribbean Popular Music and Identity in New YorkĒĚ, reveal the extent to which New York’s ethnic music is interactive. ¬†Focusing on the study of Caribbean music in New York City, the authors show the formation of social identity of people of Caribbean origin. ¬†Allen and Wilken research different Caribbean styles which have become extremely popular in modern New York City. ¬†They find that New York City has become the center of Caribbean music and Caribbean culture because it is widespread and oriented to the masses. ¬†In this way, Caribbean music has become both a means of self-expression of Caribbean peoples living in New York and a tool which preserves cultural and social identity. ¬†The uniqueness of Caribbean music emphasizes the uniqueness of Caribbean cultures.

However, Allen and Wilken research Caribbean music in a broader, multicultural context.  The authors argue that New York is a kind of melting pot where Caribbean music styles and culture progress dynamically and interact with each other, as well as with other musical styles and cultures.  They trace the individuality of diverse Caribbean musical styles, pointing out, for example, that Jamaicans tend to calm reggae while the Trinidadian community thrives on its calypso and steel pan music.

In such a way, each ethnic group has its own music style, which distinguishes it from others and allows the ethnic group to maintain its national traditions and culture.  Their book is important to understand the role of music in the preservation of cultural identity and its impact on the culture of local communities living in New York.  The authors argue that, in New York, representatives of different cultures and ethnic groups interact with each other. Moreover, the authors highlight that Caribbean artists work in a multicultural environment and play their music for an extremely diverse audience. As a result, their music is spreading to different ethnic groups.  In such away, Caribbean music styles and cultures enrich each other as well as the local culture, including that of white and black Americans who are native-born Americans.  In such a context, the Al Waslah is similar as it proves to be the distinguishable characteristic of the Lebanese and Syrian communities in New York.

Allen and Wilken reveal contradictory trends in the modern music and culture of New York.  On the one hand, there are different music styles which help to preserve social identity of individual groups, while on the other, there is growing cultural interaction, which can lead to the assimilation of different ethnic groups and integration of their music styles. Nonetheless, the authors say the Caribbean communities have managed to avoid assimilating into American culture and, at the same time, have managed to make their music and culture extremely popular in New York.  Like the Allepian Waslah in Lebanese and Syrian communities of New York, this musical form allows these groups to preserve their culture and distinguish themselves from other cultural groups in New York, while fostering interaction among groups.

The organization of Allen and Wilken’s book helps the authors convey their socio-cultural message that music is vitally important for culture and necessary to preserving culture. ¬†¬†In such a way, Allen and Wilken support the ideas suggested by Rasmussen, Sutton and Shadi Jameel that music is able to convey cultural messages, preserve cultural identity in a multicultural environment. ¬†Their definition of metro is particularly noteworthy since it reveals the actual diversity of the cultural environment of New York. ¬†At first glance, the city seems as if all ethnic groups are mixed together. However, metro become a means of self- expression of those amateur or semi-professional artists who use painting to express their self. ¬†¬†The Al Waslah is also a kind of self-expression of representatives of different ethnic communities in New York.

It is possible to conclude that the Al Waslah constitutes an integral part of the cultural life of different ethnic groups and communities.  It is a unique cultural phenomenon  because it persists in different groups, including Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, and Jews.  Al Waslah is growing more popular today, from the place of its origin to places overseas.  Thus, Al Waslah should not be viewed as solely a musical form, but rather as a constructive, cultural element which reveals the power of music to preserve cultural identity and maintain cultural traditions throughout the history of different peoples, regardless of where they live.

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