Waed Bouhassoun was born in 1979 in a village situated in the Djebel al-Arab, between Suweida, the former Suda of the Nabateans – thus called because it was built of black volcanic stone –, and Chahba, the town of Philip the Arab. Here, as elsewhere in the Middle East, cultures and civilisations have come and gone over a period of millennia. All of them have left their mark, and between the olive and apple trees and amongst the vines, the children of Chakka play leapfrog, vaulting over the barrel-like remains of Roman columns, or hide in a ruined temple, swinging its heavy, carved stone door on its hinges.
When Waed was a child, she preferred to stay at home and listen to the cassettes that her father recorded from the radio, whenever a concert was broadcast with Oum Kalthoum or the Syrian artists, Asmahane and her brother, Farid al-Atrache. In the evenings, her father and uncle played the bouzuk and the ‘oud. She would accompany them by beating out the rhythm on a saucepan, so her father bought her a small ‘oud. She was only seven years old at the time and was obliged to bend one of her legs to stop the instrument from slipping off her lap. Her father and her uncle taught her to play. Before long, she could accompany herself as she sang the songs she knew so well. Waed was to take this small lute with her to Yemen, when her father went there to teach for two years. In the aeroplane, she held it on her lap. She refused to be separated from it and would allow allow no one else to touch it.
In Yemen, the little girl accompanied her mother to women’s gatherings, where she discovered new songs and music, different from what she’d played and listened to with her father. A family video shows her at the age of ten, on her return to her native village, singing and playing in front of the whole family at a wedding. She is singing in tune. She is obviously gifted; she has perfect pitch. In primary school, she carried on practising the ‘oud and was chosen twice, at the age of eleven and again at twelve, to take part in a national competition for young lute players. She finished second, but was certain that she deserved first prize. After she passed the baccalaureat, she enrolled at the University of Damascus, where she paid less attention to the lectures than to the singing lessons that she was taking to get into the Conservatoire of Music, which she managed to do the following year. Her first year there turned out to be very difficult. The young girl, who was only seventeen years old, spent all her time at the Conservatoire, attending all the rehearsals and lessons she could. She was hungry for knowledge. She was eager to learn, to the point of neglecting her health and her voice. Only opera singing was taught at the Conservatoire, as the director at that time, Solhi al-Wadi, considered that western music was the only music that mattered. At the end of the first year, she took her singing exam, while suffering from a bad cold and a serious throat infection: she failed. She then had the choice, either of giving up her music studies, or of choosing another instrument.
This meant starting from scratch. An entire year wasted. But Waed didn’t give up. She chose the ‘oud, the only oriental musical instrument, along with the kanun, that was then taught at the Conservatoire. This was due to the presence on the staff of an Azeri couple: the husband taught the ‘oud and his wife the kanun. At that time, all the teachers were originally from the former Soviet Union and students were trained exclusively as future members of symphony orchestras. Waed worked hard at her studies. She practically lived at the Conservatoire, going from class to class and hiding for hours on end in a dark corner, where she constantly scraped away at her ‘oud. She succeeded brilliantly in her exams over the first three years. In the fourth year, the director asked her to learn the harp, so that she could join the symphony orchestra. She refused to change from the ‘oud and accepted to start learning the bassoon, if necesssary. In the fifth year, together with some of her fellow students, she suggested to the new director that they be allowed to create a small oriental music group, made up only of women. The director liked the idea and the group was set up. The “Syrian Women’s Takht” gave concerts both in Syria and abroad at various official cultural events. Thus, when she graduated in 2003, Waed chose to remain in Damascus, teaching the ‘oud and working with her group.
In 2004, she was performing the musical accompaniment for a play, when she was asked to sing a brief passage lasting barely two minutes: two minutes that were to decide the course of her career.
Translated by Reena Khandpur
Available album : A Voice for Love