Songs from Aleppo

Songs from Aleppo

Sabri Moudallal

Sabri Moudallal who grew up in the traditions of Aleppo, where his art has become part of the musical knowledge passed on by the muezzins. He is now one of the last strongholds of the classical and urban styles. He is far from academic as a composer and performer; the aesthetics he defends are those of that phenomenon to be found at the basis of listening to Arab music and yet which is so difficult to define— the tarab, emotion.
His repertory is largely based on the wasla suite, either sacred or profane. This form, which now survives only in Aleppo and nowhere else in the Arab world, is highlighted here by a special colour and tone brought by the instruments and the voices; added to this dialectal intonation proper to Aleppo, and a special sense of rhythm, sometimes bouncy, light and gay.


1Yâ ‘uyûnâ râmiyât/Oh looks that throws flashes – 02:37
2‘Unq al-malîh/The nape of the neck of my handsome lover – 05:31
3Taqsim qanun – 00:51
4Taqsim layali – 02:48
5Yâ sâkinîn bi-qalbî/Oh you who lives in my heart – 05:11
6Al-hubb mâ huwa bi-I-sahl/Love is not an easy thing – 17:56
7 – Instrumental interlude – 01:00
8 – Instrumental improvisation – 03:49
9Ta’adhabtu/I have suffered – 03:40
10Qudûd/Three songs in the dialect of Aleppo – 15:43
11Salawât/Prayers – 01:24
12Ahmad yâ habîbî/Ahmad my beloved – 05:48
13Yâ hâdî/You who leads, Pt. 1 – 00:52
14Yâ hâdî/ You who leads, Pt. 2 – 01:55
15Yâ hâdî/ You who leads, Pt. 3 – 01:09
16 – Tala’a al-badru ‘alaynâ/As the full-moon, He revealed Himself… – 03:45

Interpreters and instruments

Sabri Moudallal (singing)
Maher Moudallal (choir)
Mohammad Hamadié (choir)
Muhammad Qadri Dallal (oud)
Wahid Saqa (Kanoun)
Abdel Mon’im Sankari (Kamandja)
Muhammad Khayr Nahhas (nây)
Muhammad Saleh Baghdach (riqq, mazhar)


In spite of his advanced age, he carries his 76 years  cheerfully and looks like a leading man. His notoriety was late in coming. He is surely the shock of these last decades and the discovery of one of the greatest voices of traditional Arab music. He appears as one of the last bastions of sophisticated urban art. And although he is more and more widely acclaimed, Sabri Moudallal keeps on living as he always has done: a simple life, marked with music and song. He hums all day, be it ancient melodies which he adapts to his own taste or new melodies which he invents. He judges his own music by listening back to a cassette and by directing a stern critical view on it. He is just as attentive in listening to other people’s songs. Curious, open, tolerant, he equally enjoys being carried away by other musics, as long as they border on the aesthetics which he defends and they instil in him this phenomenon which is so hard to define and which is the basis of Arab musical audition: the tarab, emotion.

Not satisfied with resting on his laurels, Sabri Moudallal is constantly putting his profession in question. The quest for perfection is his daily bread. Because he is as much a composer, in the traditional sense of the word, as he is a singer. This is to say that he invents and memorizes, since this is an oral tradition, melodies which all of a sudden receive a total sheen, slipping harmoniously into the repertory and giving the impression of being age-old. However, you recognize them as soon as you hear them: they are by Moudallal. He is therefore far from any academicism. Furthermore it is not uncommon, when he senses that such or such a piece that he inherited is too tame, for him to add what he feels by instinct, the missing touch. He thus brings the work to perfection and marks it with his definitive, although anonymous, signature. Here also Moudallal remains faithful to the spirit of the tradition: that of withdrawing before the work of music which can only be a result of his nature: he is a born musician, created for music.

A great number of melodies composed and sung by Moudallal according to the examples of oral transmission have spread like a powder trail in the city of Aleppo and have been immediately taken up and adopted: they are henceforth considered classics, like, for example “Ahmad ya habibi”, contained in this compact disc, in the section devoted to religious chants. Few people know that these are Moudallal’s creations: they are very much in demand in the Aleppo area, the city where he was born and raised and where he continues his career. Several years ago, when he used to perform in marriages, you could hear the guests, overpowered by his songs, indulging in to a play on words, which the Arab language is very fond of, because the surname Moudallal means one who is pampered. You could hear the following interjection burst forth: “Ya mudallal, dallel!” O ! you the pampered one (thanks to your vocal gift) pamper us in return. He sings for a public who is ever present in his mind. In other words, if you feel that he is letting himself be carried away by his own game, if he abandons himself to the virtues of improvisation thus transforming the whole composition and breathing life into it, he is always communicating with someone present who vibrates in front of him. He flatters him, praises him, communicates with him all through his improvisations by asides, in order to remind him that he has not been forgotten in spite of the heavy burden he has taken upon himself, that of carrying on the song with all the fioritura required by the improvisation. Thus it is that in the beginning of mawwal baghdadi, when we hear him tell the audience: Antum ‘uyuni. Literally, you are the pupil of my eye, meaning that you are most precious to me. In the second muwashshah, you can also hear him cry out in a purely Aleppine dialect: ya tislamli (God be with you). This term does not exist in the original text but is addressed to the audience. Moudallal thus shows that he never separates the performance of a piece, however literary it may be, from those to whom it is finally destined, even if he has to bend a few rules of musical syntax. This is where you can grasp the bond which links the improvisation with his public and which gives him all his strength. He turns tradition into contemporariness.

Sabri Moudallal’s life has been uneventful. He was born in 1918 and has always run away from society life, hardly giving any importance to media happenings. He has stayed away from all this, preferring an intimate evening in the company of music lovers to an interview which would put him in the limelight. You would not find his name in any publication and the rare articles written about him are all recent. That is why, in spite of the fact that today he is one of, if not the, greatest names of Syria’s traditional music, Moudallal, continues his life as before, a life which follows the old saying: let us live happily, let us live in hiding.

Sabri Moudallal is a disciple of ‘Umar Batsh ( deceased in 1950) whom he venerated for a long time. Of Batsh he said: “He was a man of science, but not a solo singer.” Moudallal thus grew up in the tradition of Aleppo and equally joined the musical transmission of the muezzins who are so important in preserving the heritage in this city. Because here the muezzin is not simply an individual who calls to prayer, he is also a first-rate orator of hymns. He knows the rich repertory of religious songs. Here we easily find the tradition of Aleppo. It is based on a certain instrumental and vocal color on which is fixed a dialectical intonation special to this city, particularly highlighted by the series of the qudud— popular urban pieces which have become part of the classical music— which end the suite known as wasla. This music also holds a particular sense of the rhythmical, sometimes bouncy and cheerful. Its general aesthetics breathe of joy and optimism, because what this repertory is all about is the happiness that it exudes above all, as can be seen for example by the muwashshah: ‘unq al-malih (the nape of the neck of the handsome lover) even though the text often alludes to unhappy love stories and separation.

Sabri Moudallal’s repertory is based on suites, be they religious or profane. He thus dispenses both of these genres which he masters perfectly. The suite is called wasla: meaning literally that which links, meaning a series of pieces put beside each other according to rules dictated by musical syntax and applied by tradition. This form which must certainly be very ancient only appeared in writing after the 18th century. The wasla was also sung in Egypt but has disappeared from that country. The only place where it survives in the Arab world today is in the city of Aleppo. Moudallal has been a soloist in the Aleppo radio since it was founded in 1947, then he was designated as a muezzin at the ‘Abbara Mosque, a post which he held during many years. This mosque, located in the heart of the new city in the business district permitted to hear him five times a day as his voice inundated through space. At that time he had formed a small group of munshidin (hymn orators) specialized in religious repertory. With this group he would perform mainly at weddings as he would participate in Aleppo mosques during the month of ramadan at religious chant sessions. 1975 was the first time he came to Paris with his group as a guest of the Autumn Festival. This resulted in the recording of a longplaying record of religious songs which has been reproduced on a compact disc today. His group was called the Aleppo Muezzins. Although it was under this name that he became known in the West, people at home still continued to call him Sabri Moudallal. From then on, international fame put him at the zenith and opened new horizons for him. He travelled every corner of the world and sang not only in Hong-Kong, but also in Geneva, Berlin, Tunis and Heraklion and left the vocal quartet group in order to found a new group, Firqat al-turath (the Patrimony Ensemble). Since then, he is accompanied by a classical takht, or a traditional Arab chamber orchestra composed of four or five instruments, that has made its ‘ud player, the Syrian Muhammad Qadri Dallal, famous. To this takht is added a small choir composed of the members of his family.

Conscious of the value of this muezzin player, the Syrian government has named him, since a few years, the first muezzin of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, known as the Zakariyya Mosque, where he officiates once a day at the noon prayer (zuhr). Becoming the first muezzin of his city is the greatest religious title a Syrian muezzin can aspire to at the end of his career.

Christian Poché, ethnomusicologist

  • Reference : 321.001
  • Ean : 794 881 504 923
  • Main artist : Sabri Moudallal (صبري مدلل)
  • Year of recording : 1993
  • Year of publishing : 1999
  • Music Style: Wasla
  • Country : Morocco
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Omar Batsch ; Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe