Today (July 6th, 2019), I attended the first in a series of exhibitions entitled Culture Under Threat at the Imperial War Museum in London, England. This particular event happened in association with the World Metal Congress, which is an organization that aims to connect metal fans all over the globe. The museum had two performances spread throughout the day, and it later held a talk with more performances. The title of the exhibit was Syria: Death Metal and Classical Musical Under Threat, which circled around the experiences of Syrian concert pianist Aeham Ahman and death metal guitarist and frontman Jake Shuker from the Syrian death metal band, Maysaloon. In my academic pursuits, I had read some about what it is like being a fan of metal music in Syria and other areas of the Middle East, with metal fans being at risk of death due to many aspects of metal fandom being illegal, so I was eager to learn more from first-hand accounts. As a more well-known example that some readers might draw parallels with, many metal fans are familiar with Acrassicauda, the Iraqi metal band who had their practice space bombed before the metal community chipped in and helped them escape from Iraq. I attended tonight to learn about what it is like being a death metal musician in Syria, but it was a welcome bonus to hear the perspective of a classical musician too. In addition to Jake’s performance and his part in the talk, it was great to have the counterpoint by Aeham, who is an incredible musician in his own right. Both had played music in a war-torn country, but I feel that what they each took out of the war couldn’t be much different from one another.
First, I thought I’d contextualize this article and the talk with some background on the war in Syria. For the last eight years, the country of Syria has been locked in a civil war between four opposing sides, including the extremist group ISIS/ISIL. The civil war there has also become an international endeavor, as countries including Russia and Iran have chosen sides and have been bombing their opposition in Syria for years. It is one of the deadliest wars of the 21st century, with approximately 400,000 casualties so far. Massacres have taken place that have killed hundreds of civilians in a matter of days, and ISIS themselves have taken credit for executing thousands of people, over a thousand of whom were civilians. It is currently estimated that the country will cost 400 billion dollars to rebuild. The event featured two musicians that were in Syria during the war that had experienced the horrors that come with living in a country in a constant state of war.
I also want to point out that this was a historical event because it was the first time that Syrian metal had been performed live in England (or at least that’s what the museum told us).
The initial performance from Jake was a somewhat unusual experience. Jake stood in front of a piano, with his guitar hooked up to an amp. The audience was a mixture of metal fans and curious museum visitors. Prior to his performance, a woman asked us to headbang and shout as if it was a “real” metal show. Jake played and growled along to a backing track of the rest of his band. It was clear to me that Jake was a talented player, but it still made for an unusual performance, since this was death metal played at quiet volumes that you could talk over, which doesn’t replicate the intense atmosphere of a live death metal show. In general, it felt strange to have death metal be an exhibit for outsiders rather than an integral expression intended by and for metal fans. Musically, Maysaloon pulls clear influence from Behemoth, but to describe them only that way does them a disservice. The songs are labyrinthine and melodic, but well-written, with moments of beauty, groove, and even the occasional breakdown and solo. I really enjoyed the songs I heard, which sound much stronger than what I heard from their debut. These new songs will appear on their upcoming album, which I was told might be out around February of next year.
Dark shadows loomed over the audience as Jake performed on the ground floor of the museum with warplanes hanging from the ceiling above him. Some bands fetishize war, so it initially seemed aesthetically cool to see death metal performed in a war museum, but those aren’t bands that played music while they were actually in war. Those aren’t bands that feared that similar bombers would destroy their homes and their lives. But here is Jake, in this strange parody of a real situation that he was in, playing the music he played in Syria – still with bombers overhead.
Before attending the talk, I was lucky enough to meet another member of the Syrian metal community, who I had shared a pint with. Speaking to him gave me further perspective on the situation in Syria over the last few decades, which added to what I heard in the talk, so I’m also including it here. He described himself as being in the first wave of Syrian metal fans (in language that somewhat parallels talk in the Norwegian black metal scene, but here it was used to illustrate generations of fans, not to mark historical points of musical change). Jake, who was the one performing and speaking at the exhibition, is younger and is from the next generation of Syrian metal. My newly acquainted friend told me how before the Syrian war, being metal was illegal. The government became aware of a popular hang-out spot for Syrian metal fans, and he described two occasions where the government raided that spot. On the days of the raids, none of the metal fans present were ever seen or heard from again. We’ve all heard metal songs about “dying for metal” from bands like Manowar, but in Syria, it was a fact of life. He also told me how this is not a problem unique to Syria, as he described musicians from other countries in the Middle East, who sometimes play in places like England, but they have to do so with absolute anonymity so that they would not be persecuted and/or executed when they return home. We all think of anonymous black and death metal bands as doing so for the mystique, but in some cases, they do so because it’s the only way they can keep doing what they love. And even doing so anonymously brings them into greater danger than if they never performed at all. Once the war began, there was less of a crackdown on metal fans in Syria, but that was merely because it became less of a priority to those in power while their resources were used for the war.
Now I’ll jump forward to the talk. I had reserved my seat in advance for what became a sold-out event.
The general layout of the talk was to bounce back and forth between musical performances and a question-and-answer session. It opened with a performance by Jake, who played “Pillars of Creation.” It is a song from Maysaloon’s upcoming album, which is about Syrian mythology. This particular track, as Jake explained, is about the place where the stars were born. From here, the event transitioned into questions about the experiences of Aeham and Jake in Syria.
I met Aeham the pianist before the talk and after he played on the museum floor earlier in the day; he was brilliant and kind, and he embraced me with a hug. He had dark hair, a slender figure, and a seemingly positive demeanor. But once the talk began, and once Aeham began to explain his playing, it was clear that he was a man with many wounds that may never heal. It is one thing to read about war, but it is another thing to see it in someone’s eyes and hear it in their voice. The horrors he experienced weighed heavy on him, and yes, he survived, but to call him a survivor wouldn’t represent where he is in life. His first performance illustrated this point. Aeham’s first song was called “Water Man.” It showed his skill, both as a singer and as a virtuoso piano player. He contextualized the song by telling us where the name came from, and about his experiences of playing the piano in the streets of Syria, where he would frequently get heckled by people. Some would tell him that the piano was a “European instrument of the devil.” People would tell him that he should not play the piano and that he should get water for his family. Aeham would respond to them, explaining that he had already gotten water for his family, and so he could continue to play the piano. Hence the song, “Water Man.” Not everyone was a critic of his music, though. He said that one person told him that he must sing, because “you are our radio.” There were no televisions or similar comforts. All around them was war, blood, hunger, and violence – with Aeham’s voice and piano being the only pleasantry – the only solace from a life of war. Aeham was a comfort to people in dire conditions. All around him was famine; he mentioned that 200 people around him died of hunger and that he too, was hungry, but it did not stop him from playing his piano.
The media tells us, Westerners, much about ISIS, but Aeham shared first-hand accounts about his interactions with the extremist group. He described a horrible couple of days where ISIS killed 250 young people. He himself was approached by a large, burly member of ISIS, who took away his piano, and who kept mimicking the pulling of a string on a suicide vest, which was to promote fear. Aeham explained that ISIS wanted everyone to be afraid of them. With bloodshed all around him, these threats were not to be taken idly.
It was clear to me that although Aeham had left the war, the war had not left Aeham. I had mentioned earlier that Jake had performed on the ground floor underneath the bombers, and when Aeham performed there, he was immediately aware of the parallels between the museum’s setting and when he played in the streets of Syria. Aeham said that it greatly upset him to play with warplanes hanging above him. He also described how painful it is every time he plays the piano, because every time he played, it would transport him back to playing on the streets of Syria. Specifically, he said that playing the piano hurt his soul. It took him back to seeing blood everywhere. It took him back to sights that his therapist could never comprehend. He also communicated his frustration in being treated for his affective reactions to the war. He described having to take pills so large that he joked that they must be for large animals. The pills, he said, left him without the energy to do anything.
So why would he continue to perform if it tortures him so? Aeham said that others will not speak because they are afraid, but he feels the responsibility to speak because he has a stage. Many know the real daily struggles of the Syrian people, but so few are willing to talk about it. But Aeham – he has a platform. He is an incredibly gifted musician, and it is through that gift that he can communicate to the world about the cruelties of war and about life in Syria.
Even in war, people still dream.
What is happening in Syria is an insurmountable and ongoing tragedy. People in war have dreams different from those of people outside of war-torn countries. Aeham did not dream of playing on large stages. He explained that when your life is war, your only dream is of getting a passport to escape. Aeham also used the war as a warning about trends globally. Even now that he is out of Syria, Aeham said that he is still depressed about the future. Even outside of Syria, he fears for the world that his children will grow up in. He mentioned people like Trump and Putin, who represent the growing powers of fascism, and how they represent a dangerous future for his kids. Aeham does not seem an optimist, but he is a humble and honest man, one with great skill, who is a loving father to his children, and on this night, he bared his soul to everyone in attendance.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned how both Aeham and Jake seem to have ended up in very different places following the war. Whereas Aeham seemed a broken man that only marches forward to sustain his family, Jake seemed much more optimistic.
“Yes, it (metal) saved me. And it will always save me.”
Jake is a self-described lifelong fan of metal. Even though he too experienced some of the horrors of the Syrian war, he described metal as being the thing that shielded him, that saved him. Jake noted that metalheads are discriminated against everywhere, but in Syria, it is far more extreme. Even as he gets pursued as a criminal for being a metal musician and fan, he said that he keeps on going because of his passion – his love for metal music. As he explained, for all of his life, metal has sheltered him. When bombs were dropped near his home, it was in metal that he sought refuge. He said that he, much like others he had known, was saved by metal. And this came with some profound experiences for him. In his practice space back in Syria, he had a Paradise Lost poster on the wall, and he had played a cover of Paradise Lost’s “As I Die.” The band had come to know about him and his struggle, and so the guitar he was playing tonight was very special to him. Why? Because it was given to him by the guitarist from Paradise Lost, who I believe was also present at the talk. Jake described the experience of playing that guitar as having the ability to always help him find his groove. It was uplifting to hear of these positive moments following Aeham’s descriptions of the darkest recesses of humanity, but Jake, too, described some of the hardships of being a musician in Syria. Jake grew up knowing about the raids of metal fans in Syria. He knew about the musicians and fans that would never be seen from again. Jake described his band’s first performance in Damascus, the capital of Syria, as “disastrous,” because he was continually afraid that the government would burst through the doors and take him. That was the first of many times he played there, and each time, no one burst through those doors to take him away.
Jake, much like Aeham, used the circumstances around him for inspiration, and to find his voice. Jake said that every day, he would wake up to the sounds of mortars, which would sometimes give him a panic attack, but on one occasion, he woke up, and there were no sounds. It was silent. When you are accustomed to a constant barrage of sound and horror, any departure from that can be shocking. Jake got out of bed, grabbed his guitar, grabbed a beer, and he wrote a song about that silence.
“Music is rebellion.”
Jake said that being a rebel isn’t about choosing sides in the war; it’s about being the person you want to be. Aeham felt similarly, saying that he was not interested in picking a side in the conflict either. But both were considered rebels because they found their own paths through the carnage, without being subsumed by it. For Jake, that path of rebellion took the form of metal music and becoming a member of the Syrian metal community. When Jake was asked how he got into metal, he gave an interesting answer. He said that metal “can’t be learned.” He described metal as being an innate seed in someone – you either have it, or you don’t. It is through circumstances in life that the seed can be watered, and when that seed is watered, it is inevitable that one becomes metal.
“We went from shit to deep shit.”
Aeham and Jake are Syrians that have managed to find footing outside of their war-torn country of origin, but even as they work towards greener pastures for their own lives, the people of Syria continue to see grimmer and grimmer days. The musicians described how when they return to Syria nowadays – the people are different – they are worse. Even as we celebrate the successes of Jake and Aeham, we must not forget the tens of millions of people whose lives are daily war.
The closing song of the exhibition was Maysaloon’s Mot, named after the Canaanite god of death. Jake described how the constant presence of death made him think about the concept of death. He said that we’re all slowly dying. And this, the final song of the night, appropriately focused directly on the presence that held strong through the exhibit, and throughout the stories of a ravaged country. Death was that presence, which was only occasionally drowned out by the sounds of music – whether it be the beautiful sounds of piano – or the melodic and brutal extremes of death metal.
Metal fans are always pushing against the status quo. Death metal fans take taboo subjects like death, war, and dying, and they bring them to the forefront of our minds. Only in discussing the dark aspects of life, only in removing the stigma from talking about them, can we have a genuine conversation about change, and Jake and Aeham are leaders in that conversation. We cannot move forward from the horrors of humanity without acknowledging them, and this event showed that some people not only acknowledge them but continue to relive them every day. These conditions show the resilience of the human spirit, even under the harshest of circumstances. Whether through metal or other means, I hope that we can join them in this conversation since they are far from the last people to be affected by war.
Follow Maysaloon on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Maysaloon.band/
Follow the World Metal Congress: https://www.facebook.com/worldmetalcongress/
(Photos and video by Kyle Messick)