Syriac influence in the compositions of Zaki Nassif

"Syriac heritage gives you the key to understanding oriental Levantine music because it is a mixture of Egyptian, Bedouin, and Syriac music. These three elements make up oriental music." The famous conductor and composer Selim Sahab

In his prolific career of musical works, Lebanese music composer and singer Zaki Nassif (1916-2004) mixed knowledge and culture with talent. His music formed a major force of popular music innovation since the mid-fifties of the twentieth century. In creating his unique popular style in Lebanese music history, we can infer that Nassif was born among the peasants, seasons, and tanners in his hometown of Machghara, in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. He was naturally given exposure to the traditional Dabkeh and other Lebanese folkdances such as the Dalouna.


As Lebanese musicians were most attached to the ancient melodic heritage prevalent in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, Nassif with his deep knowledge of Syriac and Byzantine music, remained with these old melodies but innovated the use of many its basic tones. Zaki Nassif did not belong to the school that introduced classical and folk music from the west, and he did not seek to replace Lebanese folklore. Instead he searched within the already existing folkloric music tradition for popular rhythm and patterns and novel methods of harmony.

In his youth Nassif attended Syriac and Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) church services which highly influenced his musical sensibilities. With regards to Syriac music heritage and church hymns, a large part of the melodies present in Lebanese mass memory is Syriac melody. The Dalouna dance is Syriac. Funerals known in our society also include a lot of Syriac tradition.

Nassif quoted from his encyclopedic knowledge of Syriac tunes, especially in his song Hala Ya Hala. It can be said that Nassif followed the Syriac music tradition more than the Byzantine. Byzantine music and rituals are mostly religious, whereas Syriac also has folklore and is rich in rhythms and lively movements and features. These lively features, which stir joy and delight, are spread greatly among the peasants working in the land. If we search for these features in the music and singing of Nassif, then we find dozens of examples, such as Darb al-Ghazlan Mn Enna, Mijana ya Mijana, Mn Shaq al-Dhaw Bakarna, Almnjira, Hala Ya Hala, and Hal Helwein Ktar.

In these songs, Nassif does not fabricate folklore. He does not search for new rhythms if they are already present in the folklore. Rather, he was just a great artist who took folkloric material and made it into modern and contemporary lyrical form, a form that is traditional and implanted in rhythmic and melodic history. Nassif accomplished that by staying close to pleasant, easy and valuable Syriac tunes.