War Doesn't Stop The Music On The Syrian Border The Israeli-held Golan Heights, located right next to a civil war, has become an incubator for an experimental Arabic music scene.
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On The Syrian Border, Alternative Arabic Music Brews

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On The Syrian Border, Alternative Arabic Music Brews

On The Syrian Border, Alternative Arabic Music Brews

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In the Israeli-held Golan Heights, a village on the Syrian border, is an unlikely powerhouse of alternative Arabic music. NPR's Daniel Estrin brings us the story of a complicated geopolitical reality expressed through song.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Singing in foreign language).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It's a Thursday night in the village of Majdal Shams. This bar cafe is packed with people rocking out at a live concert. The band is Hawa Dafi, Arabic for warm breeze. The next day, I meet guitarist Busher Abu Saleh at the bar. He's nursing a coffee not because of the late-night gig but because of the war across the border.

BUSHER ABU SALEH: We actually walk up to the sound of bombings and fighting. And we were up late last night. They woke us up at 6 in the morning.

ESTRIN: On this side of the border, you can safely drink a coffee. But just a few minutes' drive away is Syria, where there's a civil war. A lot of the residents here have relatives who live just across the border in a village which is frequently under attack.

ABU SALEH: The sound of war as the background track of everyday life here.

ESTRIN: Growing up in Majdal Shams can be confusing and not just because of the war next door. The people who live here are Arabs, mostly the Druze religious minority. But the band members aren't really into religion. Their national identity is complicated, too. Israel captured their village from Syria 50 years ago.

ABU SALEH: Technically, we are not citizens of any country. On paper, we're not, although we're Syrian. But in our travel document, under nationality, it says undefined. This kind of speaks to me. Like, I'd rather be a citizen of the world than of imaginary borders.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTARD SONG, "LAISSEZ PASSER")

ESTRIN: That undefined identity has inspired musicians from the village to look beyond their borders to jazz, reggae, blues, rock, heavy metal, ska. And the result is Arabic music that is well hard to define.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAISSEZ PASSER")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in foreign language).

ESTRIN: This is the title track of a new album by perhaps the most well-known band from the village called TootArd, which means strawberry. Here, they sing, I do not exist on an ID card - without a nationality, without borders. Abu Saleh's band, Hawa Dafi, riffs on that theme, too, like in their song "Undefined."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDEFINED")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in foreign language).

ESTRIN: Hawa Dafi was formed in 2012 toward the start of the Syrian war. Guitarist Abu Saleh says war won't stop their music.

ABU SALEH: My mother is from Lebanon. And they had a 15-year-long civil war. And music was made back then. And people were getting married and falling in love and out of love. And life went on. This will end, and people will live through it. But, eventually, it'll be over.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Singing in foreign language).

ESTRIN: Down the road from where the guitarist sipped his coffee, residents rallied and sang in support of their families besieged on the other side of the border. And on the same street, people celebrated a wedding. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, on the Syrian border in the Golan Heights.

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