Syriana is the latest project from Nick Page, the brain behind Dub Colossus and a guitarist in Transglobal Underground. It started life as a collaboration with the Syrian Qanan player Abdullah Chhadeh, a musician of tremendous technical skill. With the Irish bass player and composer Bernard O’Neill on board, the initial idea coalesced into a coherent fusion of East and West. Written and recorded in the context of the war on terror, at a time when western perceptions of the Middle East could hardly be more stereotyped, Page aimed to find common ground between eastern and western traditions and bridge the divide between what could often seem like two opposing worlds.
It’s difficult to find fault with Page’s preparation, research and approach for the resulting album, The Road To Damascus. The team travelled to Damascus to work with a Syrian string section, whilst also involving Syrian and Palestinian musicians based in London. The string section is a hugely important feature – adding presence, colour and texture to Gharibb (Stranger) and the title track. Chhadeh’s Qanan still dominates the album, however. It is a stringed instrument not a million miles in sound from the Malian Kora. Chhadeh could easily be compared with Toumani Diabat�, were it not for the more mournful tuning of this particular instrument.
Thematically, Page and his collaborators are again on solid ground. The songs here are preoccupied with ideas of exile, isolation and freedom and also with both the divisions of the Cold War and more contemporary polarisations. The lush, dreamy Gharibb tells the story of an Arab in the west. Three of the instrumental pieces might be considered (Al Qaboun, Jannat al Dounia and Love In A Time Of Chaos) might be considered as a two interludes and an epilogue but, together, they express the core themes and ideas of this project.
Musically, the elements are generally accurately executed and polished until extra shiny. The playing is imperious throughout. A good deal of time and care has been put into the arrangements on tracks such as the atmospheric Galatian Bridge at Dawn. Black Zil, which references the brand of car beloved of KGB officials, sounds like a 1970s movie soundtrack fused with Middle Eastern music, whilst parts of the title track seem to resemble U2 jamming in the Syrian desert. It feels as if Daniel Lanois could have had a hand in this record’s production, given the levels of reverb and echo deployed to imbue the music with drama and grandeur. It doesn’t sound bad – in fact it sounds impressive and distinguished – but it does feel slightly as if these supposedly natural hybrids have been dreamed up in a boardroom.
The Road To Damascus contains the sort of music critics routinely describe as ‘cinematic’. Indeed, this is so much so that a good deal of it feels as though it could be a film soundtrack. There is no doubting the tremendous skill and talent that has gone into creation, not just in terms of musicianship but also the level of ambition and organisation required to get a project like this working. It’s also clear, however, that the album works best when it gets deep into personal, human concerns and where it voices them with sensitivity and clarity. The haunting melodies of Gharibb offer more rewards than the more calculated fusions of Checkpoint Charlie or Black Zil.