Photo exhibit on Syria from Jason Hamacher: interview

Jason Hamacher is best known for thrashing on the drums in D.C.-area bands like Frodus, Decahedron, and currently Regents, as well as playing session gigs and touring the globe. He’s also become known for his photography, and always for his larger-than-life friendly personality. But nowadays he’s making waves as a photographer of Syria and a music preservationist of Syrian religious chant traditions.

Hamacher has a photo exhibit at Convergence in Alexandria, V.A. currently that focuses on his Syria work. It’s a long story with a lot of twists and turns which we will make our way through. With a troupe practicing opera in one room, and what we were warned would be a “noisy improv class” (which we didn’t actually hear) in another, D.U. sat down in the gallery room to talk about all of Hamacher’s activities the past several years: his forthcoming photo book on pre-war Syria, which he compiled traveling to that country from 2006-2010, his “Lost Origins Sound Series” which seeks to preserve Syrian church traditions, and much more. While he’s been working on all of that, somewhere in there Hamacher worked for the Sephardic Heritage Museum and had a photo exhibit on the Great Synagogue in Aleppo at the Jewish Community Center in D.C. He has a lot more going on than that as well.

When we spoke with Hamacher, it was a few days before the three-year anniversary of the beginning of the war in Syria.

“Just literally in the past maybe four months I’ve had the headspace to even finally put the effort through to produce something. Thankfully, this [exhibit] is the first, and then I’ve got this album of Sufi music that’s coming out for Record Store Day, the book, an album with the Smithsonian, like three other albums.”

The albums and the audio he posts on his website are all recordings Hamacher made while traveling to Syria. But albums on physical format? It had to be asked.

“Full blown, gatefold LP—”

180 gram?



“100 of ’em ‘ll be colored—silver. Totally record store nerd—it’s pretty funny.” He’s putting out the Sound Series albums on the Electric Cowbell label. “I wanted to put out a record of it, like an actual LP. I was like, ‘I don’t even know if that make sense. I don’t want to sit on hundreds of Syrian Sufi albums.’ So I was asking the Dischord guy, ‘Do you anyone that does anything for Record Store Day?’ And they were like, ‘There’s actually this guy in Arlington that runs a world music label that does really well on Record Store Day.’ I was like, ‘What? How do you guys even know that?’”

The Record Store Day release will feature “Sufi, Sufi Islamic chanting and some non-Sufi music called muwashah, which is a very specific type of Arabic music that originated in the city of Aleppo.”

Hamacher’s second release, of what he calls “The Sacred Voices of Syria,” will be “an Armenian chant record—it’ll be short, like a 45/12 inch, something like 6 songs—that was very difficult to get, [recorded at] the Church of the Forty Martyrs in Aleppo. It’s this really renowned Armenian church. [Another record] is Chaldean Orthodox, a Syrian Orthodox ‘Church of the East,’ is what they call it here.”

Hamacher pointed to one of his portraits, one of Archbishop Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim. Hamacher explained that since he came back from Syria, the Archbishop was abducted by terrorists. “His nephew was Chaldean, so it was his nephew that I recorded … And the last [release] is another Syrian Orthodox record that is different from the one that I’ve been doing for [Smithsonian Folkways] for a long time.”

The Sound Series will be partly for website downloads of Hamacher’s field recordings of things like Easter church services that he won’t put out on vinyl.

“I came up with it just because there’s a bunch of stuff that I find interesting that digitally should have an outlet and just doesn’t, y’know? I got asked to speak last year at this place called the International Community Center up in Gaithersburg [Maryland], and it’s this Sufi order. I didn’t really know this until a couple weeks ago: it’s a practicing Sufi order, and this world-famous Sufi sheik is coming. They sent me this video of him online of him doing some thing for Prince Charles, and him all over the world like in front of thousands upon thousands of people, and so I’m gonna go record that.”

Hamacher’s idea is to “start archiving what happens here as opposed to there. Especially this area, there’s so much stuff, y’know? That’s the kind of stuff I find interesting now.”

A Heavy Burden

Hamacher was messaging on Facebook with the guy in Syria who did the artwork for the Sufi album, Khaled Akil, “and then he started freaking out because he heard gunshots in his front yard. And that was the day fighting came to Aleppo. I was like, ‘Should you be on the computer right now?’ And it was heavy. [Akil said] ‘If I don’t make it through the night, you’ve gotta make sure people view us with respect.’ I was like, ‘Dude, this is really heavy.’

“I was the American that kinda became accepted there. They considered me one of them …. But being charged with making sure the world sees them how they were as opposed to what it is now was heavy.”

Hamacher started reworking his photo book to include what he called B or C-level photographs to add context, like a simple of shot of a street with some people on it. “’Cause that street doesn’t exist anymore. Places that are gone.” He wrote about this in the Washington Post.

Why Go Hardcore on Syria?

“It was me and Bill Nesber, the drummer from Discount. We were just trying to do something that was not punk rock, that was rooted in it but not it.

“Bill called me [in 2005] and was like, ‘Dude, I found these rad chants from Serbia [to use in our music project].’” Hamacher related that he lost phone signal during the call and thought Nesber said Syria. “It reminded me of this book where this guy had found the world’s oldest Christian music in the deserts of Syria. And at that point I had gone to Egypt and Israel and Palestine and Turkey, but hadn’t gone to Lebanon or Syria, and was just intrigued with the idea of something from Syria.”

Hamacher continued, “The Middle East is just so intriguing. Growing up in church, it was definitely wild to be like, ‘Oh, that’s what they’re talking about, right there.’ To have a physical pointer for that kinda stuff. For me, it’s not necessarily about belief or disbelief. It’s just a matter of geography. Like, seeing it, whether it happened there or not, whether the local tradition or the community believe is that this is where it happened, is pretty powerful. Like Mt. Sinai, for example. Being in Egypt and going to where people have gone for 2,000 years claiming that’s where Moses got the Ten Commandments, whether it happened there or not for me was inconsequential to the fact that this is where everyone thinks it happens. And it was just intense. So it put an interesting spin on all these stories that I grew up hearing. Kinda seeing where it happened. It made everything seem less mythical or fable-ized, if that makes sense. So that kinda sparked the interest in the Middle East.”

Connecting the dots for us, Hamacher said, “I misunderstand what Bill says on the phone as this music that’s in the Syrian desert. I was like, ‘Awesome, Syria!’ Just romanticizing … . And it just led me down this path, you know? I emailed the author of the book—it’s called From the Holy Mountain, the guy’s name’s William Dalrymple—like, ‘Hey, I want to hear this music, I read your book, I think it’s a great book. Can you send me a CD or point me to where I can hear this stuff, so we can form this heavy metal orchestra?’ [laughs]

“And he was like, ‘I don’t know where a recording is. Here’s the address. This is how you’ll find the place if you ever go to Syria.’ And it was a Syrian Orthodox Church.”

The Rift (Rambling Hamacher)

“So the year after my big Egypt trip [filling in on drums] with the Good Clean Fun tour, I went to Europe with (International) Noise Conspiracy and had three weeks off.”

During the off time from the tour, which was in 2002 in Turkey, Hamacher flew from Istanbul to Diyarbakir and rented a car. “And this is when I first got really into taking photographs, and just got a whole bunch of rolls of film, and just traveled like 3,000 miles over the course of a week and just photographed everything in Turkey along the borders of Syria, Iraq, Iran. I went to Ani, you know, the ancient Armenian capital. It was amazing! I was the only person there. The presence in deep East, the Soviet—not control, but like vibe—is heavy duty. Lots of military checkpoints. And you have to get permission to go, so I go in this office, and there’s no one there, zero people except for one guy at a desk. And you have to pay to go … and he asked if I’d drive him. He was like, ‘I need a ride. Will you drive me?’

“’You’re in the military! Why do you need me to drive you in my car? This is ridiculous.’ I was like, ‘Yes, if I can go for free, if I don’t have to pay for it, I’ll drive you.’ And so I drove this weird military dude to the gates of the Armenian capital, let him out. I made him listen to High on Fire. Like, ‘Check this out.’ He was just quiet. [laughs]

“I was there for several hours just by myself. It was my true understanding of how insane the Turkish-Armenian rift was. There’s a river that goes through Ani; that’s the border between Turkey and Armenia … . This whole thing’s a thousand years old, but there’s this one convent that’s way down, jutting out into the river. That’s the part that they gave to Armenia. The Armenians cannot access it, but according to the map, that one little piece [of land] is what Turkey gave to Armenia of their ancient capital. Like, ‘I gotta go down there!’

“There were two military guys there that I was hanging out with, and they were like, ‘No, no, you can’t go.’ I was like, ‘Why not?’ And then I started to walk down there. And he just points to the Armenian military [with rifles] drawn on me [laughs] as I’m walking down there. I was like, ‘OK, I’m not gonna go.’ It was like, no big deal; you will be shot if you go. But the depressing part was they can’t go either, unless someone made a bridge [to that piece of land].

“But to bring it back to going to Syria—I ramble all the time—on that trip through Turkey, I had read in Lonely Planet that you could go to these monasteries and hear these guys speak in Aramaic, and they were Syrian Orthodox monasteries and they’re old. One of them was from 320 [c.e.] or something like that. It was just wild.”

Fast forward to 2005

“So when this author [Dalrymple] wrote me back and [said], ‘No, they’re not monks in the desert, it’s a church in the middle one of the world’s oldest cities. It’s a Syrian Orthodox church,’ I was like, ‘Holy cow! I’ve had lunch with one of their bishops. That’s insane! I got to try to find that guy.’ And so it’s just one thing after another after another.”

Hamacher found an email address for the monastery and explained who he was and who he spoke to and how he wanted to get a recording of this music. Their archbishop of the United States wrote him back two days later and said he liked the idea. Over the phone, the archbishop said he didn’t have the music Hamacher was looking for. When Hamacher asked where to find it, the archbishop told him, “Well … we don’t have a recording of it.”

“‘Ever? One doesn’t exist?’

“‘For what you’re looking for, we don’t have a recording.’

“‘Do you want me to make one?’

“‘Do you know how?’

“‘Yeah, I can make one.’ And that’s how the whole thing started. It went from ‘Let’s use this music to write some rock tunes to,’ to ‘What does it even sound like? How do we get it?’

Hamacher said, “He was like, ‘Put together a proposal, put together your ideas, come up and meet with me, and we’ll figure out how to make it happen.’”

Speaking the Lingo

Hamacher admitted, despite this deep interest in the Middle East, he doesn’t speak Arabic. “I mean, I learned a little bit over time, but people get bummed on me, obviously, for not speaking. And my response was, ‘You can choose. I can come here and help preserve this or I can speak to you fluently. I only have so much time.’ And they were like, ‘Thank you for coming.’ [laughs] Most people spoke English, not that I expect anyone to. Like, I went over expecting to gesture most of the time. Most of the cab drivers in Aleppo were Kurdish and didn’t speak Arabic either. But I learned enough to get around. But as you know, once you go somewhere and someone finds out that you’re from the United States, everyone gets amped and wants to speak English, and I wanted to practice Arabic. I’d just practice in taxis.”

Working the Phones

“[In 2006] I cold-called all these ivy league schools up and down the East Coast. Let me back up. One of my massage clients was like, ‘You have to get academic support for this project.’ I was like, ‘Why?’

“‘Trust me, it’ll just be good for you.’

“‘What does that mean?’

“‘Just get a school behind you!’

“‘OK, fine!’ I did research and called Princeton and Harvard and Brown and Georgetown, all these places, and left messages, what looked like what would be the right person, and then at Yale, they had a Sacred School of Music. And then the chair of the liturgical department was like, you know, doctorate in all this stuff with a heavy interest in Syrian liturgy. I was like, ‘Whaaaat?!‘ So I just called and left him a message to the essence of, ‘My name is Jason Hamacher. I’m going to Syria to work with the Syrian Orthodox Church. Let me know if Yale needs anything.’ Forty-five minutes later he called me, freaking out, like, ‘How are you working with the Syrian Orthodox Church?!’”

As Hamacher explained, there were many things on the Syrian Orthodox church that Yale wanted for their archives, and wanted to get their hands on if the church would allow it. On his first trip to Syria, Hamacher took a list from Yale of what they looking for. “Their church service is very similar to the old Jewish traditions. There’s a curtain that they pull and all these things that happen behind this curtain that no one’s allowed to see, and that’s why Yale didn’t have anything in their archives for it. And so the archbishop was like, ‘Yeah, just let me know what they want, and we can do whatever they want.’

Hamacher called his contact at Yale back and said, “Good news! Everything’s on.” He continued, “So I had to go have this big meeting at Yale with the board of directors for the Sacred School of Music. It was intimidating. Really intimidating. One woman just couldn’t believe it and was kind of treating me harshly.”

And his work continues. He spoke to the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian about having a listening party and donating his field recordings, just by taking the initiative, calling them up and proposing it, and asking what had to be done.

“I would say that I’m way more, ‘Why can’t this happen?’ Like, ‘This is gonna happen,’ not ‘This is not going to happen.’

Jason Hamacher’s reception for his Syria photo exhibit at Convergence is April 12.

In the meantime, just try to keep up with him at his website.

Photos: D.U.


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