Review: Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria By Jonathan Holt Shannon

Review:  Among the Jasmine Trees:  Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria  By Jonathan Holt Shannon

I have several dance articles that I will share with you on my blog.  I feel that the situation in Syria is so tragic, that we cannot forget what it was like before this war started.  This book was written at a time when many of the famous historical places and buildings were still in tact.  As a dancer or musician, or a lover of Arab music, you will enjoy this book.  Here’s my analysis on it.

Among the Jasmine Trees:

Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria

By Jonathan Holt Shannon


Among the Jasmine Trees by Jonathan Holt Shannon is an ethnography of the Syrian Arab music known as “tarab”, and its place in modernity within the national identity of Syria in the individual and on the collective scale.  He juxtaposes this idea of traditional “authentic” music against the modern popular music heard in clubs and on the radio, and is looking for the aesthetics of “tarab” and the fundamentals of what is really “authentic”.  The research for this book was done in 1996-7, and it was published in 2006.  Shannon is an anthropologist, and not an ethnomusicologist, but this book is in line with current Ethnomusicological theoretical trends.  He does this through exploring both performances, sacred and secular, and the music itself through learning to play at the feet of the masters, and through ethnographic research.  He shows us that playing music to Syrians is key in the process of re-imaging the self in relationship to the traditional culture by the ability of the music to convey sentiments and aesthetics that are considered “authentic”. The music may conjure up ideas of “authenticity” in various genres and temporalities, such as the old, the traditional, and the local, and Shannon shows us that these are re-created as signifiers of the modern national identity.

My experience with the topic of his research is that he is bringing to light some very important topics of discourse in the field of Arab music that has not been discussed previously.  So much research has focused on Egyptian Arab music, but historically it did not come from there, so it seems that Shannon’s research fills in the gaps in academic research that is needed to give a more well-rounded view of this music and its placement temporally and culturally.

I will now put this book into the diagram of our class structure to show how this ethnographic work fits into the study and history of Ethnomusicology, and how it has influenced our field.

  1. Chronological History of Approaches in Ethnomusicology:

In 1909, Benjamin Ives Gilman stated that there was a need to record what was being studied in the field, and there has been an ongoing debate over what is more important, the music itself, or the study of the music in relationship to the people it represents (Gilman, p533).  Which side should be more focused on, the anthropology of the music, or the musicology of the music?  At the dawn of the 19th century, the musicological side of Anthropology was more in vogue, but that was not to last.  In the 1970’s we see this debate pick up speed, and is accelerated by the scholars Alan Merriam and Mantle Hood, representing Indiana University and UCLA respectively.   According to Merriam in his book The Anthropology of Music the definition of ethnomusicology should be “the study of music in culture”.  Hood, on the other hand, found that the music was sufficient in and of itself to be studied, and that the anthropological side simply was not as important as the musicological, and he emphasized students learning to play the music first and foremost.  Then in the 1970’s, Blacking stated that the origin of the music is in the “human capability”, via the cognitive capacity and bodily functions of the people, and that it is an “unknowable truth” in that verbal discourse can unlock, but not re-create music (Blacking, p240).

“McAllester’s Law” came out of the article by David P. McAllester, “The Astonished Ethno-Muse” in which he puts his own spin on what Merriam had to say: “The lack of information and the need to study further increases in geometrical proportion to the passage of time.”  I believe what he is saying is that what researchers discover in their fieldtrips is merely the tip of the iceburg in “discovering” a culture’s music, and that there is so much more to it than just the musicological side or just the anthropological side.

John Blacking in “Music, Culture, Experience” (1995) presents us with a philosophical problem in regards to the means that we use to discuss music: verbal language. He asserts that all verbal discourse about music belongs to the realm of Metaphysics, because to “analyze nonverbal languages with verbal language runs the risk of distorting the evidence.” (p226)  However, he says that as long as you realize that you are subjective, and realize that complete objectivity is impossible, then it is possible to use verbal discourse to describe music. Using the “subjective verbal accounts of individuals” discoursing about music as data is crucial to coming to any realization in regards to verbal discourse of music. How people talk about the music they play, or listen to, is crucial to your research.

Blacking is asking us to not use our understanding of Western music to approach the “other’s music”, but listen to how they talk about it.  Partipant Observation strategies in ethnography teach us that we must be a part of the event, but not necessarily a part of the culture; how best to know about the music than to ask the people who play it? Phenomenology bases its foundation on the reflexivity of the individual’s perception of his/her own reality; so we should pay attention to the performative social space and how individuals operate in it, and listen to not necessarily just “what” they say, but “how” they are actually saying it. Informants often will tell you what they think you want to hear, or an ideal reality of traditional culture, a sort of “propaganda” that they wish to market to the world. If I read Blacking correctly, he is asking us to not just discourse about the music, but discourse about what the informants say about the music, and pay attention to the whole event, because they may say different things at different events.  Also, as he has situated their cultural knowledge in their cognitive abilities and patterns, we must look at these underlying algorithms beneath the music.  We must look at the structure and pattern that lie within the music, not just the music itself.

Shannon approaches this dilemma by delving into the aesthetics of what makes a true “tarab” musical performance.  He defines the essential quality as “ruh sharqiya”, which is comprised of “sidq”and “saltana” (sincerity and “groove”) that leads the audience to “tarab”, which is an altered state of consciousness, often called “trance”; the musical culture is also given this name (156).  He sees the link between the audience and the performer as essential to evoke this trance state, and this discourse is a part of the text of the performance material, not just the music.  I call this the “performative social space” after reading T.M. Scruggs take on it on the jazz scene in Chicago, as the whole area of the event, not just the stage, is involved in the performance (p 180-83).

Blacking asserts that music not only reflects society, but creates and influences it, too.  By placing focus not just on the musician, but the context, Blacking shows us the dialectical approach to music research.  One of my classmates in our Group B Discussion, Betsy, said it best in her WIKI response for week 3:

“Music-making is not just the product of human action, but also the product of human thought by founding the action.  He says that we can approximate the meaning of music through verbal discourse, while contending that music, as a nonverbal discourse, is an “unknowable truth”.  The epistemological reasoning for that approximation, the reason why we can communicate about and through music, is the fact that music is more than a cultural product or process, it is a mode of thought that is written into our very biological constitution. By believing that music is a pre-cultural, pre-linguistic, cognitive and sensory mode of thought, Blacking identifies that common musical feature that allows humans to overcome their situated and subjective experiences to communicate cross-culturally. Music’s referential value may be culturally encoded, but yet humans can recognize and even appreciate music from other cultures without understanding the social context. Blacking’s view accounts for this phenomenon by claiming a supra-cultural musical predisposition, what he terms “human bio-grammar”.

Studying music as a “human capability” not only allows theorists to understand the role that music plays in social constructions of reality, but also offers a basis for comparing different cultures as well as different non-musical modes of social activity, including verbal discourse. Accordingly, Blacking justifies his dialectical method: common musical bio-grammar bridges non-verbal and verbal discourse to produce meaningful insight about the varieties of music and to establish a broad understanding of music by “relating the cultural manifestations to the biological foundations” (p. 240). Blacking concludes by saying that this human-capability understanding of music allows us to acknowledge cultural contingencies without reducing or denigrating those differences by viewing them in light of our commonalities, “to enhance a general education and to build peaceful, egalitarian, and prosperous societies” (p.242) (Betsy).”

Shannon uses his contemporary Syrian model of music-making in “tarab” culture, to show how it is adapting to, but also creating modernity within the music that is reflective of the culture as a whole, and as individuals relate to the culture to transmute it into something new.  He defines modernity as “hadatha”, and it needs to have authenticity (“asala”), and heritage (“turath”) to be considered as a positive progression in the musical and cultural legacy of the people (81-82).

Shannon’s approach is very much based on Blacking’s ideas, and has been to merge the musicological side of Arab music in his research with an anthropological approach through ethnographic research, and to center the research “in the body” and in the thought processes of the peoples studied as seen in their art.  Shannon studies and researches modernity in Syrian music in anthropology, yet he is really adding to the discourse of normative practices in ethnomusicology; by focusing on the musical material and the people in all aspects of their life at the same time, he is blending the two sides of the debate perfectly and coming out with a third approach.  In this third approach of centering the research in human capability, i.e. the people’s cognitive processes of the mind, and in their bodily capacities as humans, Blacking has forged a new path for ethnomusicology today.

  1. Improvising Modernity-the “taqsim”:

As Blacking has stated that it is the thought behind the action that drives culture, Shannon borrows the concept of the taqsim, or improvisation, to explain how people are improvising with modernity and traditions to make a new culture.  Central to this ethnography is Shannon’s debate on modernity, and how Syrians “compose” their own modernity within music and within the larger supra-culture within which this music operates.  How does one link the past with the present and still honor the traditional aesthetics?  Napolean’s invasion of the Arab lands in 1798 began the introduction to European modernity, but how Arabs have composed this modernity is not directly the same as its source.

The taqsim in Arab music is the improvisation of an individual on any melodic instrument, and is a form of self-composition based on rules.  As this thought process of the taqsim is essential to understanding how Syrians self-compose music, Shannon borrows this idea and applies it to understanding how Syrians self-compose the process of modernity, and deliver a performance with virtuosity.  The taqsim is based on patterns of moving up and down the maqam, Arabic scale, and modulating to another scale to come back down usually to the original scale.  There are certain structures and phrases in the improvisation that must be there to make it “Arab”, however the individual’s virtuosity is expressed in how well one can create something new, and build on the foundation of what has already been played.  Improvisation does not just “come out of thin air”; rather it is based on an indexical knowledge base that is the heart of what is considered traditional.  What is key to this inherent “traditional” sound is the affection of the music, not just what is being played, but “how” it is being played.  Shannon found that “sentiment and economies of affect and emotion constitute a basis of difference in the production and composition of modernity in the conditions of late capitalism” (p 67).

The role of colonialism in shaping Syrians ideas of modernism shows the impact that Western European thinking has made on Arab ideas of nationhood and self.  “Modernity” is a concept that has come from Europe, and spread throughout the Middle East, because of colonialism.  Shannon states that Arab modernity need not necessarily mimic European modernity, but that its standards for measurement in temporality lie within the culture, and not without.  Using taqsim improvisation as a metaphor for modernity, Shannon illustrates the thought patterns behind Arab music, and especially highlighting how the individual composes by himself, rather than playing with the rest of the ensemble.  He uses the example of the term “world music” to show how European ideas and aesthetics of modernity provide the backbeat of this improvised modernity, but that other nations and regions provide diverse melodic and rhythmic additions.

Another way that he uses metaphor to explain modernity and its relationship amongst difference nations is by using the term “family resemblance” coined by Wittgenstein (p68).  Specific features of modernity, such as ways of defining the self and the community, may not always be the same, but in terms of characteristic features of a family of related social and cultural constellations they may have something in common. Even though they may have differing genealogical lines, there can be a “family resemblance” amongst various structures of modernity making.  “A polythetic approach to modernity allows for such indeterminacies without ignoring the underlying structural conditions that unite diverse experiences of the modern condition” (p68).

Following the idea that modernity can be traced genealogically, we see that there is a kinship between nations of similar origins.  These relations connect back to processes of ideologies, practices, and political-economic processes driven at least in part by colonialism, and crystallized with the rise of the nation-state.  Shannon posits that the improvisation metaphor offers a possible solution to the dilemma of how to account for the diverse “family resemblances” in the evolution of modern subjectivities, while acknowledging Europe’s dominance on the world stage in the last three centuries (p69).

  • Fieldwork:

The research techniques that Shannon used are in line with normative practices in ethnographic research in anthropology and ethnomusicology.  He uses participant observation as a main component, but he also puts a lot of effort into learning how to play the oud, a fretless guitar-like instrument.  He recognized that poetry lies at the heart of Arab music, so he studied the poetic structures of classical literature, and drew an analysis between the two.  Rather on focusing on modern constructions of reality for Arabs, Shannon focused on their aesthetic principles of sentiment and emotionality to lead him to what is important to them.  Rather than focusing on their concrete discourse, he focused on the thought processes behind them, which is the structures and patterns in the poetry and music.

He focuses his research and analysis of the aesthetics of authenticity on musical performance and aesthetics; ways of music-making, discourse about music, and habits of listening (preface).  Shannon used the structure of the wasla, or the tarab muscal suite, as the structure of this book, and in particular researches the muwahshah part within the suite.  Each chapter opens up with a matla, or introduction (as in the music), the main body, and ends with a qafla, or concluding piece that wraps up the themes of the main body.  I found this to be helpful in getting the “flow” of the musical genre, and in his using the “human capabilities” of the Arabs in his thinking, I believe he conveyed their sentiments in a more successful manner.

  1. Theoretical Positioning:

I would like to take a look at the book, and how he progresses his own thought patterns in writing it.  We have already discussed how he composed each chapter, but now I would like to turn to the “flow” of the entire book.  He starts out with what Syrians call “authentic Oriental spirit”, and discusses composing Syrian modernity, as discussed above.  Then, he goes back into history to put these cultures in a temporal context, to help unlock why they think what they think about what is “authentic” from a cultural emotional memory standpoint.  From a broad historical analysis, he goes into taking it into “body memory”, temporality, and transformation in the sacred music tradition of the dhikr ceremony, a Sufi ritual of “music” and movement.  After that he goes onto to ask questions about performance, and what makes a whole performance authentic.  He then closes the book with his conclusions about what tarab, sentiment and authenticity mean to modern day Syrians.

This semester we went over several different theoretical frameworks that ethnomusicology uses today.  I have sectioned them into main categories to discuss how Shannon employs them in each of the chapters.

  1. Diffusionism/Universals (evolutionism)

Evolutionism and Diffusionism are two opposing theories that try to help us explain the origin of something, and in this book, the origin of tarab music.  Evolutionism says that things progress in a straight linear line, and has been an out-dated theory for centuries, because of its racist tendencies of generalizing cultural traits, and making ethnocentric conjectures that some cultures are farther down on the linear path than others.  Evolutionism says everything has one source, but Diffusionism says that a thing can have many sources.  Diffusionism can also imply that there is no origin in the culture being studied, in that “everything comes from somewhere else”.  This also has a racist implication, in that it can be seen as saying that a culture that has a “family resemblance” to another culture could not have possibly originated it, that it is somehow inferior to the original culture.

Our whole understanding of cultures divided into “area groups” in anthropology has been influenced by Diffusionism.  Physical space and geographic boundaries constitute the foundation of similar culture traits in this theory.  According to this theory, cultural allocation is determined by place, and historically all of ethnographic study has been determined by this framework in ethnomusicology.  Shannon certainly uses this lens through which to look at tarab music, and as he explains the history of this genre through his informants’ eyes, it is evident that indeed “history is written by the conqueror”.

To Syrian Arabs, “authenticity” is situated temporally in the Old City of Allepo, the countryside in antiquity, and in the desert.  Time-wise it is most likely during the reign of the Ottomans that make Syrian Arabs grow nostalgic and music from this era is considered “authentic” (p87-90).  These are metaphors of authenticity, juxtaposed with metaphors of inauthenticity, i.e. the poor who populate the current Old City, the “backwardness” of the country people, and idealizing the desert Bedouin life.

The origin of the music also follows a Diffusionist thinking, even by Arabs themselves.  It is evident that ethnocentricism is still a fault of Diffusionism, however in use it may be, in that the claim to origin means ownership over the thing.  Shannon discovered that after talking with several informants of various ethnic backgrounds in Syria, the reigning conclusion was that this genre was as old as the Kurds, and some say it is actually Kurdish.  This goes against the high art culture that has been associated with tarab music, and some say that it could not have possibly come from “simple mountain folk people”.  Seeing that the Syrian romantic notion of authenticity in history was during the Ottoman reign, Shannon was told that the origin was most likely a royal court setting, and not a village, for the current transmutation of tarab.  My own spin on this is that I think it came from the Kurds, the “original Iranians”, but it was codified in the courts of the subsequent Persian dynasties, and instilled into the Ottoman legacy in later years.

What I found interesting is that he was told that Persian music was a large influence on Arab music, but that it was not worth investigating, because they are too different now.  My experience with Persian music and talking to Persians about their music is that they claim that Arab music is a bastardization of Persian music.  The ethnocentricity of Arabs not wanting to speak to Persians about Arab music, and Persians not wanting to speak to Arabs about Persian music, shows that Diffusionism is a double edged sword.  Everything has an origin somewhere, and everything is also shared.  I think we can credit the Ottoman Empire as the greatest transmission of culture in the Middle East; and it is my opinion that this genre of tarab music harkens back to the days of the Ottomans.  After studying with the Turkish Chair here at IU, Dr. Kemal Silay, a specialist in Ottoman court poetry, I have learned that most Ottoman culture had been borrowed from the Armenian and Persian royal courts, which were “cousins” of each other, and had friendly relations (Silay, personal interview).  All Turkish court literature is based on the genres developed by the Persians.  So, if the music patterns follow the poetry patterns, and the origin for these patterns in the Ottoman court is from the Persian court, then I believe it is safe to say that the Arab culture of today that is based on Ottoman culture has Persian roots.  As Blacking stated, culture is found in the cognitive processes of the people, so if we use the diffusionist thinking to continue this thought we can see that tarab music is based on Persian royal court music, because the structure and format of the music is the same.  This is not the conclusion that Shannon came to, but knowing more about Ottoman court culture I feel comfortable making this conjecture.  By this extension I will also say that the dance follows the musical patterns and history, and so the dance that goes with the Ottoman court tradition has influenced the dance that goes with Arab classical music, raqs sharqi.  In fact, the Ottomans have shaped the dance that we call “bellydance” today the most out of any other cultural influence, and it is my belief that “bellydance” in Egypt today is not Egyptian at all in origin, but Ottoman Turkish.  The Egyptians have taken the dance and mixed it with their own “human capabilities”, and came out with a new Egyptian evolved version of bellydance.

However, there is one problematic that Shannon brings up, and that is the fuzzy grey line between sacred and secular music.  He says that they are not mutually exclusive, and that sacred Sufi music is the basis for secular tarab music.  This leads me onto the next section to discuss the dhikr music more in depth.

  1. Functionalism/Musical Structure/Social Structure

Ethnomusicology borrowed Functionalism, and particularly Structural-Functionalism, from Cultural Anthropology, as a means to explain the social function of music in culture.  Franz Boas is accredited with bringing this theory to the forefront, and began the American Anthropology movement that highlighted this paradigm.  Shannon discusses the social utility of tarab music in his chapter on the dhikr, a Sufi ritual of music and movement that is an unorthodox form of Islam that has pre-Islamic roots.

By chanting the 99 names of Allah and using a format similar to the tarab wasla, the Sheihk leads his followers on a journey of remembering Allah.  The Sufi ritual musically has its roots in the Christian church that came before it, and its pre-Islamic roots for the repetitive movements it employs, such as whirling, come from Central Asian shamanism ritual practices (Bolat, personal interview).  Each maqam has a different feeling or affectation that it brings to the participants.  According to Sufi musician Latif Bolat, Turkish Sheihks would prescribe the maqam as medicine to cure the ailments of his followers.  For instance, nihavendt is for humility, hijaz is for sensuality, and ussak gives one a clear perspective when one is depressed (ibid).  Shannon found this to be true in Allepo, as well; his informants focused on the healing aspects of the music, although they refer to it as emptying ones ego and becoming near to God.  He says that becoming one with God is not possible until death, but that getting near is what is happening in the Sufi rituals he participated in.  Sufis say you must “die before you die”, and this ritual is central to the practical application of this sentiment.

The temporal and spiritual transformations that take place in the Sufi ritual also influence the social relations at the time of the dhikr.  The music seems to dissolve the normal everyday perceptions of self in the individual and the collective.  People that have a low standing in society are often elevated above those who have more social standing; for instance, the religious leaders and their families are poor, but during the ritual they are subsumed to a higher placement as their social function is elevated during the dhikr.  Also, conversely the members of society who are rich or have respected jobs, such as doctors, engineers and professors, become deflated in the presence of the Sheihk (Shannon, 125).  A sense of community, or as Victor Turner called “communitas”, is the social function goal, as well as aligning the individual in close proximation spiritually to God.  By remembering the names of Allah, one remembers all of the sentiments and bodily behaviors that are important to Muslims.

This style of Sufi music also sets the stage for what Syrians consider “authentic” qualities in tarab musical style.  Shannon discusses how similar the two styles are, and that the importance of emotion and sentiment are central to what is considered “authentic”.  He saw many social function parallels in watching the tarab concerts, as well, and many of the concert-goers told him that in order to understand this music he must listen to Sufi music.  I would say the same thing for the dance that goes with the tarab style of music, raqs sharqi, or “bellydance”; that in order to understand the secular music that is used for it, it is imperative to listen to the source of that format, which is Sufi music.


Blacking’s placement of culture in the human body as cognitive processes and bodily functions is right in line with what Shannon discovered during the Sufi rituals; that understanding of the self in the form of bodily memory, such as physical transformation and communal position, and dissolving during the rituals highlighted what was also important to Syrians in tarab music:  asala (authenticity), turath (heritage), sidq (emotional sincerity), ruh sharqiya (Oriental Spirit), saltana (performer’s “groove”), and tarab (musical rapture by the audience).  Being “authentic” cannot happen if one is not “authentic” to one’s emotional self; humility in a performer is necessary for tarab to occur in the audience, so that an empty vessel is made for the Oriental Spirit to enter.

Shannon’s ethnography highlights all of the new trends in Ethnomusicology:  Blacking and Merriam based paradigms that have shifted to include the researcher more and more into the research; emphasis on musical algorithms that lie beneath the surface of the sound, and that can be seen in other cognitive processes in the people’s body of art.  Dissolving culture area studies to get to the fundamentals of what strikes the chord of harmony or dissonance between cultures is the wave of the future in Ethnomusicology.

Sources Cited

Benjamin Ives Gilman, The Science of Exotic Music Author(s): Source: Science, New Series, Vol.      30, No.   772 (Oct. 15, 1909), pp. 532-535 Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science

David P. McAllester, The Astonished Ethno-Muse Author(s): Source: Ethnomusicology, Vol. 23, No. 2 (May, 1979), pp. 179-189 Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of Society for Ethnomusicology Stable

Ester Basya Vaisman, E522 classmate in my Group B Discussion Group, Indiana University, Oncourse WIKI question, week 3.  2010.

John Blacking.  Music, Culture, Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking.  Ed. Reginald Byron and Bruno Nettl. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Jonathan Holt Shannon, Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria.  (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn.  2006).

Kemal Silay. Turkish Chair, Indiana University.  Personal interview, 2000.

Latif Bolat.  Private interview.  Bloomington, Indiana. 1998.

T. M. Scruggs, “Come on in North Side, You’re Just in Time”. Current Musicology, Nos. 71-73, pp. 179-199.   Spring 2001-2002.