Sami Abu Halkha fell in love with music as soon as he opened his eyes to the world. By the age of fifteen, he already knew it was his calling in life. As soon as he embarked on his artist’s journey, he encountered difficulties: both his family and the rest of the community refused to accept that he study or practice music. He had grown up in the Khalidiya neighborhood in Homs, which he describes as a particularly conservative, fundamentalist and illiberal place.
“Families would forbid their daughters from finishing school,” he says, “using the excuse that a woman’s place was in her husband’s house. Though my family was less conservative in that sense, they were still quite hardline when it came to music or mixing between the genders.”
But Sami insisted on pursuing his dream, regardless of the obstacles he encountered. He enrolled in the Al-Amin Musical Conservatory and bought himself a guitar without his family’s knowledge. He simply chose to ignore both the view of the surrounding social environment and his family’s coldness toward him when they discovered what he had done. “The problem was in the general social environment,” says Sami, “people’s level of awareness and education. They saw it as completely unthinkable to choose music as a profession. It got so bad there was no music teacher at the school, and so the kids were forced to take a nap during the hour allotted for music. I went to one of the schools and offered to teach the children music, and I was met with mockery and refusal.”
The problems between Sami and his family continued as he progressed in his guitar lessons. They tried to stop him from coming and going freely to the conservatory. Sami kept the fact that he lived in Khalidiya a secret from his Christian peers at the conservatory, as it was generally seen as a rigidly conservative area, where people were ignorant and prone to violence. He was also the only Muslim among his peers. After his relationship with them had deepened and grown stronger, he decided to come clean with the truth about where he came from. He was immediately accepted and all was well.
As he grew closer to his Christian peers, Sami found himself drawn to their way of life. Their family environments were completely different than his; he could easily sit and converse with the sisters and mothers of his peers, and there was none of the repression and gender segregation he had grown up with.
Sami wished to invite some of his new friends, both boys and girls, to come visit him at home. When he suggested this to his family, he was met with a harsh reaction. He waited until his father traveled before inviting them, and his mother welcomed them warmly. However, when his father found out, he was enraged, accusing Sami of turning his home into a cabaret and of smearing the family’s reputation, and he broke Sami’s guitar as punishment.
Sami had had enough. He decided to move out of his house and the neighborhood altogether. He began looking for a new place to live, continuing to attend music classes and increasing in proficiency. He frequently visited his girlfriend, who offered that they practice music together after Sami’s guitar had been broken.
News of his difficult circumstances spread among his peers and one of his friends offered Sami the opportunity to live with one of his Christian acquaintances. So Sami left his house and moved in with John, who lived in a large, three-story home, and where he was welcomed warmly by John’s family.
As time went on, Sami began to feel that he was truly part of John’s family, though his own family and relatives continued to treat him with disdain. With every visit home, his father would admonish him to return to his rightful place.
“The best days of my life where those in which I lived in that house,” says Sami, “surrounded by male and female friends. It was an atmosphere of music and joy, but it didn’t last long. My father put an enormous amount of pressure on me, threatening continuously to disown me entirely. In the end, I caved in and moved back home.”
One day, Sami played an Arabic song for his father, who encouraged him and expressed his admiration. Sami was unspeakably happy, and returned to the conservatory, devoting his time to composing his own music.
Sami composed jazz music along with some of his friends, re-interpreting and rearranging some songs by the Lebanese diva Fairouz. They began preparing for their first concert, working to perfect the six songs on their set list. The band played under the name Kulna Sawa (all of us together) and had a very limited budget at their disposal, so they decided to perform at the Greek Orthodox community hall, which was cheap to rent. They printed leaflets to advertise the event and distributed them at different universities and institutions, charging a small symbolic amount for entry. The band’s first concert was a resounding success. Sami, however, was still anxious about the strange rhythms they were playing with, weaving jazz into Oriental songs, especially those of Fairouz. But those fears were put to rest when he saw the warm reception they were met with and how popular they proved to be among the young people.
The band put on a number of successful concerts in Homs, until they decided they were ready to venture elsewhere, choosing Aleppo as their next destination.
It proved financially difficult, however, to play in Aleppo, as it was more expensive to put on a concert there than it had been in Homs. However, the son of Arabic singing star Sabah Fakhri, Anas, (who unlike his father, sang rock songs), took a liking to them, and offered the opening set of his concert to the band. This was a great help for them, as they had a ready-made audience in the form of Anas’s fans, who gave the band an enthusiastic reception.
Their next stop was Damascus, and they rehearsed tirelessly to ensure they were well-prepared for their debut in the capital. The Damascene audience also loved their sound, and they had fans traveling in from Homs and Aleppo to hear them play.
“The concert in Damascus was a real turning point for the band,” says Sami. “After that we were invited to play on television. We were able to reach a whole new audience that way, and our popularity increased. But the war breaking out put an end to all of that. Our band broke up, and now each of us is in a different country.”