It’s spring’s first balmy Saturday evening, and the Convergence parking lot is packed. The Alexandria church and community arts center regularly hosts punk shows for neighborhood teens, but today, the reception area is filled with an incongruous combination of young church families, foreign dignitaries, and 30-something punks in Replacements T-shirts and full-sleeve tattoos. Meanwhile, the man they’re all here to see, Jason Hamacher, is dismayed to learn that he has to do something wildly out of character: give a speech.
“I actually never prepare anything, ever,” Hamacher says. “I never prepare until a friend of mine, who’s a Syrian diplomat, sends me a text message that says, ‘I’m coming and I’m bringing my mother and my boyfriend.’ It made me seriously think, ‘What am I going to say?’”
The speech in question is meant to provide some context to the photographs hanging in the church’s lobby and the austere, harmonious chants playing in its sanctuary. Between 2006 and 2010, Hamacher made several trips to Syria, taking more than 20,000 photos of everything from the Grand Mosque in Aleppo to a bartender wearing a bow tie. He also recorded both the world’s oldest Christian music and the Sufi chants reverberating in the sanctuary.
Many of the buildings depicted in Hamacher’s images have since been leveled amid the country’s civil war, rendering his collection a potentially vital record of Syrian history and culture. But Hamacher is not an anthropologist or religious expert—and he doesn’t consider himself a professional photographer.
“I’m not an artist,” Hamacher says. “I’m a drummer with a camera.”
Indeed, most of his D.C. friends know the affable 37-year-old with the large, expressive eyes as the drummer for a slew of local hardcore bands (Frodus, Decahedron, Battery, Regents). And the impetus for his original trip to the Middle Eastern country wasn’t any kind of scholarly expedition. He was looking for ideas for a band.
In 2005, after the dissolution of Decahedron, Hamacher’s project with Frodus’ Shelby Cinca and Fugazi’s Joe Lally, Hamacher began thinking about a new musical endeavor with Discount’s Bill Nesper and Lovitt Records’ Nathan Tsoi. The unorthodox combination of two drummers and a keyboardist left the three members struggling to conceptualize how they would make music that, in Hamacher’s words, “would not suck.” Ultimately, they decided to form a rock orchestra: multiple people playing each instrument in full-bodied movements, not tight, four-minute songs. When Nesper called Hamacher to say he’d found some interesting Serbian chants that could inspire the sound of the orchestra, Hamacher misheard him. “Syria! Amazing!” he responded. Then the call disconnected.
Hamacher already had the Middle East on the brain. He’d traveled alone for several months through Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan after touring the region with Good Clean Fun in 2001, and returned to Turkey on a break between tours with the (International) Noise Conspiracy. It was during that initial solo trip that he bought From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple, a book on the travels of a Byzantine monk from Turkey to Cairo, which he’d read two years before Nesper’s aborted phone call. When Hamacher thought he heard “Syria,” his mind went to the part of the book that mentions a desert monastery inhabited by monks who sing exceptionally beautiful chants. He decided to contact Dalrymple and track down the chants.
Cold-calling a random author in Great Britain might intimidate some people, but Hamacher isn’t shy. He gives credit to his growing up on the D.C. hardcore scene. “To know that you can call Ian MacKaye and get him on the phone, I think, was one of the things that led, in a very basic sense, [to] how I approach everything,” he says. “I’m like, ‘I’m just going to call all of these people.’”
Hamacher’s request for a copy of the old Christian chants received swift responses from both Dalrymple and, later, the archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church of the United States. He was surprised to find that not only did the latter not have a recording of the chants, but that no one on the planet did. So Hamacher asked the archbishop, “Do you want me to make one?”
Hamacher is still amazed by how easily the Syrian embassy accepted his proposals to record these Christian chants and photograph Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world. The Syrian ambassador was particularly impressed with Hamacher’s photographs from previous trips to the Middle East. “I want to make this commercially available,” he said as he flipped through a folio of Hamacher’s shots. “How do we do that?”
The ambassador explained that he often bought a book about Damascus from Amazon to offer as a gift to visitors of the embassy. He couldn’t find a book on Aleppo, the biggest city in Syria, though, and thought Hamacher’s photo tour could be a first step toward that end. Though Hamacher never worked for the Syrian government, it was this endorsement from the ambassador that allowed him to take photographs in buildings where ordinary Syrian residents, and certainly foreign travelers, were not permitted.
And that’s how Hamacher’s purpose in Syria expanded from a personal search for rock-orchestra inspiration to a charge for official documentation. On his initial trip to Syria in 2006, he stayed with the archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Aleppo. In 2007, he had an official meeting at the home of the Grand Mufti, the country’s official head of Islam. Over multiple trips in 2008, Hamacher photographed every headstone in the nation’s Jewish graveyards and recorded those Urfan chants he’d originally set out to find, which will eventually be released by Smithsonian Folkways.
There’s an entire chapter in the upcoming coffee table book on night photography; in a habit he formed on Battery’s tours, Hamacher walked around Aleppo at night to clear his head. Hamacher describes himself as Frodus’ “crazy customer service guy,” the band’s go-to merch mover, and he put those people skills to work as he traveled alone around Syria, where he says he was amazed by the generosity and friendliness of the people he met. He spent time “walking around Internet cafes, talking with people on the streets…Every time, it was like this overwhelming sense of inclusion. I’ve never experienced this level of, ‘Oh, just come over and hang out. No big deal. It’s 3 a.m. in the middle of the street.’” A group of Kurdish men at one particular deli even gave Hamacher a pet name: “Hummus,” because, as a vegetarian, that was all he ordered.
Still, not all of his experiences in Syria were fortuitous. On his second trip, he had a run-in at the Great Mosque of Aleppo with a group of angry gentlemen who thought his photographs were making a mockery of their religion, and by his final trip, in 2010, his access had been severely restricted. Unable to take some of the photographs he wanted, he opted instead to spend his time recording Sufi music in the courtyard of a 500-year-old house. With some assistance from Electric Cowbell label head (and original GWAR drummer) Jim Thomson, Hamacher plans to release these songs as a series of four LPs called Sacred Voices of Syria, the first of which has been available for digital download since May 6. Although Hamacher initially feared that boxes of these LPs might take up residence in his living room, all of the physical copies of Sacred Voices of Syria Volume I made available for Record Store Day sold out.
Initially, Hamacher had chosen to put work on the book on hold out of respect for the struggle in Syria, but recently, his progress on the book has been delayed due to a motorcycle wreck that sidelined the book’s designer, Keeley Davis of Bughummer, Sparta, and Engine Down. Hamacher is now working with another designer—and when the volume, which is still in the final layout stages, comes out, it’ll be the first English-language book on the city of Aleppo, and one of just a few that focus on the city through the lens of the people rather than the architecture.
After all his travels, Hamacher believes that the country of violent conflict we’ve all seen on the news is not the one he’s come to know. There are more than tinges of sadness tied to the photographs that Hamacher exhibited at Convergence: Two of the archbishops he photographed have since been kidnapped, and several buildings—from the bazaars to the Great Mosque itself—have been burned or completely destroyed.
During his speech at the exhibit’s opening, Hamacher’s voice cracks as he relays a tale of a friend in Syria who told him, via Facebook, as the Civil War broke out in front of his home, “If I don’t make it, show everyone that we are civilized. That we are people. That we are not what you see on the news.”
Corrections: Due to reporting errors, the following changes have been made: Hamacher traveled alone for several months after his Good Clean Fun tour, not several weeks. His trip to Turkey wasn’t on the International Noise Conspiracy tour, it was between tours. He read Dalrymple’s book two years before his phone call with Nesper, not a few weeks. Hamacher’s run-in at the mosque was on his second trip to Syria, not his first. He met with the Grand Mufti in 2007, not 2006. He photographed the Jewish headstones in 2008, not 2007. He formed his habit of walking around at night on tours with Battery, not Frodus. He was never signed to Dischord Records, but he spent a lot of time at the Dischord house, and Amanda MacKaye helped book one of his tours. Hamacher is also not a strict vegetarian—-just a regular vegetarian.
Hamacher will host a release party for the next installment of Sacred Voices of Syria at Busboys and Poets’ 14th Street NW location on June 16.
Top photo by Darrow Montgomery. Other photos by Jason Hamacher.