“From Beirut, this is Damascus”.
Thus solemnly began frontman Jake Shuker a stripped down rendition of Seals of Astarte, a catchy melodic death metal song from Syrian band Maysaloon’s first album that was released last year.
This moment happened during the second edition of the Beirut Metal Fest, a new heavy metal festival in Lebanon that began in 2017 and that is planned to continue on a yearly basis. What’s special about Maysaloon’s performance there last September? It was the first time a Syrian band based in Syria has performed outside their country since the Syrian conflict started in 2011.
Although the Syrian conflict led to many musicians leaving Syria, the closing down of recording studios and the disbanding of several bands that used to be considered pillars of the heavy metal scene there, still a number of Syrian metal bands were formed in the middle of the conflict.
Jake Shuker himself was only 15 when the conflict in Syria began, and formed Maysaloon in 2015. With the war limiting what young Syrians could do in their spare time, people like Jake embraced their instruments, spending hours practicing as bombs were landing in their neighborhoods.
The result of this dedication was the formation of a death metal quartet with a high level of musicianship despite its members’ young age.
“The band started when we decided to embrace our dreams knowing the way forward is obscure, since metal music in the Middle East is considered controversial. You can’t predict if you will get discovered and respected,” Jake says.
Maysaloon and other metal bands in Syria like Haunted Cellar, Merrin, Absentation and Step To Eternity created a new era for the local metal scene. Before the war, the Syrian metal scene was one of the most significant in the Middle East, but lack of resources meant that most Syrian bands were not known outside the country, and society and the authorities frowned upon metalheads, seeing them as dangerous Satanists. Despite this, metal concerts would attract thousands of local fans. “People used to go to underground gigs in many cities, yet it was dangerous to attend due to the accusations of Satanism against metalheads,” Jake explains.
The early years of the war significantly lessened the frequency of metal activities in Syria as people were displaced or fled the country. As Jake comments, “The uprising in our country has consumed us at all levels, but the hardest strike is when the bands had to disband due to the refugee crisis”.
But later, at the height of the war, Maysaloon was one of the leaders in resurrecting the Syrian metal scene, organizing concerts in Damascus, Lattakia and other cities in Syria in a deliberate effort to keep metal alive. Social media is full of insane footage of such concerts in which hundreds of Syrian metalheads are seen headbanging in the historic surroundings of Old Damascus. Jake describes the experience as “surrounded by Damascene Jasmine trees, an old, traditional building is where we used to hit our extreme melodies. People came from all around the city to attend a metal event in the world’s oldest capital, Damascus”.
Rather ironically, what helped this wartime boom for metal is that the Syrian authorities that had before the war harassed metalheads became too busy with the war, thereby indirectly creating a space for metalheads to become active.
And boy did Syrian metalheads lap it up! For Maysaloon, this meant composing and recording their debut album The Forgotten Dawn on a barebones budget and developing an ambition to make the band professional and known internationally.
Jake comments: “It began right after our first gig in Damascus in late 2015. We decided to write our own material. With the damage war is causing, writing an album isn’t an easy thing. There are electricity cuts, you have no money, it was total mess!”
What the band lacks in resources, it makes up for in attitude. They want to be known as serious musicians and not as victims of war. They are aware that their next album must have a better sound quality than the first and have therefore decided to move the whole band to neighboring Lebanon to work on their sophomore album. They performed three new songs from this planned album at the Beirut Metal Fest, leading to a dusty circle pit of enthused fans chanting the band’s name.
The new album is just one of Maysaloon’s projects on their path to break into the international market. Last year, the lead guitarist of the Canadian band First Fragment was Maysaloon’s guest vocalist on the single Misanthropia Pt.1. In October this year, a short documentary they made about their story was shown continuously for a week in an art gallery in London as part of an exhibition about the Syrian conflict. And they are devising plans to eventually perform in Europe.
In other words, this is only the beginning for Maysaloon. Watch this space!
Text by Lina Metalina, photos: Band, Charles Assaf for the Beirut Metal Fest