Syrian band Safar has shone a light on Syria's electricity crisis with their new music video.
Released last month Ya Weel Weely (Oh My!) received considerable attention online and racked up more than five million views on YouTube within a week of its release in July.
Not only is that down to the quality of the yearning folk song, but the video’s nifty concept which starkly highlights the everyday struggles faced by Syrians.
With no electricity available on the day of the planned shoot in Damascus, guitarist Wafi Abbas tells The National the sextet had to improvise on the spot.
“In a way, we really shouldn’t have been surprised by the situation as electricity in most parts of Syria has increasingly become a luxury,” he says ahead of Safar's matinee concert at Dubai Opera on Friday.
“In most cases, you would get a few hours a day and we hoped we could do something with that time. As it turned out, it wasn’t to be and we decided to still shoot the video using battery-operated lights.”
A modern take on traditional sounds
Such a simple measure elevated Ya Weel Weely to a new level of artistry. Had they gone with the original concept of the boys simply jamming in a room, it would have been a decent offering.
The new visual treatment, however, not only accentuates the lyrical laments of the protagonist’s lost hopes and dreams, but they subtly correlate with that of Syria, which has been ravaged by civil war since 2011.
Not that the band was initially thinking on such grand terms. “Our focus was really on writing the best song that we can,” Abbas says.
“But seeing the reaction I am beginning to understand why the video is touching a lot of people, not just in Syria but across the Arab world.
“This issue of electricity shortage is not just a Syrian situation, but we can also see that clearly in Lebanon.”
The regional attention set up the anticipation for the band’s new album Tajriba Raqam Thnain (Experience No 2), which was released in August.
It is another evocative slice of modern folk sung in the Syrian dialect. A new feature of the recording is the subtle hints of electronica that bubble underneath songs such as Ya Weel Weely and the jazzy chords of Ya Leil (The Night).
“This is not really a radical departure,” Abbas admits. “It’s more a reflection of where we are in that we do want to offer more of a variety.
"The first album, Tajriba Raqam Wahid (Experience No 1), was pretty close, compositionally, to classical Syrian songs, so it’s always good to stretch ourselves a little more.”
How YouTube changed the game for Safar
Safar's latest resurgence, with two albums released in six years, came after an 11-year hiatus.
They first formed under the name Muhajirin in 1999, building a solid reputation across the Levant with festival appearances in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. With all that momentum, the group, which was renamed Safar in 2001, suddenly broke up in 2004 and members went their separate ways.
“It wasn’t down to any tension at all,” Abbas says. “It’s just life and we grew up and we all had our responsibilities. We were an independent band with no major backing so we all had to also look after ourselves.”
While the group remain independent, the only difference when Safar reunited in 2015 was the arrival of streaming services and social media.
“That changed everything for us, particularly YouTube,” Abbas explains. “We would not be where we are right now without these sites because they are geared towards encouraging people to discover new artists.”
There are more sounds on the way, too, not only from Safar, who have begun working on fresh material, but also a new generation of independent Syrian bands.
“I am seeing a lot of activity particularly here in Damascus,” he says. “This is not done in spite of the difficulties that we Syrians have been facing for years, but also because of it.
“I see more purpose in the scene here and I look forward to hearing what comes out.”
Safar performs at Dubai Opera on Friday, September 10; concert begins at 4.30pm; tickets from Dh175 are available at dubaiopera.com