New top music tour destination: Damascus

Damascus is increasingly on the radar for international music tours. Artists have been surprised at the huge turnout to performances.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Syria’s ancient capital is hardly the usual venue for an international band on tour. Partly due to its negative image in the West and partly because it is uncharted territory for foreign musicians, pop-loving Syrians have long been resigned to traveling to neighboring Lebanon or Jordan to watch their favorite international artists. Now that’s changing.

This summer saw pioneering dance DJs making inroads. Legendary Dutch trance-music producer Ferry Corsten was one of the first. “The Syrian crowd was amazing,” he says. “Everyone should go and play there.”

Fresh from a summer schedule headlining the Coachella (Calif.), Glastonbury (England), and Benecassim (Spain) music festivals, Gorillaz – the genre-defying animated brainchild of former Blur front man Damon Albarn – recently performed in Damascus’s medieval citadel, giving Syria its first taste of an international rock show. Among the 60-strong band were Bobby Womack, De La Soul, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash, Bootie Brown, and the Syrian National Orchestra for Arab Music, but no one really knew what sort of crowd would show up. “In London we play to 100,000, but here we’d be happy if 10 people turned up,” Mr. Albarn said before the concert. “We’re hoping to start a dialogue between Arab and Western musicians, that’s all.”

Thousands attended. “That was so surreal,” said Bassel Harwil, a college student. “I just hope we get more of these.”

They might. Event promoter Naji Baz declared it a success: “The crowd response was better than anyone had hoped; there’s definitely a market here for more.”

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