Women Musicians from Syria:

Performance, Networks, Belonging/s after Migration

A research project at MMRC, funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF)



Brief description:

My research studies the lives and music of women musicians from Syria. The project focusses on five women who migrated to Austria and Germany after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, and who have continued their musical work after migration: a violinist who plays European and Arab art music; a musician who sings traditional and modern Arab music; a singer-songwriter who composes pop/rock/hip-hop covers; a singer-songwriter who performs her own compositions in Arabic; and a quanun player who concentrates on a traditional repertoire.

By exploring the networks, opportunities, and performances of these musicians through interviews and participant observation, I document their biographies and (musical) activities in their life after migration. The project sets out to show which belonging/s – on an emotional and institutionalised level – are relevant in the lives and music of the women musicians. Is it more important to the musicians to be Syrian, migrants/refugees, women or mothers, or is it more important to be Muslim, of a certain age, musicians, artists, or an Alawite (a religious group in Syria)? How do these aspects depend on, and influence each other? How do these belonging/s change in different situations and over time, particularly after migration? How does being classified as ‘refugee’ or ‘Syrian’ by others influence the feeling of (non-)belonging? And most importantly: what belonging/s are present and presented in music, and how are they performed and communicated through music? How did this change with migration?

Placing the individuals and their experiences at the centre of my work, I show the multitude of possible belonging/s and the diversity among ‘Syrians’, effectively dismissing the widespread notion of a coherent Syrian diaspora group. I understand belonging as a process, as changeable, and as interdependent on other belongings — an idea that is particularly apparent in musical performances and musical life. Belongings can range from musical networks to family relations, religious communities, a nation, and an externally asserted group of ‘migrants’. My project argues that the belonging/s which become relevant and are performed, in music and beyond, depend strongly on other belonging/s as well as the context and the intention to present certain belonging/s.

My research enhances our understanding of Syrian migrants in Germany and Austria with a pertinent focus on their musical life. It will contribute to the academic debates around music and belonging, showing that there is more to the musical lives of migrant musicians than the performance of ‘Syrian’ music. Generating a better understanding of the complexities of belonging and being, including ourselves, my research counters a political discussion that ascribes ready-made identities to people of other skin colour, religion, and descent.


Project lead: Anja Brunner

Project members: Tessa Balser-Schuhmann, María del Mar Ocaña Guzmán

Project duration: 01/2020 to 12/2023, at MMRC since 04/2021 (previously at the University of Vienna)

Funding: The Austrian Science Fund FWF

Elise Richter Program Grant-DOI 10.55776/V706

Project website: https://anjabrunner.at/