Syrian Cantors

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The Syrian Cantor or hazzan leads the traditional prayer rituals in the synagogues of the Syrian Jews. He conducts the services using ten maqamat or musical modes. A cantor must be fully cognizant of these maqamat and their applications to the prayers. Each week, depending on the week's Torah portion, there is a different maqam being used.


The maqam system is characteristic of, and can be used to classify, all Arabic music.

The term maqam has various shades of meaning. On the most basic level, a maqam is a musical scale. A few of these consist of steps of a whole tone and half a tone in the same way as the Western diatonic scale. Others also admit steps of one and a half tones, like the Western harmonic minor and the steiger of Ashkenazic cantorial practice. The majority include one or more three-quarter tone steps, this being the distinguishing characteristic of Arabic and other Middle Eastern music.

In addition to the scale used, each maqam has different conventions governing which note of the scale predominates, which note a melody must end on and the characteristic melodic turns of phrase; thus there can be two or more maqamat using the same basic scale. Each maqam has a different flavor or mood, which is meant to provoke certain moods, thoughts, and emotions. Due to that fact and the myriad of possible combinations, there are over one hundred maqamat, each named after its supposed city or region of origin in the Middle East. (This may be compared with the...
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