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Out of War’s Ruins, Sounds of Hope and Unity From Iraq

May 04, 2011 via Arabic Knowledge@Wharton

As Iraq rebuilds itself, the sound of youthful optimism and hope can be heard from a collection of young classical musicians. Two years ago, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq was formed, bringing together more than 40 young musicians from all over the war-torn country to create a symphony. The idea started with a teenage Iraqi musical prodigy named Zuhal Sultan who used the Internet to seek out help from musicians and orchestras around the world. She founded the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq in 2008 while living in Baghdad, but now lives in Scotland.

Sultan recalled the early days of the orchestra’s formation. Through Twitter, she reached out to the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq at the time, Barham Salih. Sultan met him a few days later and he gave her US$50,000 as seed money for the orchestra.

Reflecting on how social media has played a key role in organizing the current protests in the Middle East, Sultan is amazed at how quickly and widespread the unrest unfolded across the region. “Even if the governments are not all falling, at least the governments are now listening to the protestors,” she says.

Allegra Klein, a violinist based in Iraq and founder of Musicians for Harmony, also helped Sultan launch the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. She remembered meeting a 16-year-old Sultan at an Iraqi musical training program in 2007. “She was even then a standout not just for her musical talent, which is enormous, but also for her leadership,” Klein says. “Shortly after, Musicians For Harmony appointed Zuhal as its Global Youth Ambassador. When she broached the idea of starting a youth orchestra, I thought it was a brilliant and inspired idea.”

A Symbol Of Civilization

Organizing the youth orchestra was not just about having young people play together, Sultan notes. “The experience also deeply affects the psychological well-being of the musicians, especially in Iraq.” She recalls how the first day of rehearsals in their annual two-week summer camp sounds a little cacophonous, but by the last day of the camp, the music is akin to “rearing balls of energy.” The orchestra, she adds, provides a positive dimension to the world’s view of Iraqi youths.

“It is also a powerful signal that a country returns to normal life,” said Ulrich Brueckner, professor for European Studies at Stanford University in Berlin. In an interview at an international symposium on art and music at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin, Brueckner said youth orchestras are empirical evidence of the successful development of a country like Iraq. “It’s a symbol of civilization,” he said. “It gives people hope, joy, and orientation.”

Another important aspect of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is that its membership is roughly 50% Arab and 50% Kurdish. “[It] unites people who make music and those who connect with musicians as listeners,” Brueckner said. “It feeds our imagination.” Klein added the orchestra was a chance for young Iraqi artists, “To overcome some of their preconceived ideas about people from other ethnicities and religions through their mutual devotion to music.”

Anthony Paul De Ritis, professor of music and business at Northeastern University, says music is vital to cultural diplomacy. “One thing that is great about nonverbal communication is that you must listen in order to play together,” he says. “You must, at one moment, lead, and at the other moment, follow. It is this exchange — this communication — that can aid so well in helping toward mutual understanding. If it can be done with music, it can be done with ideas. It can be done with the traditional divides between individuals and cultures. And, of course, the spirit of working together does get communicated.”

De Ritis witnessed the benefits of music when another organization, Musicians Without Borders, placed instruments with Bosnians and Serbs. Music breaks down the traditional barriers to dialogue, De Ritis notes.

“Communicating with music may, perhaps, be a bit easier than with words. To have a youth orchestra participate in this way, these lessons can be taught, learned, expressed by individuals before they can be entirely exposed to cultural animosities that get passed down from generation to generation, or from overexposure to biases seen in the media or expressed by adults,” De Ritis adds. “Youth represent hopes for a better future.”

An Endeavor Of Trust

Paul MacAlindin, a Scottish conductor living in Cologne, Germany, also answered Sultan’s virtual call in 2008 and is currently the orchestra’s musical director. Through his efforts, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is participating in the Beethoven Festival in Germany in 2011 and then the Edinburgh Festivals in Scotland in 2012.

“We’ve proven that the orchestra is real,” MacAlindin says. “People say they’ve heard of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. People are playing classical music in Iraq and many people didn’t fully understand that it’s an actual fact, not a hoax. The idea attracts people’s interests. It’s not part of the traditional view when people think of Iraq.”

Next month, the Cologne Opera will perform in Suleiymaniya, in Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq. It’s the first time a professional orchestra and opera will ever be performed in the country. Cologne was the recipient of a number of Kurdish immigrants, and has a rich Kurdish culture as a result, so the ties were easier to form, MacAlindin says. Additionally, it’s a safer place to operate, as they have enjoyed the protection of the Kurdish Army.

Despite being in being in Germany while potential orchestra members lived in Iraq, MacAlindin explains auditions were done through YouTube. “[But] it is difficult to do a video for us [from Iraq]. The upload speed is variable and Internet connection is unreliable. You could spend five hours uploading the video and then there’ll be a power cut. They can also send a DVD through the post. We now have regional representatives to help people make videos and get them to me.”

This year, he says, there are 44 members in the orchestra. The core age of the youths is between 18 and 25 years old. The musicians are from Baghdad, Ranya, Erbil, Suleimaniya, Mosul, and Kirkuk. “This entire endeavor is done based on a huge amount of trust,” he says. “The Iraqi youths gave us a huge amount of trust. Their strength of will made this happen.”

The British Council helped organize and provide financial support initially for the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, and remain allies MacAlindin says. Another group providing major support is the Weir Group, which is giving the orchestra £100,000. These contacts are one reason why the group will appear in the Beethoven Festival in Bonn in October and may attend the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next year.

“We still have to overcome visa hurdles and logistical hurdles,” MacAlindin says. “To organize two weeks of performances in Iraq takes 50 weeks of preparation… With this orchestra, we can’t guarantee anything. They’re a very young and nebulous group. They have to show tremendous flexibility in order to solidify plans. We also have to set up a system of checks and balances to sustain the orchestra. It’s very important for me for the young people not to be messed around. I’m not interested in raising hopes for them that I can’t fulfill.”

The endeavor is not cheap. Even the Weir Group’s donation will not last long, MacAlindin says. To stabilize funding for a two-week course, he notes, requires at least US$170,000 on an annual basis. “Aside from cost of putting up a whole orchestra and flying in tutors, we will quickly run through the funds. We fly in one tutor per instrument into Iraq. Each instrument gets intensive care and the musicians get as much intensive learning on that instrument. Sometimes, we have to fix broken instruments.”

But the return is great, he adds. “What the Iraqi players achieve in two weeks is what a Western player achieves in six months. The hunger is there. Once we show them a technical improvement or fix an instrument, they’re shocked at how easy it is to play a piece.”

MacAlindin has learned about a couple of new things too — the popularity of Kurdish rap music, the ubiquitous nature of the iPhone (“If you look at YouTube, you might see a young boy singing brilliant folk music, and their dad is a shepherd with an iPhone,” he says.) — but most importantly, he says, he has gained an appreciation for Iraq’s future.

“I would like to see deep contacts with the rest of the youth orchestra world through Facebook and other projects,” MacAlindin says. “I’d like to see the young musicians growing as musicians and people. They’re sharing Iraqi youth culture, not just through media reports, but physically. I’d like to see the orchestra beginning to make headway. The news about Iraq should not just be about blood, bullets and bombs. Middle-class Iraqis are doing their best to get on with their life on a daily basis. This orchestra is for them and by them. We’re seeing a part of a better side of Iraq than what we’ve seen in the past 30 years. Who knows what the feedback effect will be?”

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