From Iraq to Edinburgh: the orchestra of dreams
Picking your way through the performers on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile during festival time can often feel like you’ve entered another world. So imagine how it feels when you’ve just arrived from Iraq.
This week, 46 young Iraqi musicians have come to Edinburgh to work alongside British tutors in preparation for a series of concerts at the end of this month. For 18 year old Mohammed Al Saedy, this is his first time outside Iraq.
“It’s beautiful and there are things here that you can’t find in Iraq and the people are different,” he told me. “Here they appreciate musicians a lot more than in Iraq,” noted cellist Tuqa Al-Waeli. While Bashdar Ahmad remarked, “The first day when we came it was raining and it was cold especially. But now when the sun’s shining it’s so beautiful and clear… There’s no desert here and it’s amazing, it’s like a kind of Heaven.”
The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq was set up in 2008 to bring about peace and reconciliation between young people from the country’s different religious and ethnic groups. Together, they play music from the classical repertoire as well as contemporary commissions and traditional Kurdish and Arab music. I went along to hear the orchestra in rehearsal yesterday. For their first tutti, they sounded great. But their music director Paul MacAlindin insists that it would be unfair to compare them to a conventional British youth orchestra.
“For a start, a youth orchestra here has the foundation of an education system underneath it so that the kids get decent lessons and they have school orchestras, county orchestras and then the national youth orchestras . We’re the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq and there’s nothing underneath. So we’re at the top of a pyramid of air.
“In terms of the motivation however, all of my tutors and I agree that we cannot find students in Europe who are as highly motivated as these young people because of what they’ve been through and the way they use music to really protect their souls from the violence and chaos around them.”
Of course, we already know about the power of music as a tool to promote social change. Over the last few decades, the El Sistema programme in Venezuela has transformed the lives of thousands of poor children by giving them free access to classical music. And Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has brought together young people from different religions and cultures in the Middle East.
But the difference between these and the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is that the latter was set up by one of the young musicians themselves. Zuhal Sultan was 17 when she took action to fight against the lack of access to musical instruments and tuition following the war which started in 2003, when many teachers left Iraq and schools around the country shut down.
Zuhal told me: “Our performances outside Iraq are mainly for the musicians to develop because most of these musicians are actually self-taught so they’ve not experienced what it feels like to be a real musician. So when they come here and experience a different culture, see for instance Edinburgh and the shows over the festival, they get to experience what it feels like to be a musician, and they have hopes for themselves of taking that image back to their country.”
Because money is scarce, auditions for the orchestra are conducted via YouTube. As word spreads, competition is getting tougher. And those who make it into the orchestra face a tough summer school of rehearsals by day and tuition at night. But those I spoke to yesterday insisted that so far the hard work has all been worth it.
“Wow,” said Bashdar Ahmad, “The musician’s life is so beautiful because they’re travelling the world, they meet the professional teachers, they can travel around to play concerts everywhere. But this orchestra has made my dreams happen, I’m now fulfilling my dreams and I’m so grateful to this orchestra.”
Later this month, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq will be joined by guest soloist Julian Lloyd-Webber – and play concerts in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. Their trip to the UK has been co-funded by the British Council and the Scottish government.
While they are here, the young musicians are hping to change perceptions about their country – and show that they’re a people finally emerging from the shadows of war.
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