Upbeat is a story of the creation of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. The project, led by renowned Scottish conductor Paul MacAlindin, was spurred by an advert placed in the Glasgow Herald by a young Iraqi female pianist seeking a conductor.
From its inception in 2008, as MacAlindin highlights throughout the book, Iraqi women played a key role in the successful realization of the project.
The story is one of entrepreneurial spirit, based partly on an understanding of the power of music in transition and reconciliation. It paints a portrait of the difficulties that arise when embarking on a cultural project of this scale in Iraq today.
Upbeat is also a story of the endurance and determination of MacAlindin and his team of international and Iraqi musicians, including Zuhal Sultan, the young woman that first conceived of the idea.
“Everyday life in Iraq can sap you of the energy to play music,” Paul explained over Skype. Amidst this instability, Paul was able to recruit an orchestra of musicians from across Iraq’s diverse communities based on auditions submitted via Youtube.
Paul highlights in the book that, “more than once, Iraqi officials suggested that he include a quota of players from this or that town.” He was determined, however, to create an inclusive space for any musician that showed promise.
“Our auditions did breed a natural diversity that managed to get men, women, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians into the orchestra,” Paul writes.
In the book he describes the poor state of the Institutes of Fine Arts across Iraq, which faced “neglect and crippling corruption.” Despite this, he writes, “miraculously, a few youngsters had learnt to teach themselves, in spite of politicians and imams wielding their religion as a scimitar on Iraq’s previously secular society.”
As MacAlindin reviewed the initial round of audition videos, he was saddened by what he saw as “hungry souls reaching for music, trying to feel it in the darkness.” He describes the way that, for many Iraqi musicians, “music was their way to shut out bomb blasts, fear, a world upside down.”
He saw it as his task in building the NYOI to “raise their awareness to become a living organism rather than a bunch of disjointed musical souls, and in doing so, help them heal their divides.”
They would often experience power cuts during rehearsals; “here,” he writes, “was a power cut between the soul and sound.”
The obstacles that the NYOI faced were formidable. The hot climate and intermittent air-conditioning did no favours for the already poorly maintained musical instruments; a reflection of the lack of funding and support for music in the country.
The Iraqi government did not provide funding on the basis that the NYOI was not at the time operating through a recognized legal entity. “In reality” Paul adds, “they could have paid, but they didn’t.”
“The players did not have decent teaching” Paul explains. Along with his team of musicians, he managed to host three successful summer courses in Iraq however he stressed that “two or three weeks a year is not enough.”
Tensions between the Kurds and the Arabs at the highest levels of Iraqi society filtered down into the orchestra’s work. “Anyone sponsoring an Iraqi youth orchestra would offend the Kurds,” and vice versa, MacAlindin writes.
Whereas tensions did exist between the players, Paul describes these as being as much to do with normal personality clashes and lack of common tongue as anything else. “Cooperation” he writes, “was possibly the most powerful part of the course.”
Cultural stigmas also acted as a barrier. The book describes how many of the musicians were unable to practice due to a perception of the corrupting influence of music by conservative elements in Iraqi society.
Ali, an Iraqi horn player, was forced to practice underneath a towel, which he used as an improvised sound absorber so that his neighbours would not know that he was a musician.
For women the problem was compounded, however cultural stigmas did not quell the determination of the orchestra’s female stars.
Tuqa, described in the book as “extraordinary” and “utterly in love with her cello,” won over the cello tutor, Dave Edmonds, “to the extent that he put her on the lead cello seat, much to her male counterpart, Hussam’s disapproval.”
Tuqa at rehearsals in Erbil (2011)
Du’aa, NYOI’s first oboe player, “lived in a district of Baghdad where families of women found making music could suffer terrible consequences.” Du’aa “laughed this off when the neighbors complained about her practicing, explaining it away as noises from the kitchen.”
Ranya, the second horn, “had somehow managed to learn a most difficult instrument, the horn, bereft of support or stability.”
“The women of the orchestra all clearly worked and lived on a level way beyond their male counterparts. In this culture, where 75% dropped out of school, and 86% were unemployed, they really had to punch above their weight in order to flourish,” says Paul in Upbeat.
“The role of women in the orchestra had a profound effect on everyone,” the book continues. “Female players such as Du’aa, Annie, Tuqa and Rezhwan, took leading roles based on their ability.”
“Our rehearsals, led by excellent tutors such as Angelia Cho or Ilona Bondar, as well as our visits abroad, empowered our female players to understand the prominent role of women in other cultures, and encouraged them to take a more leading role, where possible, in Iraq.”
As well as pieces from the Western classical tradition, the orchestra performed a number of pieces by Iraqi composers such as Najat Amin’s Anfal, which commemorated the Kurdish victims of the previous regime’s gas attacks, Mohamed Ezzat Amin’s The Magic of the East, and Invocation by Ali Authman.
The orchestra also performed pieces by Kurdish traditional singer and harpist, Tara Jaff.
Following three summer courses and a number of successful performances in Iraq and Europe, a keenly anticipated tour of the US floundered as ISIL took hold of parts of Iraq.
NYOI at Beethovenfest in Bonn, Germany
Nevertheless, Paul remains positive about the future of classical music in Iraq. “The intrinsic motivation of the players will make something new flourish,” he says.
Under MacAlindin’s directorship, the NYOI provided first-rate music teaching to Iraqi musicians. It also acted as a safe haven “uniting everyone under a shared emotional experience that had nothing to do with religion or politics.”
Annie Melconian, a violinist in the orchestra, summed it all up in an interview: “Maybe some people have disputes between them; maybe. But even if there is something, on stage we all have the same goal, making beautiful music, making people love music or to forget everything about anything outside of the concert hall, and just concentrate and feel the music.”
In Upbeat, MacAlindin describes the progress that was made as the summer courses and performances continued: “I began to truly see how well brought up and responsive our young players were” he writes, “[they were] completely open to new ideas and, in spite of our tutors’ youthfulness, remained utterly respectful of what we had to offer.
“Music suddenly stopped being a fight against one’s instrument and began to reveal its true meaning to them as we scraped technical and musical obstacles out the way, bit by bit. Flow replaced fight or flight.”
As the NYOI’s UK project manager wrote in a report in 2012 “the summer school and what that brings in terms of high quality tuition and musical expertise in a concentrated time clearly has a profound and lasting impact on the young players.”
The final chapter of the book highlights the endurance of Iraqi musicians and artists such as Tuqa and Annie, who teach at Baghdad’s school of Music and Ballet and have also offered music lessons to internally displaced refugees.
The cultural battle MacAlindin writes is in the hearts and minds of the silent majority who, despite the lack of official support, still resist totally giving up on their lives.
By Mehdi Shakarchi
Upbeat by Paul MacAlindin was published on August 18 by Sandstone Press