Probably the most improbable orchestra of our times, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq existed from 2009-2014. Paul MacAlindin of Scotland was instrumental in organizing the young Iraqis – Kurds and Arabs, Shiites and Sunnis – across cultural, religious and language divides and against all odds, including daunting logistic challenges. He led the ensemble on tours abroad, including one to Germany in 2011, where the orchestra performed in DW’s Orchestra Campus at the Beethovenfest.
In his recent book, “Upbeat,” MacAlindin’s recollections of the Iraqi youth orchestra are rich in detail and insights into the country, its people and their resilient spirit.
DW: Establishing the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI) was described in terms like “insane” and “heroic.” What was the attitude in that society towards Western classical music? Did some, in fact, condemn it as the work of the devil?
Paul MacAlindin: After the 2006 parliament was set up, due to religious influence in the Iraqi government, music was declared forbidden unless it conformed to strict religious guidelines.
Did some musicians even fear for their lives?
With the level of militia and sectarian violence around 2006, 2007 and 2008, everybody in Baghdad was fearing for their lives. Apart from the normal difficulties in getting around, our musicians often had to disguise the shape of their instruments by using extra baggage.
Was the fragmentation of post-Saddam Hussein society reflected in tensions among the orchestra members, between Arabs and Kurds or between Sunnis and Shiites?
The clearest divide was the ethnic one between the Kurds and the Arabs. But those who had the common language of English were absolutely fine with each other. The other problems were simply less severe. We’re talking about decent everyday citizens who just want to get on with their lives. The sectarian factor has been blown out of proportion by the Western media and was created by the way in which the Iraqi government was set up in 2006.
You toured Germany with the orchestra in 2011 and performed at the Beethovenfest. What role did Deutsche Welle play in this?
They played three crucial roles. They commissioned music for the orchestra and helped us to premiere it in Berlin and in Bonn. This was Kurdish and Arab-Iraqi music, so it had a cultural and a diplomatic role for us to play. Secondly, as a diplomatic negotiator, they helped in allowing the composers to travel to Bonn and the Beethovenfest. And the third role was publicity, which for us, was life blood.
We often hear phrases such as “music crosses boundaries,” “brings people together” and “promotes cultural and international understanding.” Those claims sound trite, but they would seem to be partly true with the NYOI.
We are all born to be musical people. Quite simply: Music can be a powerful and effective way to bring people together and can play an important role in the right context. But that context can be fragile and fall apart, as it did in this case.
Before it fell apart, do you have a brief story to show us how unique this enterprise was?
One aha! moment came in the first year, when I was conducting Haydn’s 99th symphony in our claustrophobic little rehearsal room, and the power went off. I stopped conducting. But the orchestra, although they couldn’t see the score, kept right on up to the end of the piece. I discovered that it’s normal for Iraqi musicians to memorize the music they’re about to perform or rehearse in advance because they’re so used to power outages.
The other issue is more general: The young people I met in Iraq were so lovely and so well brought up and so normal. And this was the most abnormal thing about them. Their childhoods and communities were destroyed, and every single one of them had lost friends or family through violence. So it was a weird experience watching music bind these young people together, knowing that when they finished the course, they were going back to a level of danger and abnormality which they called “normality.” I found that very difficult to get my head around.
Among the obstacles like language and logistics, you write that one factor was even more severe: a coldness or lack of emotionality in their playing. Explain that please.
Although some players were technically proficient, they were emotionally drained, shut off inside. They were only going through the motions of playing classical music. Providing a musical/spiritual/emotional solution to these people is a huge task. So I went to Haydn and Beethoven because they’re such joyful and visceral composers whom I felt could awaken these young peoples’ spirits and get them expressing joy for the first time in years. And over a period of five years, the playing became more and more connected; the orchestra was self-healing.
Did the youth orchestra have an impact on international relations?
I think the most powerful impact we had was on the Iraqi government itself. Its members were brought – often kicking and screaming – to performances. They couldn’t get away from the fact that if young people are given a snowball’s chance in hell in Iraq, they ignore the differences that the politicians themselves create. To a lot of people who simply didn’t want us to exist, we proved that in the right circumstances, the youth of Iraq has a tremendous future.
Are you in touch with former members, some of whom may be living in very troubled circumstances now?
Yes I am. Occasionally somebody pops up on Facebook. Some have left the country, are asylum seekers or study abroad. Others continue to play in Iraq.
You had decided that your role in the orchestra would be time-limited, yet it broke up in 2014 under circumstances you didn’t choose: a failed attempt to tour the US and the invasion of Iraq by the “IS.” After the heartwarming experiences as the musicians matured, what are your feelings now, after the orchestra’s demise?
After having faced some very despairing times in the past two years, I’m back on track. Writing the book has helped me to put the whole thing into perspective. I feel that I’ve closed a chapter of my life and can now safely move on.
What lesson did you learn from the NYOI?
I found my own brick wall, and finally I know what my own limits are. And that has taught me that my own resilience and possibilities are much greater than I previously thought.
Is a National Youth orchestra of Iraq imaginable under conditions now prevailing there?
Yes. Iraq is a phoenix. It rises up from the ashes, it’s glorious for a while, and then it gets destroyed by the next war. But these people are phenomenally innovative. They can create a work-around for almost anything. The connections being built between these young musicians and classical musicians around the world will propagate new projects. The orchestra has its own NGO in Baghdad. What comes next is up to the motivation of the Iraq team and its supporters in Germany.
The beauty of classical music is that you don’t need to plug anything in; you just sit down and play. And that was a significant advantage the orchestra had over boy bands and rock bands in Iraq.
Paul MacAlindin’s book “Upbeat” was published in August in Great Britain and the United States by Sandstone Press.
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