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Culture and Conflict | Iraq | National Youth Orchestra of Iraq

10/01/2013 02:46










National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, Summer Academy 2009. Photo: Michael Luongo. Courtesy: National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI).

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National Youth Orchestra of Iraq



“Our job is to bring young Iraqi musicians together from diverse backgrounds to create a real reconciling musical experience for

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each other, Iraq and the world.”[1] - Paul MacAlindin, Musical Director, National Youth Orchestra of Iraq









View by Year / Month: 2013 2012

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Culture and Conflict | Iraq | National Youth Orchestra of Iraq

10/01/2013 02:46

Each year since the August of 2009, young Kurdish and Arab Iraqi classical musicians from across Iraq join together, overcoming language and ethnic differences to learn, perform and reinforce a message of tolerance through collaboration. They form the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, an initiative of the young Baghdad-born pianist, Zuhal Sultan, who in 2008 at the age of 17 proposed the idea of the orchestra as a means of encouraging dialogue through music[2], providing much needed access to education, as well as opportunities for creative development. Beginning her studies in piano from the age of six, Sultan was forced to teach herself following the 2003 Iraq war, which caused many teachers to flee the country[3]. Amongst her credits at a young age, Sultan was a British Council Global Changemaker in 2008, and a Global Youth Ambassador for the New York-based charity Musicians For Harmony, in 2009. Through her association with the British Council, she made contact with Channel 4 and Raw T.V., and with their assistance she made an appeal for a conductor and teachers from abroad to visit Iraq and assist in the founding and development of the orchestra. The proposed project caught the attention of Scottish conductor, Paul MacAlindin who came on board as Musical Director in the founding stages, along with Education Manager, Allegra Klein from Musicians for Harmony in New York. “A national youth orchestra is a very straightforward and well-practised structure”, MacAlindin explains, “The first was the National Youth Orchestra of Wales in 1946, directly after World War 2. What rewards me is how we’ve made it work in a country recreating its own infrastructure and identity from scratch after their own terrible war.” Though Iraq has a rich and ethnically diverse musical tradition, in the post-war era access to instruments and music education has been limited in the extreme. Many of those who participate in the NYOI are self-taught, some accessing lessons via YouTube or from friends. MacAlindin notes, “the musicians are carried largely by their extraordinary determination to watch music lessons on YouTube, make poor instruments work, shut out the chaos and get on with practice, embrace the new learning and connections to be had through the orchestra.” The Internet has provided a vital tool through which Sultan and MacAlindin have mobilised the project and unified the participants. Skype, Facebook and Twitter facilitate their meetings, auditions and fundraising. Faced with the challenges of distance and the complexity of travelling within and from Iraq, Sultan and MacAlindin employ an innovative means of selecting the ensemble of young musicians by auditioning them through submissions posted to YouTube, while those with limited internet access audition via couriered DVDs. The challenge of securing seed funding was overcome when Sultan took to Twitter to approach the then Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, in Bagdad – a tweet which led to a meeting between Sultan, Salih and the British Council and a commitment of $50,000 in support from the Iraqi government.[4] The project is concentrated on an annual summer school for the selected musicians, who are mainly between the ages of 18 to 25. Some members are affiliated with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad, of which Sultan is a member, though for the majority of participants the summer tuition is the only opportunity they have to access music tutors. MacAlindin, along with the Iraqi team and visiting tutors, selects compositions that best fit the young players’ abilities and provides them with a learning experience. The group is joined by translators who facilitate communication across English, Kurdish and Arab Iraqi languages.

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Culture and Conflict | Iraq | National Youth Orchestra of Iraq

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The ensemble has included players from Baghdad, Erbil, Suleimaniya, Ranya and Mosul.[5] The collaborative efforts of the orchestra along with guest participants culminate in a public concert. Over the years, the orchestral repertoire has encompassed an impressive range, from Schubert 4 to the work of Kurdish and Arab Iraqi composers, such as Osama Abdulrasol[6]. They have been joined in their performances by leading soloists, including cellist, Julian Lloyd Webber and our player, Khyam Allami, as well as members of guest youth orchestras. To date, the program has been held in Suleymanyiah, Kurdish Iraq (2009); Bonn during Beethovenfest (2011), where they collaborated with the Bundesjugendorchester; Edinburgh, working and performing with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra during the Edinburgh Festival (2012); and they will next year travel to Aix en Provence to work alongside the Orchestre Francais des Jeunes. MacAlindin considers such international collaborations to be “critical to ending their isolation, building new friendships for the future, and showing what’s possible in a country with a working musical infrastructure.” MacAlindin adds, “The complexity and cost of putting together one NYOI summer course requires a lot of skill, tenacity and blind faith. [The orchestra’s] strongest partners in this have been the British Council and the German Friends of the NYOI.” Supporters have also included Beethovenfest, the Scottish Government, the British Iraqi Friendship Society, and networking partners such as the European Federation of National Youth Orchestras and the League of American Orchestras. Though with each year as the project grows in complexity, MacAlindin observes, “what we need is more of the right people to believe in us, and connect us with sponsors, festivals and funders.”

future plans In addition to continuing to develop and convening the education and performance program, the project has encouraged its young participants to embark on their own string quartet or chamber orchestras, inspiring others to pursue interests in composition and conducting. However, they are not isolated from regional political disruptions. MacAlindin notes, “If Kurdistan were to achieve independence, this would reshape the orchestra, as many players are Kurds… The region is still deeply uncertain with Syria painfully collapsing, Iraq’s fledgling democracy and Iran destabilising, so we take things year by year. But NYOI is really not just a concert once a year. It’s a viral mechanism for spreading good practice in teaching, composition, ensemble playing and musician mobility, all factors that the players continually work on as part of Iraq’s rebuilding process. If we were forced to stop, the hope, connections and experience we’ve shared already would, unquestionably, have an effect through the players for years to come.”

related links

footnotes [1] Paul MacAlindin interviewed 15 December 2012 [2] National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, British Council for the Arts, [3] Zuhal Sultan biographical introduction: [4] Paul MacAlindin, ‘The Power of Generation Y’, Blog post on 21st Century Conductor: [5] National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, Musicians for Harmony: [6] Emanuelle Deghli Esposti, ‘The Sound of Harmony’, in Arab Review, 2012


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Culture and Conflict | Iraq | National Youth Orchestra of Iraq

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