This article originally appeared in #119.
Damon Albarn last played with the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians six years ago. Now he’s bringing them back together for a series of momentous concerts across Europe. Nigel Williamson reports
The last time Damon Albarn and the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians performed together, the world was a very different place. It was 2010 and the orchestra, led by Issam Rafea, accompanied Albarn and his band Gorillaz on a world tour that included a historic performance against the backdrop of the walls of the 11th-century citadel in the Syrian capital Damascus. The orchestra had already played on ‘White Flag’, a track recorded in Damascus’ Opera House in 2009 for Gorillaz’s album Plastic Beach, and the concert in Syria was Albarn’s way of “repaying the compliment,” as he put it.
Performing for a wildly enthusiastic audience on a dramatic night under a Levant full moon, the orchestra’s violinists swayed to a hip-hop beat, Rafea played the oud, the late Bobby Womack shared vocals with Albarn, and former members of the Clash, Paul Simonon and Mick Jones, were also on stage.
“I’m surprised that no one has ever come here before,” Albarn enthused at the time. “By being the first big Western act to arrive in Damascus, hopefully this is the beginning of a dialogue which can be meaningful for Syria as a whole.”
After the concert a 23-year-old Syrian fan optimistically told The Guardian: “It’s the biggest concert we have ever had, and I wanted to welcome them to my country. We need more of this.”
But sadly, there would be no more. Albarn and Gorillaz were the first major international act to play in Syria – and six years later they remain the last. The outbreak of civil war in the spring of 2011 scattered the orchestra to the four winds. Rafea moved in 2013 to Chicago where he is now a university lecturer. Many of the orchestra’s members are still in Syria. Others are currently to be found around Europe and the US, at various stages of the convoluted process of seeking asylum.
Albarn – whose father was a professor of Arab studies and Islamic art – says that he found Syria to be “an extraordinary and beautiful country.” When Gorillaz performed in Damascus he took his family and travelled around, visiting Palmyra, the Roman city of the Empress Zenobia, which was captured in 2015 by the Islamic State, who brutally marked their occupation of the UNESCO World Heritage site by beheading a Syrian official and then blowing up sizeable chunks of the monument.
“After our last visit, Syria changed almost overnight,” Albarn laments. “Since then I’ve watched from a distance and felt utterly helpless, wondering about all the lovely people I got to know.”
Helpless, but not content to sit back and do nothing; Albarn – who was first introduced to Rafea by the London-based Syrian rapper Eslam Jawaad – is not a man to allow civil war and a murderous Islamic death cult to stand in the way of music-making’s capacity to unite and heal. He contacted Rafea in Chicago and suggested that the tragic circumstances of Syria meant it was more important than ever to reunite the orchestra and chorus of the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians to celebrate the “strength and joy” of the war-torn country’s culture.
The result will be concerts at Glastonbury and on London’s South Bank in June followed by further appearances across Europe. At the last count it was hoped that about 30 orchestra members and 20 choir members will be reunited for the concerts, which are being organised by Albarn’s Africa Express.
“Damon is a dynamo,” Rafea says. “It was his idea and we all thank him from the bottom of our hearts for bringing us back together. It is really a huge thing to have these numbers coming all the way up from Syria, Europe and the US and we also have to thank all of those who have been working hard to make this incredibly complex task happen.”
Ian Birrell of Africa Express, one of those tasked with organising the concerts, admits that the project has faced daunting logistical problems. “It is very hard to get visas for Syrians and some don’t have passports because they have had to flee and are seeking asylum.”
Providing visas and work permits are sorted, audiences can expect a rare musical treat, according to Albarn. “There’s a whole choir, there are strings, there are soloists, there’s amazing percussion,” he enthuses. “It’s a really dynamic and joyous sound, and it’s stayed with me for all these years. I’m really excited to be able to share that with people.”
“The whole point of this is to get the orchestra back together, to get them working again, giving some kind of alternative to seeing Syria through the prism of the news, which is entirely a negative thing. This concert will give a completely different perspective. It will be a great reunion and Issam and the musicians will create a beautiful, neutral space with this positive music. It’s a truly miraculous sound they create.”
In 2009 the orchestra staged a benefit concert to raise funds to help rebuild the lives of those made homeless by the Israeli offensive in Gaza, unaware that within two years their own lives would be plunged into a humanitarian crisis of equally tragic proportions. Before the civil war, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma were among the patrons of the orchestra, but, according to Rafea, the orchestra’s members represent many different strands of political opinion; indeed, it could hardly be otherwise, although all are united by a desire for peace.
“The fabric of Syrian society has been torn apart as a result of the conflict,” Rafea says. “And at these performances there will be people representing different sides of the argument, on stage and in the audience. But all are in agreement that we want it to end. It’s hard to express my feelings. But this is a wonderful opportunity to show the world another side to the Syrian story and celebrate our music and culture.”
Asked what role music can play in trying to find a resolution and making a meaningful contribution to a peace process, Rafea responds: “The answer to that isn’t that easy. But I believe music is one of the most effective things in our life; as a musician you speak openly and positively to other musicians from elsewhere through music. Despite our differences, through this universal language, peace is already there.”
He’s coy about exactly what form the concerts will take but says Western audiences – even those with little prior knowledge of traditional Arabic forms and styles – will find the music highly accessible. “In Syria they are familiar with the repertoire and the moods. But whether the audience is Syrian or non-Syrian, our goal is to provoke a response from the deepest part of your heart. So if we as musicians feel it, then the audience will feel it, too. You can’t speak with words what you feel maybe; but the instruments and the voices can express whatever you want.”
Formed in 1990, the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians turned professional in 2003, when Rafea took over as its principal after its founder Solhi al-Wadi had suffered a brain haemorrhage. Born in Kuwait in 1971, Rafea grew up listening to a rich diet of classical Arabic and tarab music and began playing a variety of instruments from an early age, before settling on the oud as his passion. “I was in Damascus one summer and my uncle had an oud at his house,” he says. “I was so excited to see what this instrument could do. I knew what it was but I didn’t know what it could do or how to play it. Within three months I could play it by myself, so I told my father I wanted to buy one. A few days later he surprised me with my own oud.”
In 1990 he enrolled on a five-year course at the High Institute of Music. He graduated with a BA degree in oud and double bass in 1995 and went on to become chair of the Arabic music department at the institute, teaching oud and Western harmony and composing widely for Syrian TV and theatre before he took over as conductor of the orchestra, whose repertoire includes both Arabic and Western classical music.
“Whether you are from Africa, the Middle East, US or Europe, you have a connection to music, you can feel the beat,” he says. “Every type of music has its own unique sound. But there is interaction between audience and musicians, so even if you’ve never heard a certain kind of music, every person responds in his or her own way.”
The concerts will celebrate the strength and joy of Syrian culture, he promises. But Rafea also admits that there is likely to be a complex set of emotions among the performers on stage. “There’s an overwhelming feeling of sadness, although people in Syria have decided that life goes on and they never quit despite their pain. They continue to make music, art, and theatre with hope for a better future,” he says. “We will go ahead and represent our Syria in the way it should be represented. I’m very excited to see all of the musicians again and once we are all together, I will be better able to tell you my feelings…”
The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians with Damon Albarn & guests performed at the Southbank Centre on June 27. Watch a selection of performances from the night below.