If you’ve ever dug into the comparative mythology of the Hero’s Journey, first brought to light by Joseph Campbell in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, you’ll know that something deep, unspoken exists in all of us, raring to get out, tear us apart, stitch us back together and return us to life forever changed. UPBEAT is the story of how a very unlikely group of young Iraqis and their friends put themselves though such a mill to forge a national youth orchestra for Iraq.
As its Musical Director, I started writing UPBEAT: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq in 2012, shortly after we’d given the UK the premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Reel of Spindrift, Sky” written specially for us to commemorate the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Fortunately, I could jog my memory by reviewing every document, e-mail and report I’d saved from the very start. However, it wasn’t until 2014, when the so-called “Islamic State” cut Iraq in two, that our odyssey came to an abrupt end, giving me the time to gather my thoughts and complete our journey by writing this book.
UPBEAT is the story of how we stayed on track over five years to become Iraq’s most powerful cultural diplomat. I found myself mining every cranny of our tale to find out how we talked to each other through music by Beethoven, Haydn and Mendelssohn. How did we survive our darkest months and celebrate our greatest victories? What did we change in Iraq? Most urgently of all, how can I answer that heart-wrenching question – who are the Iraqis?
There’s Waleed from Kirkuk, one of our most dynamic players, whose drive to give up a football career and learn to play the flute from the Internet would overwhelm the achievements of many a western youngster. As one of the few who could speak both Kurdish and Arabic, he shone out as the leader of our wind section and a reconciler from within the orchestra. TV cameras magnetized themselves towards him and he loved every minute of it.
Then there’s Tuq’a from Baghdad, who adored her cello as much as her headscarf. She channeled her hunger to learn with such conviction that she quickly found herself leading the cello section. I’ll never forget her stoicism, rehearsing seven hours a day in the humidity of Aix-en-Provence, whilst fasting for Ramadan. Though I couldn’t speak to her in Arabic, her face, sometimes deeply serious, other times joyous, and her infectious titter, betrayed a beautiful soul. Often, as when Julian Lloyd Webber coaxed the first tones out of his Stradavarius cello, Tuq’a, sitting just metres away, would lose herself in wonder.
Ali is an unforgettable character, a gentle giant on the horn, who practices at home with a towel in his instrument to keep his religious conservative neighbours from finding out about his love for music. We took the three best young horns in Iraq – there aren’t many more – and built them into a crack horn section, coached by top players from London and Germany. The horns, without doubt an endangered species in Iraq, needed all the love and care we could provide.
Our brilliant bassists, Chia and Samir, though they both lived in Iraq, shared no common tongue other than music as they stood by each other over the years giving foundation to our strings. Both utterly loved the bass and the orchestra, committing to our shared vision of peace and reconciliation. Every year, people sensed just how impossible our achievements were, how our strength pulled us together to put our many differences aside, staying focused on learning and making music.
What they could never, and should never have known, was my journey into the abyss of fundraising, logistics and online leadership that kept us going as, each year, Iraq’s political quagmire made the challenges even more insurmountable.
Suleymaniyah, the Kurdish-Iraqi town where we started in 2009, possessed a tempo and vigour that propelled us along as we bounced up and down on the party buses to and from the hotel and rehearsal. Shops trading in colourful clothes, luminous fruit cocktails and black muscle-cars whizzed by as clapping and dancing filled our ramshackle transport. Supporting two universities, modern and artistic, Suley lay beneath mountains snow-capped in winter, parched in summer. Regardless of where we hailed from, London, Baghdad, New York, Erbil, parties, food and music kept us going, in spite of some teachers taking a catastrophic hit to the bowels.
One afternoon, at the end of our first week there, the power cut in our airless rehearsal room and plunged the whole orchestra into darkness. Bewildered, I stopped conducting, and everyone carried on playing Haydn Symphony 99, so I started conducting again, acutely aware that nobody could see me, each other, or the notes. The lights came on again shortly before the last bars. Afterwards, I asked how this was possible? By a fluke of faulty wiring, we’d shown what we were made of. “Oh,” they said, “we’re so used to power cuts in concerts, we memorize the music beforehand!”
So, who are the Iraqis? I can tell you that for as long as Iraq continues to be savaged by violence and corruption, neither they nor we will ever really know, as nobody can reach their full potential in that state. Recently, Iraqi Ambassador to the US, Lukman Faily, told me on Twitter; “for normalizing the situation, a whole generation of positive counter-narratives are required.” That’s UPBEAT in a nutshell, a story of what young Iraqis do when they’re given fairness, love and respect. They drop their differences, realize their power and accomplish the unthinkable together. They become a bunch of real characters in a drama of multiple realities, each one of them worth the whole of Iraq put together. And the whole of Iraq is full of young people like Waleed, Tuq’a, Ali, Chia and Samir, waiting wearily in the wings to go on their own hero’s journey, create their own positive narrative, and rebuild their future together.