Malek Jandali came back from his most recent trip inside Syria with a curious keepsake – a jar of soil. “I keep it at home in Atlanta,” the composer-pianist says, though the notion of home elicits an audible sigh.
Home for Jandali is a complicated matter. Home is Atlanta, where he has lived and worked for over a decade. But home is also Syria. Though Jandali, known for his politically charged symphonic compositions, is a US citizen, he is originally from Homs – the city which gave him his first exposure to music and which has been one of the worst-hit areas during the three-year Syrian conflict.
Homs is routinely referred to as the “capital of the revolution”, an apt point of origin for a man known as “musician of the revolution”. Jandali, who was classically trained at the Arab Conservatory of Music in Damascus and later in the US, earned his moniker in the past few years, as his attentions have increasingly turned towards channeling his music into positive change for the Syria he loves.
Jandali has recently embarked on an international benefit tour, The Voice of the Free Syrian Children, which makes its second stop at New York’s Kauffman Center on Saturday. He traces the birth of the tour to his last trip to Syria.
Jandali last set foot in his homeland in October 2012, to tour refugee camps of internally displaced Syrians, who, according to the latest UN figures, number 5 million. As a human-rights activist affiliated with various organizations including Unicef, Jandali was motivated, he says, by helping his cunty’s children.
“It was a historic trip for me … to enter my homeland and touch the hands of these innocent children, these victims of a brutal and vicious war, and teach them how to play music,” he says. “But when I came back to the US, I felt completely hopeless. Fourteen thousand children have been killed so far. I thought: ‘What can I do? How can I help? All I have is music.’”
It was that sense of helplessness, coupled with his desire to do something, that spurred him to tour and to “raise the profile of the humanitarian crisis,” he says.
“If all I have is my music, then this concert is an opportunity to give voice to the voiceless. Who is more voiceless in Syria now than the children? I want my music to unite people, to motivate them to help the children in any way they can. To stop the genocide.”
Net proceeds of ticket sales go solely towards covering event costs. Jandali decided that instead of forcing people to donate to one specific aid organization, he would ask audience members to “go home after the concert, do their homework and donate to whichever organization they chose”, as long it related to helping Syria’s children. But doesn’t that system make it difficult to calculate raised funds?
“For me, it’s just as important to raise awareness and have people think – really think – about the children and the cost of war,” Jandali says.
Jandali’s singular focus on children is, he concedes, a way to bypass talk of politics and religion. While conventional narratives have pushed public discourse towards the standard tropes of sectarian conflict and civil war, Jandali chooses to distance himself from all talk of division, to cast as wide a net in garnering support for Syria.
It’s hard to write off his infectious optimism as that of a simple naïf. For him, somewhat unconventionally, the conflict is black and white. “It comes down to humanity. What is more immoral than killing a child? Everyone wants to complicate things with politics but for me the equation is simple: a free Syria equals the Syrian people minus the dictator.”
Intentionally or not, Jandali does not once say Bashar al-Assad’s name in our conversation, referring to him rather ominously as “the dictator”. Jandali’s family experienced Assad brutality first-hand.
In 2011, Jandali was one of the first Syrian artists abroad to publicly speak out against the Syrian regime, as the peaceful protests in Daraa, which eventually served as the spark that lit a countrywide flame, were under way. A performance of a song inspired by the protests, Watani Ana, (“I am my homeland” in Arabic) had Assad forces knocking down the door of Jandali’s parents’ home in Homs: “Handcuff my father, break my mother’s teeth and beat them both. It was a clear message to shut me up.”
But rather than deter him, the incident made him more determined to help end Assad’s reign. After moving his parents to the US, Jandali composed and released several anti-regime odes to Syrian freedom, all, he says, inspired by Syrians on the ground. The music has gained him thousands of followers online.
Take Ya Allah, his latest song, released in April. An entreaty to God, “Ya Allah”, meaning, literally, “Oh, God” in Arabic, has become the dominant peaceful chant, he says. Cries of Ya Allah pepper the track, a powerful echo of the voice of Syrian streets. “When the world abandoned the Syrians, forsook them, they had nothing left to do – they went back to their creator, and asked ‘Ya Allah, please help us.’ This song was a way to translate their chant through my orchestra and piano into a universal language.”
All of Jandali’s music relates to Syria. He seamlessly interweaves traditional Arabic maqams and melodies with western sensibilities, creating music splendid in its contradictions. His 2009 album, Echoes from Ugarit, recorded with the Russian Philharmonic orchestra, sampled notes from the oldest-known forms of musical notation discovered in the ancient port-city of Ugarit, located today in modern-day Syria. “I am incredibly proud of my ancestors,” Jandali says, “but imagine growing up not 100km away from this historic place and not ever being taught that musical invention was part of your history? I wanted to compose my heritage, my homeland.”
But once the war in Syria began, composing his homeland became an existentially different notion. He has taken various elements of the war, and translated their brutality into elegiac works, as with Freedom Qashoush Symphony, a delicate song which starts with rattled off gunfire, the symphony culminates in an urgent instrumental cry of freedom, inspired by Ibrahim al-Qashoush, an early symbol of rebel martyrdom. Qashoush was a fireman and a poet from Hama, whose anti-Assad chants shouted by thousands in public protests, got him killed. Qashoush was found floating dead in the Orontes river in July 2011, his vocal chords ripped out allegedly by Syrian government forces.
But most notable in Jandali’s work is his optimistim. Despite the war he has witnessed, Jandali remains hopeful that a resolution will be reached soon enough. He even wrote a new national anthem, Syrian Anthem of the Free, for just that occasion.
“People are still saying ‘Ya Allah’ in Aleppo, in Kefranbel, in Homs, because the world community failed them,” says Jandali. He is, of course, referring to intervention. “As a responsible Syrian American, intervention was a complicated question … but ultimately, we failed those children.
“Over 225,000 civilians and 14,000 children have been killed so far. How many more will die before we can stop it?”
Source: the Guardian
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