How a youth orchestra flourished in Iraq against all the odds

Like many great stories, Paul MacAlindin’s account of how he came to assemble and conduct the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI) begins in the most quotidian of settings. It was in October 2008, while eating fish and chips in an Edinburgh pub, that the author spied a Glasgow Herald article that would transform his life and that of countless others. 

The piece concerned Zuhal Sultan, a go-getting 17-year-old pianist in Baghdad who sought what the Herald called a "UK Maestro" to help her found a national youth orchestra in war-torn Iraq. "Thank goodness for ‘Maestro’!" jokes MacAlindin in Upbeat: The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq

"Had it just said ‘conductor’ I’d probably have turned the page." MacAlindin, an Aberdeen-born Scot who was previously a conductor/guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic among others, recounts how he knew instinctively that he was the man for the job. But he was also acutely aware of the magnitude and sensitivity of the task in hand. 

After the UK’s 2003 invasion of Iraq as part of a United States-led coalition, how might his involvement in such a project be perceived at home and abroad? How could Sultan’s somewhat quixotic-looking vision be realised? How could it be funded? How could they find the young Kurd, Sunni and Shia musicians needed to give such an orchestra the vital, multi-ethnic fabric that would make it a non-partisan representation of Iraq? 

Even more daunting, once organised, was the prospect of day-to-day life for MacAlindin and his stalwart team while teaching the inaugural National Youth Orchestra Of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, in August 2009 (the players, all aged between 14 and 29 and sourced from all over Iraq, had been auditioned and chosen via Skype and video-uploads to YouTube). 

The author describes touching-down in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital, Erbil, and encountering the hot, desert wind. MacAlindin knows there will be culture shock and security issues to contend with – but what of entering into a delicate pact of trust with musicians whose childhoods have been stolen from them? For the players of the NYOI, the author explains, music serves as a "forcefield against reality"; a treasured escape from the horrors of gas attacks, invasion, tribal tensions and all-out war. 

But there is much work to be done if MacAlindin and his fellow tutors are to make a proper youth orchestra of these youngsters, and they must tread carefully, lest they tread on their students’ dreams. Upbeat is an eloquently-written, moving and sometimes funny book. Its title, taken from the gesture that conductors make to indicate the beat that leads into a new bar of music, is symbolic of change and progress. 

It also describes the mindset that was often required of MacAlindin and his team in testing circumstances. It’s in Iraq, of course, that the author begins to process the many and varied challenges his young musicians face. In a country overrun with cheap Chinese instruments baking in a dry, corrosive heat, the sorry state of 21-year-old Murad’s bassoon – "it sounded like an elephant in pain" – proves fairly typical. 

More testing, though, MacAlindin learns, is the kind of religious and/or political conservatism which, in some communities, outlaws playing an instrument at all. Horn player Ali, who is used to practising under a towel to deaden the sound, is one of many in the orchestra who have learned to play music covertly and quietly. Transportation of instruments in plastic carrier bags – not conspicuous instrument cases – is also the norm due to a fear of attack or condemnation. 

Working with translators, the author and his team manage to hothouse the talents of the NYOI. Their reward is a grateful and warm-hearted student cohort that thinks nothing of practising Beethoven into the small hours. Used to playing in isolation, however, many of the orchestra’s members have learned their existing classical music skills from YouTube, where teaching quality is erratic. Thus, some of them have acquired a poor and ingrained technique that proves difficult to unlearn. 

Further in, when the fight to secure visas and funding for the NYOI’s overseas performances begins, Upbeat really takes off. Only by taking the NYOI out of Iraq; only by exposing them to infinitely more privileged youth orchestras in Scotland and Germany, MacAlindin feels, can he show them what they lack, and what, truthfully, they may never be able to attain. It’s a tough kind of love and a vital route towards growth. Upbeat covers a lot of ground. A potted history of Iraqi politics. 

The moving backstory which explains MacAlindin’s capacity for empathy. Bonding over halal haggis. Labyrinthine bureaucracy. The folks who promised much but brought little, and the snobs: "Sorry, at present we do not fund cross-ethnic quasi-classical music as there is so much to do in the purely classical field", runs one particularly loathsome knock-back. 

It’s the indomitable spirit of many of the orchestra’s players, though, which stays with you. Players such as Waleed Ahmed Assi, the JS Bach-loving flautist who, in 2010, joined the NYOI two weeks after his best friend was killed by a car bomb in Kirkuk. Or Aya Isham, the Baghdad-born violinist who, prior to the NYOI’s emotional 2011 performance in Bonn, at Germany’s Beethovenfest, told Deutsche Welle of seeing corpses on her route to school as a child. 

Elsewhere, MacAlindin relates that his students’ understandably black sense of humour was sometimes priceless. Asked what Blood Dance, a piece specially written for the NYOI and oud player Khyam Allami is about, its composer Gordon McPherson responds: "The pain and suffering that Iraq has gone through." "Then why are you doing it to us again?" pipes up a wag in the woodwind section.  
The orchestra also played gigs in Erbil in 2010 and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012. However, because of the rise of ISIL, the orchestra was disbanded in 2014. 

Given the Chilcot Report’s recent condemnation of former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s actions prior to the co-invasion of Iraq, and given the country’s ongoing suffering through civil war and sectarian violence, Upbeat’s publication seems especially timely and moving. Ultimately, it’s the tale of one man’s crazed, ever-vulnerable route towards a heartfelt act of reparation and a hugely enjoyable testament to the healing power of music. 

James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.

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