Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi fights terrorism through music

When a car packed with explosives detonated just streets away from his home in Baghdad, renowned cellist and conductor Karim Wasfi res­ponded in the only way he knew how. 

Wasfi tucked a stool under his arm and carried his cello to the scene of the explosion. Setting up his chair amid the debris, just metres from the blackened shell of a building, Wasfi began to play. 

“I was serenading the dead and wanted to show that in spite of the constant fear of terror, life is worth living,” Wasfi says. “Partially in condolence of those whom we have lost to the terror. But at the same time I wanted to send a message of peace and perseverance.” 

Many of the people who stopped to watch the impromptu performance had witnessed the bombing, which killed 10 people. “They loved it. They were amazed. Soldiers cried, the crowd hugged and clapped,” Wasfi says. He named his composition Baghdad Mourning Melancholy. 

A video of the striking scene, captured by Wasfi’s friend Ammar al-Shahbander, who has since been killed in another car bomb explosion, went viral. The poignant image of the cellist amid the rubble captured the attention of 33 million viewers, a juxtaposition of beauty and the destruction of war. 

Wasfi has since played at dozens of bomb sites and at refugee camps. “I want to show that we have a choice to fight back,” he says. “We can’t surrender to this sense of impending doom by not living properly. We have to choose to live.” 

Half-Iraqi, half-Egyptian, Wasfi, who splits his time between Iraq and the US, was speaking to Review by phone from his home in Washington, DC. 

This month, the cellist will perform in Sydney and Hobart with his friend and fellow Iraqi-American Rahim AlHaj, who is a composer and “maestro of the oud” or Arabic lute. “We are very excited to be visiting Australia for the first time,” Wasfi says. 

“We are hoping to share stories about Iraq and continue our approach of connecting the East and West through sound. Our performance with the cello and the oud will hopefully bridge different cultures not often heard in Australia. I think it’s a great opportunity to share our music with a lovely new audience.” 

For the Sydney Festival, AlHaj and Wasfi will perform in a harbourside penthouse designed by architect Harry Seidler, and in a concert featuring Tunisia’s Emel Mathlouthi. In Hobart, the duo will perform at the Museum of Old and New Art. 

Wasfi began his study of the cello at the Music and Ballet School in Baghdad. A child prodigy, at 13 he became the youngest person to join the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. At 23, he was offered a place at Indiana University to study under Hungarian maestro and cellist Janos Starker, an opportunity Wasfi describes as “an enormous privilege”. 

It was while Wasfi was living in the US that he decided to pursue another passion — politics — and he completed a degree in political science at Boston University before returning to Iraq after the 2003 US invasion. 

Wasfi’s dual interest in music and politics would prove critical to his pursuit of cultural diplomacy and his philosophy of using musical performance “to fight back”, an idea that Wasfi has said first came to him back in 2015, during the height of Islamic State’s occupation of Iraq. 

During his illustrious career Wasfi has held many prominent positions including director and chief conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. However, it is his work for the Peace through Arts Global Foundation, a program he established to promote peace in war-torn areas, of which is he is most proud. 

For the cellist and conductor, music is an “underestimated soft power” that not only can foster “intercultural understanding and respect for cultural diversity” but also can be used in the battle to fight extremism. 

“I felt my performing and conducting was already contributing to stability, but by 2015 I sensed another wave of violence that was going to rapidly escalate,” Wasfi says. “So I decided not to limit my performances to the performance house. I decided to perform out in the street at bomb sites. 

“I want to transcend the limitations of instability, war, sanctions. My artistic vision is to show how music in different genres can be used as a tool for peace building, stability and interaction. I am waging my own battle against terrorism through beauty, overcoming violence through beauty and encouraging others to do the same.” 

Wasfi’s cultural diplomatic endeavours are admirably comprehensive and include a music mentoring program that teaches musical skills to underprivileged Iraqi children and refugees. He says: “I want to awaken society from intimidation. I don’t want people to be intimidated or live in fear of terror but fight back through persistence and dedication to life.” 

Karim Wasfi will perform as part of Sydney Festival on January 17, 18 and 19; then at Mofo 2018 at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, January 20 and 21. 

by Olivia Caisley

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