Playing for Time, Paul MacAlindin on Upbeat and Iraq

The following interview was conducted by Hussein Al-alak, editor of Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra), with Paul MacAlindin, who is the author of the new book Upbeat, the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of  Iraq.

What is your name and can you please tell us about your book UPBEAT, the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq? 

I’m Paul MacAlindin, and I was Musical Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq from 2008-14. UPBEAT: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, explains how young Iraqis from across the country came together every year to make music. 

We explain how our resilience, determination and joy defeated all the obstacles in our way to become the most successful cultural diplomat Iraq has ever seen. 

All to often, we hear about stories of war from inside of Iraq. How does your book stand out from others which have been written about Iraq? 

UPBEAT is a story of Iraqis working together successfully. We show what’s capable when given a chance to flourish in a safe, fair and properly supported environment, free of corruption. Through the orchestra, we ended years of isolation from good music teaching and the international music scene for young musicians. 

It’s also my personal story of how we shared the hope, commitment and mutual respect necessary to keep the orchestra alive. How did we put aside our differences and work hard together to show the world educated, talented and passionate Iraqis? 

In this very risky, complex project, did we also make many mistakes? Of course, we did, but we also learnt, adapted and moved on, showing ourselves to be the wonderful personalities we all were. 

As you’re writing is based on your experiences with Iraqi young people in the NYOI, do you see UPBEAT as a starting point, where the young people themselves could later continue telling the NYOI’s history? 

YES; UPBEAT is mostly written from my perspective, but there are as many great stories about the orchestra as there are players in it. There’s Waleed, our first flute, who founded the Baba Goorgoor Chamber Orchestra. 

There’s Tuq’a who plays cello in the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and teaches music to IDPs in Baghdad. And there’s Hellgurd, our regional representative from Ranya, who is now studying childhood music education in Germany. Given the current catastrophe facing Iraq’s people, there needs to be a whole generation of positive, contemporary narrative to begin their healing. 

The orchestra provides some of that, not only from our past successes in Iraq and abroad, but also from the players’ deep understanding that anything is possible if you work hard enough, preparing together for the future. 

As the media has been saturated with a narrative about Iraq, where everyone has been defined by religion or ethnic sect, does Upbeat provide an alternative insight into the lives of young Iraqi’s, that is sometimes ignored? 

An alternative to what? There isn’t even a mainstream narrative about who Iraqis are. They’re simply ignored as shadows in their own story. It’s as if the media can’t face showing the real human pain of normal, decent people. Presenting news as a video game is easier for the West. In that sense, Iraqis are dehumanized. 

The players of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, particularly the ones in the book, present a highly articulate, insightful and clear-headed view of their country’s problems. They’re also the lucky ones coming from good families, who managed to do something with music. 

However, there are millions of young casualties of hope and human potential across Iraq, and the fault of this has to be laid at the door of Iraqi society, which crushes its own young and allows foreign influences to batter it by being selfish and small-minded. 

As the NYOI was forced to close due to the rise of ISIS, do you see the possibility of the orchestra being able to re-form in a post IS Iraq, to play a positive role in the reconstruction of Iraq and if it were to be possible, what would be needed for this to occur?  

For there to be a national youth orchestra again, Iraq must first decide what it is, and who it will include. We’re not even close to that point yet. However, we have the German Friends of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq and the orchestra’s own NGO in Baghdad. They must do the hundreds of hours of hard work, take the unreasonably high risks and solve the insurmountable problems to get the orchestra back on its feet again. 

On a broader level, there really isn’t any point in trying to create a national youth orchestra unless there’s a fair and pedagogically sound music education system in Iraq supporting it. Two or three weeks of good lessons a year doesn’t create anything like the support young musicians need to grow and flourish. This means that Iraqi musicians must get internationally recognized qualifications to play and teach music properly. 

It means that talent must be measured objectively, to allow the hard workers and the true talents to shine through. And it means that music, along with all the arts, needs to be supported in the home and throughout society as the long, slow reconstruction of Iraqi identity rebuilds itself. 

Show me someone who can tell me what it means to be an Iraqi. What are your values? What are you passionate about? Who are your heroes, role models? What are the positive sayings you build your culture upon? This is more than just a flag, maq’am and masgouf. Who is included in this definition, who is not, and why not? 

You cannot care about, or defend a country that has no common identity. This is what we tried to achieve in the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. 

With so many young people in Iraq now facing both trauma and displacement due to violence, do you see Upbeat and the experiences of the NYOI, as having a role in supporting young people now and giving Iraq’s young people something to aspire to?  

When we were active, between 2009 and 2013, we built up the most successful YouTube and Facebook accounts of any youth orchestra in the world, largely due to Iraqis in Iraq who followed us as a positive symbol of hope and achievement in the name of Iraq. 

UPBEAT is an honest, warts-and-all account of how we worked together to build a better future for young musicians in Iraq. Many Iraqis reading the book will understand exactly what was going on, even if I don’t explain it directly. Readers in the West will be shocked at the reality of being an Iraqi musician between 2009 and 2014. 

If the orchestra gets back on its feet again, the book can act as a guide for what’s possible when you give talented young people the smallest chance to flourish, instead of just survive. The young players of the orchestra are the most resilient, loveable young musicians I have ever had the honour of working with. 

Time will tell how their knowledge from the project, and my story of their growth, will shape Iraq in future.

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