One of the highlights of last year’s Istanbul Jazz Festival was Damon Albarn’s concert with the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, alongside special guests including Paul Weller, Rachid Taha, and Eslam Jawaad. Now Africa Express Presents… The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians & Guests, a new album released in Turkey on January 13, invites listeners into this world of borderless sound.
Lebanese-Syrian rapper Eslam Jawaad (real name Wissam Khodur) is considered the father of Arabic hip-hop, bringing it to huge audiences through collaboration with Damon Albarn, best known for his work with Gorillaz, and members of the Wu-Tang Clan. It is Khodur who first introduced Albarn to the Syrian orchestra almost a decade ago.
“We originally started working with him on the The Good, the Bad & the Queen project. I asked him at some point to come to Syria and work with musicians there, because I knew he had a love of Arabic music and for orchestras,” Khoder told The Guide Istanbul. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we go to Syria and work with some of the orchestras there?’ We ended up going with the Gorillaz project and recording some tracks for the Plastic Beach album.”
A musical reunion
With the outbreak of the war, members of the Syrian orchestra were scattered around the country and world. Khodur and Albarn had the idea of bringing orchestra members back together as a way of showcasing Syrian culture outside of conflict. The international community’s warm response to the Syrian orchestra has given these musicians hope in a time of darkness, and shown that their rich, textured music has universal appeal.
Ney (reed flute) player Moslem Rahal has been playing with the orchestra since 1998, when he was a music student in Damascus. Currently working as a researcher for famed conductor Jordi Savall in Barcelona, Rahal is one of many orchestra members who left Syria for Europe. “The orchestra I knew was really big. But when we went to perform with African Express and Damon Albarn, the orchestra only had about 35 musicians still in Syria. After the tour, another 11 musicians decided to stay in Europe. So we’re left with only about 24 people inside Syria now,” he says.
One of the major struggles of the tour was obtaining travel permission for the 35 orchestra members in Syria. One of Rahal’s reasons for living in Spain is that as a musician he can move freely to perform. “It was pretty tough. There was a lot of organization between the parties in Syria, a lot of trouble with trying to get everybody visas. There were many times when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen, to be honest. But we just went on, announcing the shows before we even knew that everyone had visas, because we had to … But the willingness and the eagerness to do this was there from everyone,” Khodur explains. Even after gaining visas, the orchestra members were detained at Istanbul for 24 hours on the way to Europe before officials decided to let them through.
Naturally, the orchestra members were delighted to regroup again, and this is apparent in the energy of their performances. “When you’ve been missing your friends for four or five years, and then you meet them and play again with them – and not only that, but also record an album – it’s fantastic,” says Rahal.
Fusion and familiarity
Khodur claims that this is the first time an Arabic orchestra has performed live with a hip-hop artist. But while these elements might seem difficult to combine, all the musicians were enthusiastic about engaging with each other’s styles. Ney player Rahal already has a history of turning his traditional instrument to rock and jazz.
However, Syrian audiences in Europe also longed for the familiar songs that would transport them back to their homes. “In our tour through England, Denmark, Turkey, and Holland, we met a lot of Syrian people after the concerts. They cried and said, ‘You return us to Syria, and you remind us of our beautiful days there.’ They said that they needed that music to feel like they were in Syria,” says Rahal. In this way the orchestra helped to foster a sense of community among refugees who are physically far apart.
Summing up the project’s effect, Khodur says, “It was amazing to be able to take a Syrian orchestra and put them on major festival stages, with hundreds of thousands of people in attendance. The reception was very warm, and great really. We achieved a lot of what we wanted to, which was to shine that light on the positive side of Syrian culture. And the album’s just a continuation of that, a testament to that moment of musical history.”