Blur's Damon Albarn aims to reunite Syrian musicians for concert tour
Albarn hopes to reassemble the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music, many of whose members are scattered far and wide and others still in Syria, for series of concerts to celebrate the war-torn country's 'strength and joy'
It will be a major logistical challenge, but organisers are confident they will be able to reunite more than 50 Syrian musicians for a series of concerts with Damon Albarn, to celebrate the “strength and joy” of the war-torn country’s culture.
The ambitious project would reunite the orchestra and chorus of the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music nearly eight years after they first performed with Albarn in Damascus. The project – the first major undertaking for Albarn since he and his band, Blur, recorded their most recent album in Hong Kong – was announced last week as part of the 2016 UK arts programme that continues to mark the centenary of the first world war.
One of the organisers, Ian Birrell, who co-founded the Africa Express music project with Albarn, says most of the musicians were still in Syria while others were in Europe and the US at various stages of seeking asylum. The hope is to reunite about 30 members of the orchestra and 20 members of the choir for concerts in June.
“It is organisationally challenging,” says Birrell. “It is very hard to get visas for Syrians and some don’t have passports because they have had to flee and are seeking asylum.
“Some are in Syria or neighbouring countries, and to get a visa you’ve got to go to Beirut and get accepted – and obviously European countries are cautious. It is a problem, but we are optimistic. We would not be presenting it if we thought we could not get visas.”
The Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music, under the leadership of Issam Rafea, first performed with Albarn in 2008. They later appeared on the album White Flag by Albarn’s group Gorillaz, and joined the band on a world tour which included Syria and Lebanon.
Albarn told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that when he first visited Syria, to make music with Rafea, he found “an extraordinary and beautiful country”.
He adds: “And then Syria changed, almost overnight. Since then I’ve watched from a distance and felt utterly helpless, wondering about all the lovely people I got to know.”
Albarn says the orchestra create a miraculous sound. “There’s a whole choir, there’s strings, there’s soloists, there’s amazing percussion – it’s a really, really dynamic and joyous sound, and it’s stayed with me for all these years. I’m really excited to be able to somehow share that with people.
“The whole point of this is to get the orchestra back together, to get them working again … just giving some kind of alternative to the prism of the news, which is entirely a negative thing.”
Rafea, who lives in the US where he is seeking asylum, says the situation in his country was “beyond imagination” and many musicians had fled Syria.
A concert is planned for London’s Southbank Centre on June 25, as well as one in Amsterdam before other European dates. “We are hoping to present a positive reminder of the strength and joy of Syrian culture,” says Birrell.
The London concert will be part of the 14-18 Now arts events marking the centenary of the controversial Sykes-Picot agreement – a deal in 1916 that fostered instabilities in the Middle East that continue to cause conflict today.
There will also be music, theatre, dance, fashion and visual arts projects exploring and remembering the battle of the Somme, the battle of Jutland and Ireland’s Easter Rising.
The 14-18 Now programme is the arts wing of the UK’s official first world war centenary commemorations. Two years ago, artists explored the outbreak and this year – the second season – there will be 27 commissions exploring events which took place in 1916.
The Easter Rising may prove the most controversial. For Irish republicans it is the historical event on which all modern nationalism is founded. But unionists see it differently, with Northern Ireland’s new first minister, Arlene Foster, recently calling it “an attack on democracy” and announcing she will not be travelling to Dublin for the official centenary celebrations.
Jenny Waldman, director of 14-18 Now, says there are many subjects that are controversial, but that did not mean they should not be explored. “We are inviting artists to create their own work and have their own views,” she says.
The Easter Rising-related commissions will include a project called Radio Relay which explores the importance of radio in 1916 and how rebels seized a wireless telegraphy station to make the world’s first pirate radio broadcast.
Also, the story of Roger Casement, a gay British peer and Irish rebel who was hanged in 1916, will be explored by choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir.
Among the Somme commissions will be a new opera performed by the Welsh National Opera, In Parenthesis, by young British composer Iain Bell; and Asunder, which will use film and music to explore the battle’s legacy through the prism of a single city – Sunderland.
To mark the battle of Jutland, two of the Poppies installations which were first presented at the Tower of London in 2014 will be seen between April and June at St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney.
The 14-18 Now programme has a public pot of around £4 million (HK$44.4 million) to spend, helping to fund projects in 2016 whose themes will also include the changing role of women, the treatment of conscientious objectors and the contribution of soldiers from south Asia.
One of the main funders is Arts Council England, whose chairman, Peter Bazalgette, praised the efforts and achievements of 14-18 Now.
Bazalgette says when he was a schoolboy in the 1960s, Remembrance Day “was effectively dying out. How is it that today it’s bigger than ever?”
He says it is undoubtedly the result of recent wars but also about how artists had “reinterpreted”the first world war, giving a new generation fresh perspectives. “It underlines that way great art speaks to a country and for a country.”